The case for social media for your dental practice

It’s hard to believe that in 2016, there are still so many dentists who have yet to establish or develop a social media presence for their practices.  

We’ve all heard the excuses: Social media is a fad. I don’t have the time. I don’t know how to do it. It’s too risky. Social media is for kids. It’s a waste of time. What’s the ROI? What if people say something negative about my practice?

Some of these excuses would have been valid in 2008. But today, they just don’t hold water. 

Before we go any further, let’s clarify what we mean by the term ‘social media’. Social media doesn’t just mean Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Those are just some of the tools of the day. The term ‘social media’ simply refers to the latest wave in the maturation of the Internet – the same Internet that’s disrupting just about every industry on the planet.

The bottom line? Any high-quality dental office that ignores social media (a.k.a. the Internet) in a 2016 world is probably leaving tremendous value on the table.

Content: The cost of entry to relevance

Reaping the benefits of social media will take work, planning and commitment. Are there potential risks? You bet. But many successful dentists who have been using these platforms for five or six years now will tell you that the rewards can far outweigh the risks.

I would go so far as to say that if your practice doesn’t establish at least some degree of social media presence in the next few years, it will actually significantly harm your very relevance among your target audience and negatively impact the ability for new patients to find you.

The Stats

Historically, newspaper advertising has been an effective way for dentists to let people in the area know about their practices. But newspaper readership in Canada continues to decline. In 1950, paid newspaper circulation in Canada was equivalent to 100 percent of households. By 2000, that figure had dropped to 44.5 percent. In 2012, it was 27 percent[1].

Now, consider that other go-to marketing tool dentists have relied on for decades to attract new patients: the Yellow Pages. In 2012 alone, the City of Phoenix recycled 415 tons of phone books[2] that people did not even remove from the plastic wrappers. They went directly from residents’ doorsteps to their blue boxes and then to the recycling plant.

As for direct mail, when’s the last time you raced home to carefully go through all the flyers in your mailbox? We don't read direct mail in our personal lives. Yet dentists (and lots of other professions) continue to spend millions of dollars designing, printing and distributing flyers. 

The eyeballs that used to be reading newspapers, phone books and direct mail have moved online. In fact, according to research conducted in 2014, Canada has the highest social media penetration in the world, with 82 percent of Canadians using a social network (compared with 75 percent of Americans)[3].

The reality is that many dental practices are still marketing like it’s 2008 or, in some cases, 1998. They’re relying solely on direct mail, newspaper ads, the phone book. It’s not that these channels don’t have value. They do. Particularly with older demographics. The reality, however, is that that ROI for these channels is declining. That flyer or ad just isn’t reaching the same number of eyeballs it would have reached five or 10 years ago. 

Using social to launch in a competitive market

In 2009, Dr. Irena Vaksman was preparing to open a dental practice in a very competitive market: downtown San Francisco. She estimates there were about 400 other dentists in the building where she was setting up shop, some of whom had been practicing for 30 years and had established and loyal patient rosters.

Rather than spending thousands of dollars on flyers and waiting for new patients to (hopefully) trickle in, Dr. Vaksman decided to offer a new patient special on the discount online marketplace Groupon. “We were the first Groupon dental office in San Francisco at the time,” she says. The promotion was a big success and helped jump-start her practice. New patients came through the door in droves and she was able to convert many of them into long-term patients by giving them great service and demonstrating that she really cared about them and their health.

With the help of her husband, Dr. Vaksman started a Facebook and Twitter page and began sharing content she thought would be of interest to her audience. Posts like: ‘Tooth tips for a happy Halloween’, ‘Some enlightening on whitening’ and ‘Tooth myths and truths’. She shared photos of her office decorations during the holidays. A picture of some flowers that a patient brought in. A post and a photo introducing a new staff member and so on…

For Dr. Vaksman, the objective was to get her name and her content out there so that when people searched online for a dentist in the San Francisco area, her name would be one of the first ones to pop up. “It’s something that can help get more eyes onto your practice,” she says. “Right now, people are looking for everything online. Everything is searched through Google, even in the medical and dental fields. That’s just where people are.”

In terms of the amount of time required, it doesn’t need to be excessive. “We did it ourselves, but you can actually outsource it,” she says. “You also don’t need to do it on a daily basis.”

As a pioneering dentist in the area of social media, Dr. Vaksman says establishing that online presence in 2009 helped put her on the map in a very crowded and competitive market.“It was very helpful in getting my office busy over a couple of years. It made us start seeing patients pretty much immediately,” she says.

Six years later, Dr. Vaksman’s original practice is bustling and she is in the process of opening a second. Ironically, she’s been so busy with the steady flow of patients that her social media output has taken a bit of a back seat recently, something she says she is planning to address as her second practice gets established. 

So … what’s her advice for dentists considering using social media to get more patients in the door? “In terms of trying to have people start considering using social media, I think the biggest draw is that you’re reaching more people,” she says. “It’s a very difficult thing to get new patients. Whether it’s word of mouth or through insurance, etc. you can get a couple new patients a month. With social media, you can get 20, 30, 40 new patients a month.”

Weighing the pros and cons

There are some risks that need to be considered before you go all-in on your social media strategy. “There’s a lot of transparency about what you’re doing with online media,” says Dr. Vaksman. “There’s good and bad. You go onto Yelp and if you’re a very busy office and you have a couple patients that weren’t happy with waiting or whatever the services were, then they become very vocal. That’s the one negative aspect.”

“You have to have a good practice,” she says. “You can’t have a low quality practice and get yourself online. You give unhappy people who previously wouldn’t have had any place to be vocal about it – you give them a lot of different areas to voice their concerns. It does keep you on your feet. You have to really try and provide quality care.”

As Dr. Vaksman points out, “Your patients’ experience is your practice, for better or worse.” To that end, she thinks having a social media presence can actually help you improve on your protocols. “If there are any issues that happen in your practice that you’re not aware of because you’re doing all the dentistry, you get feedback and you’re able to improve on that. There’s an avenue of constantly improving the practice – which happens through that medium of transparency.”

It might make sense to outsource the set-up and maintenance of your social media channels. There are local providers or ‘community managers’ that can help you establish and execute a content strategy relatively inexpensively and without taking up too much of your valuable time. The payoff, however, can be significant, as social media can give you a powerful, efficient platform to build awareness for your practice, attract new clients and strengthen relationships with your patients for years to come.