The other buzz: Social Media is the key to mobilizing a gigantic army of customers with unquestioning loyalty to your business who will do your bidding forever and ever.
The anti-buzz: Social Media is word-of-mouth finally made concrete. You can participate in the conversation yourself, so long as you make the effort.
Why: For better and worse, most people want to talk about what they are doing. And share pictures of their dog.
First, I will admit that my authority on this topic has less to do with technical knowledge and more to do with the fact that I am under 30. Second, I really want to encourage discussion here. My inclination is to downplay, (but not discourage), the uses of social media for a dental office, but I’d love to hear that I am wrong. Readers, please share your experiences in the comments below!
Anyway, in 2006 TIME named all of us Person of the Year in recognition of the exploding user-driven-content market. It was an apt year to do it, as I remember that year specifically as when every casual acquaintance of mine demanded that I make a MySpace page, and the water cooler conversation at work was always about what showed up on YouTube the night before. But that was also four years ago.
One of the exciting things about computing is that it seems some innovator always comes along and takes things in an explosive new direction. Sometimes I feel people are expecting that to happen with social media – that any moment some business is going to unlock that secret, viral business model that gets customers to just beg for the privilege to give you their money.
I’m going to argue that this isn’t going to happen. Social media was the explosive new direction. It isn’t magic, it’s just people doing what they’ve always been doing: talking to each other – now they can talk to anybody about anything anywhere.
You shouldn’t ignore it, especially in an industry that more or less lives and dies on word-of-mouth referrals, but you need to be realistic about what strategies are and aren’t going to work.
Several posts with useful information in them have already hit this blog. In particular, the article linked to here gives a pretty good rundown of how a small business can approach social media marketing. The basics you need to know are:
- Small businesses are best positioned to take advantage of social media. (Hey, that’s you!)
- “A car is not merely a faster horse” – trying to turn social media into a new outlet for one-way broadcast advertising doesn’t always work. Understand that typical marketing ploys do not reign supreme, (Although, as I will point out, they aren’t completely obsolete either).
- You need to be vigilant. Social media is less a soapbox than a place for you to respond to what people say about you – both positive and negative. Thank people for their patronage and offer to help people who are dissatisfied with you. (Tracking down what people say about you is the real work here – and something a lot of businesses are loathe to do because it is a lot less simple than just broadcasting another fistful of spam to your client list).
And this is all well and good, but let’s finally address the elephant in the waiting room: You are a dentist and people don’t like dentists. Even if they think you’re the best dentist in the world, they are unlikely to want to publicly declare themselves a “fan.” A lot of the social media advice out there is best suited for businesses that are already a social scene – restaurants, clubs, music venues. Customers go to those places for the personality and a way to interface with that personality online feels only natural. Conversely a lot of people go to the dentist because they feel morally obligated.
Put another way, a person who loves dentists and has excellent oral hygeine is still only seeing you twice a year, instead of every Friday at Happy Hour. You don’t offer half-price cavity fillings between 5 and 7, and you don’t advertise discounted root canals to people who come in to watch the World Cup. (However, who knows, this is the sort of wacky, viral, 21st Century ad campaign that could get you a lot of customers – or accomplish nothing).
Of course, offering a pleasant, sociable experience inside your office is tantamount to maintaining good word of mouth. Even if people don’t like dentists, it is terribly important that they like you – but this isn’t news, or at least I hope it isn’t. It applies to social media in as much as your marketing campaign needs to focus on cultivating word of mouth. If a visit to your office is consistently unpleasant, then you should probably check your priorities and put that Facebook page on hold.
So let’s distill all of this into some practical advice.
The Bare Minimum: Make Yourself Available and Respond Regularly
A dentist might not get a lot of mileage out of Facebook or Twitter, but there are other networking sites tailored to small businesses, Yelp being the most popular I think. These sites are designed specifically for businesses to put their face out there and for customers to discuss their experiences with those businesses. Put yourself on these sites, offer a good amount of information, and at the very least, respond to any comments left about your business. The first part is easy – set yourself up once and walk away. This is the more modern equivalent of putting yourself in the phonebook. Even if you don’t put an ad out and really push yourself, you’ll get exactly zero calls if you aren’t there at all. You at least want your number listed, right?
Also, the customers on these sites are people who actively want to discuss their customer experience, which eliminates any “dentist stigma” that you might face elsewhere, and it can make these sites a good base of operations. At the end of the day you don’t control the public. Maybe you’ll get regular traffic, maybe it will be rare, but you need to be available otherwise I can guarantee you will get nothing.
A broader perspective on this is that it is just an electronic suggestion box system. In the past you might have had a suggestion box in your lobby. Replace it with a sign that urges your customers to send all complaints and praise to your Yelp page. The big difference here is that your suggestion box is now public, (and in the Yellow Pages, so to speak). Don’t be afraid. This is how you add personality to your campaign. The real value is that the public can watch you interact with customers.
But you have to stay on top of it. Check for comments every day. You need to respond quickly. This can sound like a daunting task to some – so delegate it. You can outsource this task to a company like Sesame Communications. Or if you have a marketing or PR person in your office, keeping the Yelp, Foursquare, Twitter and Facebook pages up to date is now one of their job responsibilities. If not, a simple daily check for messages is an excellent task to defer to your front desk. They can tell you when there is something you need to respond to and you can otherwise forget about it. No different than taking messages.
Broadcasting: A Return to the Old Ways
Twitter is probably the most natural outlet for trying to set up some sort of “what’s going on” type of broadcast. As has already been said, this is probably better suited for a restaurant and not so natural for a dentist. Unless you regularly find yourself wishing you could let all your patients know that, this Friday only, you’ll be giving 20% off all bridge work, broadcasting yourself on Twitter or elsewhere might not be the most useful enterprise you ever undertake. Dentists do need to broadcast though, but it more often tailored to each patient individually; appointment reminders, bills and thank yous. I would love to hear of dentists who can get this sort of individual broadcasting to work well on a site like Facebook, but I’m inclined to think this would be a rough uphill battle.
This does not mean, however, that you can’t use modern communication lines to get this same task done. My father used to have automated text messages to send out appointment reminders. If texting doesn’t suit you, use e-mail. This might not be new to a lot of you, but if you really want to focus on social media, I think this is how you repurpose some of the less dentist-friendly aspects of social networking. Be modern, be persistent, automate things where you can, put yourself out there. And stop sending appointment reminders in the mail.
Personality Cult: Even Dentists Can Do It.
As I have already implied, trying to make yourself as popular as a night club is, at the very least, too difficult to be worth the effort, (Although if you have success with Happy-Hour tooth cleanings we’d all like to hear it). But here’s how it might happen, if it does.
1) Slow and Steady: It is important that you don’t turn your social media career into an annoy-all-of-my-customers career. Do not try to force yourself on people. People forgive junk mail because it is paper and not a person. They won’t forgive you if you are an obnoxious twerp.
But if you have an outwardly charming e-persona and you remain persistent and pleasant, then who knows, in three years you might find yourself with a thousand locals unashamed to “fan” their dentist, from which point your facebook page can become an excellent staging ground to keep in touch with all of them. Do not expect that you will ever reach this shangri-la, however. You might, and you might not, and it is very probable that the Internet Popularity Gods will perniciously make this decision regardless of the quality of your efforts. What you need to do, always, is make sure you are living an e-life worthy of such greatness, otherwise it definitely won’t happen. Be available, be responsive.
2) Small business, small town: I would highly encourage dentists in smaller communities to be more aggressive with their social networking. If half your patients might bump into on your walk to lunch, then you need to consider interacting with them online. You already have the personality advantage because they already interact with you in non-formal, non-dental situations. Everybody is a fan of the only dentist in town.
Just to wrap up, social media is a missed opportunity for a lot of small business because of the, (mostly correct), assumption that is is mired with trivialities. But sometimes these trivialities are “I went to the dentist today” and that’s where the opportunity lies for you, if you want to take it. The trick is to stop thinking of social media as just some nut to crack, some tool that will eventually reshape itself to work the same way as everything else. If you want to market through this channel, think of it less as advertising and more as a conversation with your public. And remember to be nice.