Last week an 85-year-old patient asked me for my Twitter name. Boy, have things changed! I remember 25 years ago when we adjusted hearing aid with screwdrivers, we thought that was advanced technology!
Like it or not, hard-of-hearing people and their children are searching the Internet for hearing aids and related information at a rapidly growing rate. According to a recent Nielson poll, one of the fastest growing demographics for Facebook is 65 years and over. In fact, the number of seniors actively using the Internet has grown to over 17.5 million. That's a whopping 55% increase from 2005!
Statistics like these prove beyond a doubt that using the Internet effectively is absolutely crucial to the future of our profession. The question is, how can you get your practice in front of this captive audience? Here are some tips on what you should and should not do.
TIP #1: GET A WEB SITE
I know that sounds obvious, but it's the place to start. Your web site is an important tool for your office. It's a great way for existing patients to keep in touch and receive updated information. It's also a place for them to refer their friends for information about your practice.
Use your site to tell prospective patients about you, your practice, and what you can do for them, and make it easy for them to download office forms from your site. It should also provide consumers with directions to your office, contact information, and hours of operation. Be sure to include your web address on all your paperwork and business cards.
TIP #2: USE E-MAIL; IT'S FAST AND FREE
Patients who are active on the Internet love e-mail. They find it less threatening than calling to ask questions about your practice and, of course, many of them prefer to communicate by e-mail because they can't hear well on the phone!
E-mail allows you to answer consumers' questions fully at your convenience and you can use it to sell yourself. E-mail only works, however, if you actually use it. Failing to respond to e-mail promptly is a sure-fire way to lose a prospective patient. You should also get as many e-mail addresses as possible from your existing patients so you can send them periodic e-newsletters and updates. This is free advertising and keeps your name in front of-them. I personally like to use Gmail (Google Mail). It's free, simple, and easy to use and integrate into any e-mail program.
TIP #3: KEEP YOUR AUDIENCE IN MIND
When building your web site, you should remember that the average person who will use it is 50 or older. That means they are likely to have impaired vision as well as poor hearing. Your type font and size should be large enough to read easily. Try not to use phrasing that is too technical, and keep it simple.
You may want to look into adjustable fonts and use coding that makes your site accessible to persons with disabilities. (For more information about disability-compliant sites, visit the Web Accessibility Initiative at: www.w3.org/WAI/.) Also, use cheerful colors that are inviting as well as easy to read. Your site should invite people in and make them feel confident that they are looking at a professional who cares.
Videos and sounds
Videos may look really cool to you, but they often play poorly, are slow to download, and can cause crashes if your site is not properly designed to handle them. Videos also assume the person viewing your site has speakers that are turned on and has the loaded software to play them. If they don't have speakers or if the sound quality is poor, they are likely to find the video annoying. Few things put more fear in a senior citizen's mind than a pop-up window telling them they must download a program to view the video. It's also probable that they have a hearing loss and may be unable to understand what the video is saying. So, if you really must have a video, be sure to include captions.
Flash web sites use sound and animation to give the viewer a better overall experience. While these sites can be beautiful, I strongly discourage using flash for hearing aid practices. Here are a few reasons why: Flash sites are very expensive to create and maintain. They can also take a long time to download. Many hearing aid wearers are still on dial-up Internet connections, and they don't want to wait 5-minutes to see your site!
Even with broadband service, I have seen flash web sites take longer than a minute to load. You risk losing a potential patient if they can't see your site. If you want flash files, don't put them on your first page and make them optional. The goal of your site is to make it easy for people to access your information quickly.
TIP #4: KEEP YOUR SITE RELEVANT AND HELPFUL
The information on your site should be useful and relevant to patients, prospective patients, and their significant others. For example, post any articles you have written about hearing aids, hearing loss, strategies for listening, care of hearing aids, etc. It is very important that these be from you, not from a manufacturer or some other organization.
The more information you post on your site, the more likely people will be to find it. Our patients generally have a lot of time and they like to read. The more information you provide them, the more they will view you as the expert in your area. Search engines like new content, so keep adding new articles to draw their attention to your site. Do you Tweet? A Facebook link or Twitter account will soon become very important as well.
TIP #5: ANSWER YOUR PHONE!
Your web site should display your phone number prominently. But making it easy for web visitors to find your number is of little use if no one answers when they call you. Someone needs to answer your phone throughout your business hours. I can't tell you how many clinics across the country don't pick up their phones on a regular basis. There is nothing worse than not answering your phone! This is a big reason practices lose potential patients.
Make sure your employees understand how critical it is to answer the phone promptly and property. They should feel their job depends on it! Phone etiquette is important as well. Staff should be friendly and speak slowly and clearly, in as low a pitch as they can muster.
Using an answering machine is better than having a call not answered at all, but often patients won't leave their name and number if they don't reach a live person. A recorded response also gives the impression that no one is there to help callers now, so they may be afraid no one will help them in the future. If you do use a machine, make sure the message says how important the person's call is to you, and get back to the caller quickly. Also, be sure the message mentions your web site and says that it can answer a lot of questions.
TIP #6: BUILD IT AND THEY STILL MAY NOT COME
Today I searched for “hearing aids” in Google and over 5.5 million web sites came up in the results. There are only 10 spots on the first page of Google and most people do not go beyond the first page when searching. The way to make potential patients more likely to see your site is to advertise on the Internet.
There are three main ways to do that: Pay-Per-Click, Search Engine Optimization, and Referral/Listing services. All of them can help you get more noticed on the Internet, but some are practical for private practices and some are not. There is also a limit as to what any of these services can really do for your site if you don't have very deep pockets.
TIP #7: CONSIDER YOUR OPTIONS BEFORE SPENDING A-LOT
We have all seen PPC advertising—those little ads above and to the side of the search results. These ads can be useful, but they can also be very expensive—up to several thousand dollars a month. Each time your ad is displayed or someone clicks on it, you are charged whether or not the person becomes a patient. The price per click is based on what others are willing to pay. For example, every time someone clicks on an ad listed under “hearing aids” it costs the advertiser about $4. This is why it's a good idea to use a company that specializes in PPC advertising, that can monitor your results, and can help you get the most from them. Again, the competition is steep and you are up against some very big players, namely hearing aid manufacturers.
Because of the competitive nature of PPC, I don't feel it's very practical for most private practices. I tried it for my own practice and stopped because there was too little return on my investment when applied on a local basis. But the results could be different for you.
If you want to try it, I suggest starting with Google Adwords and allocate a small daily or monthly budget to test it. Remember to restrict your paid advertisements to your local area. I recently stumbled upon a hearing clinic in Salt Lake City that was advertising all over Georgia and Florida—and who knows where else! This practice is throwing money out the window.
Search Engine Optimization
SEO companies specialize in fine-tuning your web site so it will appear higher in the natural search results. Being on the first page of Google, Yahoo, and Bing is the Holy Grail of Internet marketing, but there is a steep price to pay. It will literally cost thousands of dollars per month to achieve this goal. This means extensive SEO is just not practical or cost-effective for most practices. You're competing with everyone, including companies with huge budgets, and there are only 10 positions available on the first page.
SEO operates by making your web site rich in commonly searched words and phrases known as metatags and keywords. The more often these appear on your site, the more likely a search engine is to notice your site. But if you overdo it, search engines will categorize your web site as spam.
Search engines are constantly changing how they perform, so the SEO company has to adjust your site monthly to keep up with the new rules. This is another reason that SEOs charge so much. They also build links connecting your web site to others. The more links you can get coming to your site from other sites, the better your site will perform in search results.
Referral web sites
One of the most cost-effective ways for a private practice to use the Internet is with a referral or listing service. Several companies that operate web sites and refer patients to offices have agreed to be providers for them. Some, such as HearingPlanet.com and Ahearingaid.com, sell hearing aids to consumers and then refer them to your office and pay you a dispensing fee. The fee is typically less than you would receive from a patient, but you didn't have to pay for the marketing expense and it is a new patient.
AidRight.com, a company that I started, charges a small monthly fee and sends practitioners unlimited referrals, from which the practices reap all the benefits.
These companies include product pricing on their web site, which is the primary draw for patients. By working with such companies, a practice gets some of the benefit of having its site high in the search rankings without directly paying the cost.
Listing web sites
There are also sites that work more like an online listing service or directory, and they don't list prices. Practices pay a monthly fee to be listed on the site and when patients search under their ZIP code, they find offices in their area. A-practice's listing can include a link to its own site, which can raise its rankings in search engines.
These sites are content rich and provide an excellent source of information for consumers. One of them is AdviceOnHearingAids.com, which I own. It allows practice owners to interact with patients in a forum and to post articles about their practice, hearing aids, or any other hearing-related subject. This establishes a practice owner as the expert in the area as well as giving him or her a featured listing.
The world is constantly changing, but the Internet is not out of our reach for those of us in private practice. Let's tap into those 17.5 million seniors actively using the Internet and thus help this growing demographic get the hearing help they need. They are going to find help somewhere, so why not from you? Do your research, understand your options and limitations, use your money wisely, and the Internet will work for-you.
© 2010 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.