Establishing Your Practice in Cyberspace: Getting Started

Agrowing number of people are turning to the Internet to find quality providers of goods and services. In this article series, I will outline the process of establishing your practice’s Internet presence and how to bring patients to your dental office. This article is not exhaustive, but it should start you in the right direction and help you avoid being the victim of a scam. One of the main benefits of Internet marketing is that you merely have to get the people who are looking for a dentist in your area to choose you. This is one of the few types of advertising where patients are pursuing you! Obtaining great results only requires that you be found (preferably by patients in your area) and that they choose you as their dentist.
If you already have a Web site, my goal with this first article is to help make it more successful. In future installments of this series, I will provide tips to help you find the success you deserve. Just because you have a Web site doesn’t mean that people will find it. I know your site is probably fancy, with great little movies, graphics, or photos of before-and-after cases, but that’s all inside the shop. You need an attention-getting sign outside the shop so that people will want to stop by for a visit. That is where this article series comes in. I want to help potential patients find your Web site and call your office (or send an e-mail) in the most cost-effective way possible. Then, the rest is up to you!

Illustration by Brian Green

THE WORLD OF MARKETING IS CHANGING

The Internet is fast becoming a replacement for the phonebook when it comes to finding goods and services. The population in general, and younger people in particular, are shifting to the computer to find goods and services that they want and need. A wealth of information and choices are available, but how do prospective patients find you? Most information and services are found on the Internet via the use of search engines like Google, Yahoo, or MSN. To attract patients successfully on the Internet, you must be found easily through these channels.
One of the more difficult things about the Internet is its global nature. People on one side of the country do not need a dentist from the other side. Your presence on the Internet must be a local presence. People in the local area or region around your practice, as you define it, must easily find you.
The great thing about the Internet is that, when done correctly, it is a relatively inexpensive way to bring people into your practice. As with any successful advertising campaign, you must determine what works for you and what doesn’t. Focus and refine your campaign and your Web site continuously to adapt to the response (or lack thereof).

AVOIDING SCAMMERS

Avoid anyone making wild claims about what they can do for you regarding your Web site. To prevent being scammed, it is important to know what cannot be done, such as getting the e-mails of everyone who visits your site, moving you to the top of the search engines in a matter of weeks, and routing everyone looking for a dentist to your Web site. Some of these lesser individuals may suggest that you place real-life ads to send patients to their Web site so that they may in turn refer them back to yours, all for ridiculous fees. If you learn nothing more from this article than how to avoid such individuals in your quest for an Internet presence, it will have saved you thousands of dollars.
As you look around the Internet, you are likely to come upon Web sites that look like dental Web sites for your area, but they are listed as “For Sale.” These are the unfortunate byproducts of scammers who see dentists as easy targets with money to spend. I recommend that you avoid purchasing from them, as the prices are usually outlandish and their credibility is questionable. With a little creativity, you can usually come up with something that will work just as well.

WHAT TO EXPECT

If traditional advertising is a substantial means of getting patients into your practice, Internet presence and advertising will not supplant it. However, it can be a useful adjunct to help bring patients into your chairs. If, instead, you have never advertised before, and you are thinking of getting online to attract a few more patients, this can be easily achieved.
Advertising on the Internet as a dentist rewards smart allocation and content. A limited number of people from your area will be looking for a dentist on the Internet, and your goal is to get as many of them as possible to call your office. Traditional advertising, on the other hand, focuses on getting people to call that were not actively searching for a dentist. (Sorry, but people don’t look through their junk mail hoping that a dentist has sent them a postcard.) Internet advertising focuses on converting people who are actively searching for a dentist or dental procedures. The real key is finding these people in your area and getting them on the phone with you.
I have found that a fairly good rate of return on investment (ROI) for a dentist advertising on the Internet is about $5 to $30 per patient that calls. That is, for every $20 or so that you spend on properly planned Internet advertising, you should be getting a call from at least one patient. Poorly managed, poorly conceived, underfunded, overfunded, or generally misdirected campaigns will result in much poorer returns. Areas that are extremely rural or saturated may also have a lesser ROI. The Internet appears to have a stronger force of diminishing returns. After a certain point, more dollars spent will only net you higher advertising expenses with very few extra patients to show for it. With traditional advertising this is also true, but I believe that it happens much sooner with Internet advertising. You will have to determine the budget that is appropriate for your business.
Advertising on the Internet is not a matter of casting the widest possible net with the flashiest graphics available. Instead, it is a matter of carefully crafting your Web site and advertisements to reach only those potential patients that would actually come into your office. In general, you don’t want to pay for ads that reach people outside of your practice area.

CHOOSING YOUR DOMAIN NAME

Your domain name is your address on the Internet. Like standard mailing addresses, there can be no duplicates of Internet addresses (domain names). You should choose an address for your Web site just as carefully as you chose the location for your brick-and-mortar practice. Your domain name does not need to be, nor should it necessarily be, your name or the name of your practice. People who know these things already are not usually searching for a dentist on the Internet. Think about the things that people are searching for when they look for a dentist and try to incorporate those things into the address. The vast majority of potential patients are merely looking for a dentist (just a dentist) in a particular area. The other popular things that people generally search for are cosmetic, veneers, whitening, family, and implants. Try to get an address that is something like yourcitydentist.com or yourcitydental.com. Avoid the endings with .net, .org, etc. It should be a Web address ending in .com. The address cannot have spaces, but dashes can reasonably be substituted, like your-city-dentist.com.
Most dentists starting off on the Internet use just one Web site, and this will usually be adequate. (We will discuss the use of multiple addresses and Web sites in a future article.) If you decide to have only one Web site, I would recommend using an address that mentions your city and dentist, dentists, dental, DDS, or dentistry. You are going to have to try a lot of different options before you find one that is available. If you live in a saturated area, then you are going to have to get very creative. I have given you the ideal examples so you know where to aim. Get them if you can, and if they are not available, keep working at it. A good name will pay huge dividends. (More on this subject will be covered in a future article, too.) Remember, potential patients are usually just looking for a dentist in their area.

REGISTRATION OF YOUR DOMAIN NAME

So, you thought of a good domain name. Now what? You need to register it right away. Do not delay, because someone else may come along and register it before you do. Think of registering the domain name in the same way as calling the post office to say that you are going to be building a house at 123 Main Street. This is an address that did not exist before you came up with it, so it does not exist until it is registered. The easiest way to do this is to use one of the hosting companies. I like jumpline.com, although many others are available to use. I do not have any ties to the site, other than that it hosts my Web sites. What I especially like about it is that when I call, I get to talk to a real person. Sometimes it is even the same one! Cheaper providers are out there if you are feeling particularly lucky.

To register your domain name, go to jumpline.com (for example) and type in the name of the address you have chosen. Be sure to choose the correct suffix (ie, .com). There is no need to type http or www in front of the address. On the next page it will tell you if that specific site is available. If it is not available, you will need to keep trying different domain names until one is declared available. All of the domain-registering companies are tied into the same database, so they will all come up with “not available” if a domain name is already taken. 
By this point you should have selected and registered your domain name. This is your new Internet address, but currently it is just a vacant lot. In Part 2 of this article series, we will begin to discuss construction of the “building.”


Dr. Schoenbaum is the assistant director of continuing education at the UCLA School of Dentistry and a lecturer in the division of restorative dentistry at UCLA. He maintains a private practice with his father in Valencia, Calif, and can be reached at (661) 255-3924 or tschoenb@ucla.edu.

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