Unfortunately, many optometrists struggle when trying to market their practice. In fact, optometrists spend about 0.5 to 1.5% of their income on marketing, while most industries spend 4 to 7% of their gross income on marketing, according to Hayes Consulting, a practice management consulting firm in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

So, what is marketing? It is the process of planning and executing the conception, pricing, promotion and distribution of ideas, goods, services, organizations and events to create and maintain relationships that will satisfy individual and organizational objectives, according to Contemporary Marketing Wired (Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998), a book about innovative marketing strategies.

To ascertain what form of marketing works best in your practice, include a question on your new patients medical history form that asks how he heard about you. This will let you know if the expense for your marketing campaigns was worthwhile.

How and what you communicate about the services you can offer to a patient can make or break your practice. So, you need to be aware of what works- and what doesnt work when marketing your practice. Follow these six marketing tips, and you will not only retain your current patients but attract new ones.

1. Market who you are.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when marketing your practice: trying to make yourself appear as someone you arent. This causes you to lose credibility and can actually hasten the demise of your practice faster than if you didnt market at all.

An example: You send out a marketing message that your practice specializes in childrens vision. After receiving this message, a parent brings her child to see you. But, upon entering your office, she sees that the only child-friendly area in your reception room is an end table with a few child-friendly books and puzzles. Her reaction: This O.D. lied to me; he really doesnt cater to children. If he did, there would be a separate, more child-friendly
reception area.

So, who are you, and how would you describe your practice? Are you a friendly practice? Are you efficient? Touchy-feely? High-tech?

The brand for health-care pro-viders for the new millennium is High tech, high touch, according to John Naisbitt, a futurist and one of the authors of Megatrends 2000 (Avon Books, 1991)a book that uses statistics to identify 10 domi- nant socioeconomic trends. High tech, high-touch refers to applying new technologies to feelings that we, the consumer, like to experience.

An example: Many people feel nostalgic for the past. The recent version of the Volkswagen Beetle is the perfect example of this because the car reminds the consumer of the carefree 1960s and 1970s, yet it provides up-to-date technology.

Determining your identity is the key to making decisions on how you want to market your practice. (See Practice Brand Identity, below.)

Practice Brand Identity
Circle the words or phrases that you feel best describe your office. Place an asterisk next to the ones that you wish described your practice. Then, have your staff, friends and current patients examine a fresh sheet, and circle those words they feel best describe your office. This is your brand identity.

Do their responses match your perceptions? If not, ask your staff, friends, current patients and yourself: What benefit(s) can I focus on to achieve my desired brand identity? To achieve the identity you seek, carefully orchestrate both your internal and external marketing.

Up on the most recent info
A leader in the profession
Old fashioned
Laid back
Mature, adult-oriented

Blue collar
White collar
Wide selection

2. Have a goal when marketing your practice.
Seneca, a Roman philosopher and senator from first century B.C., once said, Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. He also said, If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favorable to him.

Translation: If you market your practice trying different techniques with no real goal in mind, youll lose credibility with potential and current patients.

Ask yourself: What is my desired outcome? Do I want more patients? Do I want to provide a new service? Is there a new product I want to promote?

First, choose a goal to help you focus your message. Then, develop a marketing strategy around it.

3. First market internally, not externally.
Ensure that all your internal marketing communications, such as your patient education materials, are consistent with your brand before you begin external marketing. If you marketing externally before your practice fully conveys your brand, you again risk losing credibility with that new patient.

To get all your internal marketing communications consistent with your chosen brand, identify your practices patient encounter points. These encounter points are critical because they can sway a patients impression of your practice. To determine your practices critical encounter points, analyze a typical patient office visit cycle by walking through it from start to finish with your staff. As you do this, ask yourself: What am I communicating by what the patient sees and hears? You can divide the patient visit cycle into five parts:

Part 1: The moment the patient first calls for an appointment and checks in at the reception desk to the time the patient first enters the reception room.

Part 2: The entire time that elapses while the patient is in the reception room waiting to enter the exam or pre-test room.

Part 3: The moment a staff member escorts the patient from the reception room to the exam room and seats the patient to the moment you enter the room and greet the patient.

Part 4: The moment you begin the patient interview history through the moment when the exam has been completed, and you transfer the patient to a staff member.

Part 5: The moment the staff member brings the patient to the dispensary to the moment the patient leaves the office.

Make a chart that includes each of these five parts. Below each part, write Critical Encounters and Desired Standard to be Achieved (also known as the ideal outcome).1 Be as detailed as possible when describing what you would like the ideal outcome of each critical encounter to be. Once you have done this, you can create service standards for every interaction a patient has with you and your staff. (See Examine These Elements of Your Chosen Brand, below.)

Examine These Elements of Your Chosen Brand
Staff personality
Staff attire
Window displays
Practice brochure
Reception room
Exam room decorum
Exam room colors
Exam room posters
Exam room magazines
Your personality
Your clothing
How you take
the patients history
How you explain the test procedures

Referral cards
Frame displays
Products you offer
Optician personality
Optician attire

As you identify each of your practices critical patient encounter points, such as the reception room, ask yourself if you are conveying your chosen practice brand.

For example: upon entering the reception area, the optometrist with the fun and friendly practice brand notices that his staff is dressed entirely in white. Since this color does not convey fun and friendly, he decides that as of the following week, all staff must wear bright colors. Implementing such service standards has the potential to affect patient loyalty, retention and purchasing.

Finally, provide your patients with the words to use in describing the benefits of your practice by using your office theme, logo, employee scripts (phrases you have written down for your employees to use when communicating with patients) and written materials, such as your office brochures. Successful internal marketing leads to word-of-mouth referrals.

Provide your patients with the words to use in describing the benefits of your practice by using your office theme, logo, employee scripts (phrases you have written down for your employees to use when communicating with patients) and written materials, such as your office brochures.

4. Market externally to certain populations.
Now, you need to decide whom you want to reach outside your current practice. The expected response from marketing to the entire public is usually less than 0.5%, according to the U.S. Postal Service Direct Mail Kit. So, you want to select small populations of the public whom you feel you can attract.

And, dont let corporate America intimidate you. I often hear optometrists lament about how difficult it is to compete with the optical chains, such as LensCrafters. What chance do I have spending money on marketing against LensCrafters? they ask.

My reply? LensCrafters brand is convenience, which is reflected in their motto: Glasses in about an hour. Even the optical chains logo shows a clock with one hour passing by. You can easily compete with LensCrafters convenience. Choose 1,000 homes immediately near your office, and send them a direct mail piece that communicates the convenience of your office

Direct mail pieces work better than advertising because we, the consumer, actually have to look at the piece to determine whether to throw it away. In fact, you can expect a gross return on investment of 10 times from four direct mail pieces a year, according to the U.S. Postal Service Direct Mail Kit.

Unless there is another O.D. nearby, you will become the most convenient for location. And, if another O.D. is nearby, make sure that your direct mail piece also mentions your in-office lab that can provide glasses fastan added benefit that will entice these nearby potential patients to pick you over the other O.D.

This is just one example of how you can market benefits to your patients. Be sure to highlight everything that you feel makes your practice attractive to potential patients. Some examples: Availability of financing; the credit cards you accept; free consultations; the time you take to spend with patients; the ability to schedule appointments over the Internet; and home delivery of products, such as contact lenses.

5. Market throughout the year.
Successful marketers keep their message in front of the consumer throughout the year. So, consider creating a marketing campaign calendar with three columns that show the month, the activity and the cost of each individual activity.2

Suppose you just took a class on computer vision and have decided to incorporate computer lenses into your practice. To get the word out about these lenses, you construct a marketing campaign calendar. You decide that in January, your first month of promotion, you will send a letter to all nearby companies inviting their employees to have a free computer vision evaluation. Next month, youve arranged a speaking engagement at the local library on the problems associated with computer vision syndrome. The remaining 10 months are also booked with ideas. But, you have to be dedicated to following through on each activity you have slated for each of the 12 months, or you will fail to establish your message.

Often, the success of marketing depends on timing. For example, a friend of mine was driving both our families to a ski area. During the ride, he complained to me about receiving junk mail. A few minutes later, he mentioned that he recently had new Firestone tires placed on his Ford Expeditionthe vehicle in which we were travelling. When I asked him where he heard about these tires, he replied that he saw an advertisement in the mail about them from the local tire store. I stared at him without saying anything. He grinned and replied, Well, I really dont read junk mail, but I DID need all-weather tires for driving my kids to the mountains. I would have gotten them anyway!

What we can glean from this  story is that when the timing is right, potential patients will respond to your chock-full-of-benefits communication.

6. Budget a certain amount of money toward marketing.
Many practitioners spend money on marketing without knowing what kind of return to expect. To ascertain what form of marketing has been the most beneficial, include a question on your new patients medical history form that asks how that patient heard about your office. Then, add up the
dollars that your new patients have spent at your practice. This will let you know if the expense for your marketing campaigns was worthwhile.

Generally, you should expect to receive a return in gross dollars of 10 times what you spent on marketing.3 For example, if you want to increase the practice gross by $100,000, expect to spend $10,000 on marketing.

More and more optometrists, independent optical stores and contact lens mail order companies are sprouting every year. This means that if you want to retain and attract patients, you have to stand out from your colleagues and these retail venues. To do this, you need to market your practice effectively. By correctly following through on the tips mentioned above and knowing what to avoid, you will succeed in finding and retaining the patients you seek.

Peter G. Shaw-McMinn, O.D., has maintained two group practices in Southern California since 1978. He also is an assistant professor at the Southern California College of Optometry, has lectured at several U.S. schools and colleges of optometry and was the Benedict Professor in Practice Management for the University of Houston School of Optometry from 2001 to 2002. He co-authored the books Eyecare Business: Marketing and Strategy (Butterworth-Heinemann, 2001) and and has contributed to the book, Business Aspects of Optometry (Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003.

1. Baker S. Improving service and increasing patient satisfaction. Family Practice Management. July-August 1998:29-33.
2. Levinson JC. Guerilla Marketing: Secrets for Making Big Profits from Your Small Business. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company; 1984
3. Levinson, JC. Guerilla Marketing Weapons. New York: Penguin Group; 1990 Plum.

Vol. No: 142:8Issue: 8/15/2005