As COVID-19 continues to surge around the world, audiology practices must reach even further to connect with patients, maintain open communication, and ensure optimal care. Digital marketing offers the opportunity for practices to reach their patients in a personalized and compassionate way that can build lasting relationships. But how do you effectively connect with patients in today’s physically distanced landscape?
UNDERSTANDING THE BENEFITS
The effort of implementing digital marketing strategies into audiology practices may be especially beneficial as the country continues to practice physical distancing amid a global pandemic, but the shift toward digital has been in motion for years and will only continue to grow, said Erik Sorenson, co-founder of HearWorks. “When it comes to marketing, we would see a shift in the next five to 10 years, even if COVID-19 didn’t exist,” Sorenson said. “As younger generations start aging and progressing toward the age of treating hearing loss, we will see a shift to digital through online appointment booking and chatbots,” he added. “This generation has grown up with technology and will continue to embrace contactless appointments, telehealth, and even curbside care for certain types of appointments.”
Meeting the needs of those patients and targeting them through digital marketing will require a shift in thinking, Sorenson said. “One of the challenges health care practices have had in the past is the perception that digital marketing just doesn’t work,” he said. “But the problem is the way we use it. Digital marketing is different from traditional tools like fliers or mailers, but once we understand the way it works, we can use it more effectively.”
Kimberly Saldida, a marketing specialist at Coastal Ear, Nose & Throat, said that unlike traditional marketing strategies such as print ads and direct mails that may focus on products or services, digital marketing provides an opportunity to connect with the community. “Digital marketing is all about exposure—people need to know who we are, what we provide, and what we stand for,” she said. “It’s a chance to tell our potential patients about our brand.”
EVOLVING WITH THE DIGITAL LANDSCAPE
Of course, the evolving nature of COVID-19 has hastened the digital migration, requiring practices to maintain day-to-day flexibility to best serve and communicate with their patients. “Digital health care marketing has changed tremendously over the past few months,” Caitlin Wendt, a digital B2B program manager at Banner Health said. “We are now in a fully digital landscape, both with educating our patients on how they can seek care and communicating with referring providers that your practice is seeing patients in the office and over telehealth capabilities,” she said. “Now, more than ever, is the time to invest in digital engagement.”
Brad Buchholtz, AuD, CCC-A, urged practice owners to see the unique circumstances as an opportunity to branch out from traditional marketing strategies. “For years audiologists have used the same methods of mailers and traditional marketing and expected a certain return on investment. When we go the digital avenue, we are sometimes met with resistance and the idea that digital marketing will not have a great return,” he said. “But throughout COVID-19, we won’t be having lunch and learns, we may not be seeing patients in person, and we are not going to be successful with old, conventional methods.” Instead, he suggested, audiologists must adapt to the changing environment and encourage patients to adapt as well.
In fact, Buchholtz said the pandemic has presented an opportunity to raise awareness and target a larger audience. “With the required social isolation, people have had to rely more on digital communication to stay in touch with their families and may have experienced the frustration of being unable to easily communicate through devices or with face masks that make clear speaking and reading lips more difficult,” he said. “Those frustrations may make patients start to question if devices like hearing aids are beneficial, and as they stay safely inside, they may seek education or resources online,” Buchholtz added. “Addressing those frustrations to your audience through emails or other digital marketing efforts provides a nice gateway and reminder of how we can help improve their lifestyles. It creates a foundation between us and the patient when they are ready to come in.”
TIPS TO TAKE THE LEAP
Growing that relationship with patients is one of the strengths of digital marketing—it allows practices to have ongoing communication with their audience, sometimes even long before the patient books an appointment. “Patients, on average, have a seven-year journey from the time they notice measurable hearing loss to the time they take action,” Sorenson said. “Patients spend seven years gathering information and trying to understand how to solve their problem.”
The challenge many audiology practices face is that a wide portion of their digital marketing is going to patients who are somewhere in that seven-year journey and not yet ready to take action, Sorenson said. “We have to understand that the goal of digital marketing isn’t to get an appointment the first time your audience sees you; it’s to get people into your world so you have the opportunity to influence them throughout that journey and eventually get the appointment,” he said.
The big question is how.
“Most practice owners are good at patient care, diagnostics, creating a good experience for their patients, and treating hearing loss. They are not marketers, they didn’t go to school for advertising, and it’s not part of their wheelhouse,” Sorenson said. “If you feel like you’re not good at digital marketing and you don’t love it, it can be hard to take the first step and begin to shift your perception of how going digital could make a difference in your practice.”
FREE TOOLS. Wendt said an easy way to try out digital marketing is through free tools first. “The biggest hesitation audiology practices have with paid advertising efforts is budget and return on investment,” she said. “I recommend utilizing free digital marketing strategies first, and then reevaluating if you need to put dollars behind the effort.”
Start by identifying your target audience, Buchholtz said. For example, if you have a pediatric practice or one with many patients in their 70s or 80s, you may not be inclined to post ads on social media as those patients would likely not use the service. But, as a digital marketer, you must look further. “Pediatric and older patients are likely being transported to appointments and cared for by parents or children in the demographic of those who do use social media. You have to make sure you’re encompassing the entire patient care team,” Buchholtz said.
CONTENT MARKETING. Wendt suggested exploring content marketing—a strategy that doesn’t explicitly promote a singular brand but involves the creation and sharing of online materials like videos and blogs to stimulate interest in services. “Consumers are looking to solve a problem and you can be the expert guide for them,” she said. With this strategy, Wendt recommends employing the 80/20 rule: “Eighty percent of your content should be helping solve your customer’s problem through educational content, and 20 percent should mention the product or service you’re selling.”
Buchholtz and his team employed the content marketing strategy and found that it was successful with his audience and even had an unexpected benefit for the practice. “We took video clips and photos of our staff members wearing masks and gloves and posted them to social media,” Buchholtz said. “Internally, the employees were excited to be featured; it turned into a fun component of the practice that brought the department together and kept morale high during the darkest days of the COVID outbreak,” he said.
Saldida added that multimedia such as the videos Buchholtz and his team put together are not only appropriate digital marketing strategies—they’re necessary. “Photos and videos are vital for social media,” she said. “They allow you to engage with a bigger audience, they stream higher than text-only content, and they give you a creative outlet to discover things your audience may want to know more about, such as events like Audiology Awareness Month.”
Purchasing an email list for your content is not always necessary.
“We gather community email addresses by reaching out to office managers and asking for a clinic email where we can send updates,” shared Wendt. “Although this method seems tedious, it does ensure that we are getting the correct contact and that they do indeed want to receive information from us.”
Other ways to grow your database include having a sign-up box or pop-up on your website or hosting a giveaway or event where participants share their email address and consent to receiving emails.
PROVIDE VALUE. To ensure those social media subscribers become eventual patients, it’s important to bring them in by capturing their information through a lead form, Sorenson said. “Offer potential patients the opportunity to download resources for free, to sign up for your email alerts, or to join your social media channels,” Sorenson said. “Allow them to come to you—even if it’s three, six, or ten months down the road.” Once you have the attention of those customers, you can show them what makes your practice stand apart.
“If you want to be successful, you have to provide more value than anyone else,” Sorenson said. “One of the biggest challenges in health care marketing is that most audiology practices offer the same products and types of services. You must determine what differentiates you from everyone else—find out how you stand out in the crowd.”
Sorenson recommended thinking about digital marketing as an extension of the sixty-minute visit. “In a sixty-minute evaluation, you only have that much time to replace a patient’s entire lifetime of beliefs or stigmas about audiologists or hearing devices. You only have sixty minutes to build a rapport, to give the patient an incredible experience, and to educate them,” he said.
But with digital marketing, treatment starts at the first touchpoint—not when the patient shows up to the office. “If you could help break down some of the obstacles through marketing and nurture post-marketing such as automated follow-up before the patient even has an appointment, you have created a powerful combination to help that patient have the right mindset when they show up and to continue providing care after they leave,” Sorenson said.
MARKETING AMID COVID-19
The emotion that comes from providing exceptional patient care is what audiologists should focus on when they devise a digital marketing strategy, Saldida said. “You could post fourteen different ads about hearing aids and gadgets, but one multimedia post or blog about how you’re helping to change the community will grab the audience’s attention more,” she said. Sorenson agreed: “Focusing on a device or the patient saving money is just advertising. Telling a story and understanding patients emotionally is what will get them to respond.”
When marketing with COVID-19 messaging, that emotion is more important than ever. “You can’t just shoot out facts, figures, and statistics and expect people to respond,” noted Saldida. “What will benefit your marketing during the pandemic is to stay grounded, emotional, and as human as possible.” To accomplish that, Wendt said it’s important to share a message with patients that it’s safe to receive care at your clinic and that they should not prolong care out of fear. “You can share the specific ways you’re making your patients feel at ease, such as cleaning measures, waiting room procedures, or extended office hours so fewer patients are in the building,” she said.
Buchholtz warned that as the pandemic evolves, patients will likely forget some marketing strategies, no matter how strong your efforts. “As providers, we understand that hearing health care is not the number on thing on a patient’s mind,” he said. “We have to be consistent and make sure patients understand that we care, that we are here to help them, and that we are willing to do anything we can to ensure they receive the care they deserve.”
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