The belief that senior citizens aren't surfing the web has been thoroughly discredited as reports consistently show increasing rates of Internet use among that age group. For hearing healthcare providers, this is more than an interesting tidbit. It calls for giving up any notions they may have held about the Internet's irrelevance for them and embracing an opportunity to reach patients through online methods, specifically a practice web site.
Because audiologists and hearing instrument specialists typically serve an older population, there have been lingering doubts as to whether potential hearing aid consumers and patients are using the Internet, says Liz Brassine, AuD, owner of Hearing Services of McKinney, a private practice outside Dallas.
“I think we have proven that seniors are on the Internet or they have a younger family member who is contacting us, so I think we are starting to catch up,” she says.
Adding to the need for a strong online presence is the decreasing effectiveness of traditional print marketing methods, says Paul Dybala, PhD, president and editor-in-chief of Audiology Online (AO), an e-learning web portal for hearing professionals that also custom-designs web sites for practices.
For the second year in a row, Dybala says, print Yellow Pages have fallen behind online sites as the most used referral source for people searching for a local business. Sites such as Google Maps, Citysearch, and yellowpages.com now double the traditional sources' referral numbers, he says and adds:
“This is kind of a leading trend, and hearing aids are a part of that. What we see happening over the next 5-years is that print yellow pages, and postcards—which are getting much more expensive with less return on investment in most cases—are going to collapse onto the Internet. Then you'll see how important your web presence is, and your practice site is going to be at the center of that.”
A PURPOSE FOR YOUR SITE
The first step when deciding to create a web site is to-establish a goal, says Holly Hosford-Dunn, PhD, of the Arizona Audiology Network, LLC.
“If you're trying to get the phone to ring, that's quite a different goal than trying to improve your word of mouth among your existing patients and referral sources,” says Hosford-Dunn, who is owner of Tucson Audiologists/TAI Inc., which she describes as “a part-time boutique practice of 300 patients,” in the Arizona network.
The network, which takes a diagnostic audiologic approach to patient care, created a web site about a year ago to differentiate itself as a group of independent offices with a shared practice philosophy, she says. The overall network site also branches off to each individual practice's site. In Hosford-Dunn's case, the site serves more as an archive, since her practice relies more heavily on blogging.
She says, “Our main goal in putting our emphasis on a blog rather than a web site was to have something that was very interactive and very easy to update frequently.” She adds that her goal was less to reach new patients than it was “to maintain contacts with existing patients and referral bases and with our professional colleagues so we could keep up on what's happening in the field and let our patients know about it.”
Roy F. Sullivan, PhD, an audiologist who's been fitting hearing aids for 48 years, sees three basic applications for the Internet. “Education is probably the biggest,” he says, “although dollar-wise it's marketing, and in between you have information, where you're not teaching anybody anything and you're not selling anything.”
The informational approach is the route Sullivan chose when he contracted Audiology Online to create a web site for his practice in Garden City, NY, 10 years ago. He says. “If you go to my site, you can view my facility via a PowerPoint presentation that walks you through my office. I have pictures of every staff member and all the professional credentials are there. If you click on my name, you have a bibliography—information that says to anyone looking, I have professional credibility.”
A RANGE OF ATTITUDES SEEN
Sullivan says that the Internet has blended the traditional model of hearing aid sales with the new audiological model. While it's been decades since audiologists' professional association ruled it was illicit for them to sell hearing aids, he says, “There are still hyper-moral audiologists, largely academicians, who consider it unholy to make a living selling hearing aids.” Some of them are uncomfortable with a practice so easily facilitated by the Internet, he-says.
On the other end of the spectrum, he says, are practitioners who are fully exploiting the Internet's marketing potential. “I've seen my colleagues have web sites in the tone of, ‘Come on down, today only, free hearing tests and a $100 discount with our certificate,’ and I've seen audiologists who sell batteries and wax traps and things like that on their web site,” Sullivan says.
He advises professionals to be careful to distinguish themselves from non-professionals who sell hearing devices online as well. “The internet facilitates carrying this kind of information forward to the public, and the public often doesn't know the difference between a $14.95 hearing aid and one that might cost you $3000 with a 4-year warranty and the professional backing of someone who knows how to program the latest digital hearing instrument technology.”
Rather than shy away from having a web site because of online hearing aid sales, the key is to explain the value of your services so that potential consumers recognize the tradeoff, says Cindy Ellison, AuD, owner of Franklin Hearing Center in Franklin, TN, and former president of the Academy of Doctors of Audiology (ADA).
“What you want to do is say, ‘I have my doctorate, we offer a trial basis, and, we're here to help you. Not only to sell you hearing aids. We are a professional entity.’ Having a web site is certainly one way to let people know the difference, and then they can make their own decisions.”
She adds, “There are always going to be people who look to the Internet for their hearing needs, but I think most people will start to see the differentiation in the services and what they might need that they are not receiving with their Internet purchase. That's going to be one more step for us to let people know about our professionalism.”
THE DO-IT-YOURSELF APPROACH
When Ellison began thinking about a web site for her new practice, she had a basic idea of what she wanted, but needed a professional with the technical expertise to make it happen. A veteran in web site development, Ellison spearheaded the overhaul of ADA's site during her 2002-2004 presidency, contributing much of the content and creative direction, as she did with her subsequent practice sites.
“I manage my site myself, but I did have a web design company do the basics,” she says. “I gave them all of the copy for the information I wanted, they looked at it, streamlined it a bit, and boiled it down to specific areas. But I can go in and edit it. That's really important.”
Although editing her practice site is time consuming, going back to the designer every time a change is needed would be very expensive, Ellison says, noting that she'll only use her web developer if she is doing a major renovation. She also uses a blog so she can create new content easily and simply add links to direct visitors back to her site.
Maintaining a site, she says, requires tracking web traffic. By using Google analytics, she finds, “I get information about who is using my site, and now I use it when I do a direct-mail piece or write an article in the newspaper. I go back and see if we have an up tick in the number of people looking at the site. That's been really valuable information.”
Ellison estimates that she averages about an hour a week going over the statistics and updating her site. As for the financial cost of a web site, she says hearing care providers have to look at it as a marketing tool and set aside money for it.
She adds, “If you feel really confident about what you want and how you want the site to look, then you just need to find somebody who can provide that product to you. But if you're looking for something a little more unique, streamlined, and highly professional, you probably want to go to a professional designer. Get price quotes and make sure to ask ahead of time how many revisions you get; if you want to add additional pages to your site, how much does it cost; when can they do it, and see how responsive they are.”
A practice web site should also have a domain name, says Audiology Online's Dybala. The domain name is a label that identifies a proprietary space on the Internet.
He explains, “Once someone registers the name they have it as long as they keep it registered. You can do that for anywhere from $15 to $30 a year using sites like godaddy.com. Then, if you want to have a branded e-mail address, they'll do that for a minimum fee too so you can look more professional. If you haven't done that, you should,” he says.
THE AO APPROACH
For hearing care providers who have the money but not the time, another web development option is to contract a company like Audiology Online (AO) to create and maintain their practice site.
In addition to technical expertise and template design, AO has information that subscribers can post on their site, Dybala says. For example, the company president says, “We've got custom content that we develop that revolves around all the major hearing aid manufacturers and hearing healthcare in general. We have articles that can be posted to their web site and we offer articles and news that can be automatically updated based on their preferences.”
Brassine, who uses AO for her site design, says she was attracted by its ability to provide custom links to related resources. “They link in with Healthy Hearing, which is a consumer-based web site. If consumers don't go to you directly but they go to Healthy Hearing, they're gaining information and knowledge and they can track professionals in your area.”
Search engine optimization, a process for improving a site's ranking on Google and other search engines and thereby increasing traffic, is another of AO's services, says Sullivan, who pays AO around $1000 a year for his site.
A unique feature available to AO subscribers is a simple shopping cart system, says Dybala.
“We are not selling hearing aids on the Internet. This is more for maintaining relationships with patients. If they need a new package of batteries, an assistive listening device, or any of those things you may have at your office counter, you can now have those in your virtual office and it's a nice way to maintain relationships.”
The personal and the professional should meet in both the content and the design of your web site, those interviewed for this article agree.
Brassine says one of the biggest mistakes practice owners make with their sites is not being personal enough. She urges them to post “pictures of the practice, pictures of you, personal information about you and the business so that people feel like they know who you are before they get to your office. If you're not doing that, that's a mistake.”
A web site with an engaging tone can make potential patients feel good about addressing their hearing problem, Ellison says. “It lets the patient feel this is the kind of office they would like to visit; this is somebody who has a well-established presence in the audiology community and somebody I could get information from.”
She continues, “Sometimes patients will come in off the street and ask me, ‘Do you have a card? Do you have a web site?’ Then they go online to see what we're about. Unfortunately, people are still reluctant to get hearing aids, and I think this is another step in the process of making them feel ready to take that next step.”
To that end, a web site may actually require more thought than other aspects of customer service, Dybala says. “Practices think about that important first impression patients get on the phone or when they walk into an office. I would say your web site is even more critical because it's much easier for someone to click in and to click out” than to walk out of-an office or hang up on the receptionist who answers their-call.
COMMON MISTAKES AND CONSIDERATIONS
One of the biggest mistakes hearing care professionals make with their web site is not integrating it into their overall marketing strategy, Dybala says. “If you're spending money to send out postcards and newsletters throughout the year, you can extend the value of these things by bringing people back onto your site.”
Another error is failing to list contact information prominently on the site in multiple places, he adds. “The first thing people do after a web search is pick up the phone and call. They want to call a local phone number, not an 800 number, because a toll-free number says I'm getting into a phone tree.”
While seniors may be Internet-savvy, practices should still be aware of special considerations related to their patients' age, Ellison says. “You want to make sure it's easy for them to browse through your site and that older people can actually read the type. You have to remember that patients who are having a hearing problem could potentially have vision problems too.”
Practices that have medical forms available for downloading on their site should make sure their site's privacy settings are secure, notes Kelly Calkins, AuD, who is owner and founder of AidRight Hearing Aids as well as a private practice owner in Atlanta. “If patients are divulging information about their medical history, you want to make sure it's protected and always put up a HIPAA statement,” she says. (For more recommendations about web sites from Kelly Calkins, see her separate article in this issue.)
Roy Sullivan gives each of his patients a password in order to access a protected portion of his site that has information related to their specific care. He says, “I'm supplementing what I tell my patients and what I put in written material that I hand to them with information on the site. If they or their adult children want more information about their hearing aid fitting, they can go to the private area of the web site.”
Scheduling routine updates
Even if practices don't maintain their own sites, they should update them routinely, Dybala says. “It's best practice to think about your web site once or twice a month. It doesn't have to be complex, it's just, what are the marketing things we're doing this month and is our web site up to date with that?”
Hosford-Dunn follows a similar rule. She has a different consultant critique her practice and network's web sites and blogs every 2 months. She notes, “This means we're always redesigning because everybody has a different view, but it also helps.”
USING SOCIAL MEDIA
An extension of a hearing professional's online presence is the use of social media networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Ellison has joined Facebook and also has a LinkedIn account for connecting with other professionals.
“I'm just starting this,” she says, “but I think that the more places you get your name out and get people looking at your services and who you are, the more beneficial it's going to be”
Nielson statistics show that the fastest growing group of Facebook users consists of people 65 and older. On the other hand, the percentage of Facebook users in that age group is still relatively small. So, says Dybala, social networking may not be essential for audiologists yet.
However, he sees possible benefits. “It is potentially powerful because social media revolve around the endorsement of a friend. I know this person and he is my friend and colleague, so if he says it's okay then I'm going to check this practice out. That's a powerful thing.”
Another area that professionals might want to pay attention to, he says, is online reviews, which are sometimes included in search algorithms and web rankings. “That's what people may want to look at for what they call ‘online reputation management.’ I see potential for practices to use that.” Dybala adds that practices may want to work on getting their patients to post recommendations about them online.
No matter how a hearing care provider goes about getting a web site, he or she should do it, the experts interviewed for this article agree. “It's the digital equivalent of a business card—with a lot more information,” says Sullivan. “You must have a web site. It's the way to reach the market.”