Reaching patient groups online

March 21, 2012

Any marketing effort that brings in more than 700 new patients would have to be considered wildly successful, and one that accomplished this with absolutely no upfront costs to the practice, probably sounds too good to be true.

Any marketing effort that brings in more than 700 new patients would have to be considered wildly successful, and one that accomplished this with absolutely no upfront costs to the practice, probably sounds too good to be true.

Well for the practices across the country that have been offering discounted services through online deal hub Groupon results like that have been the reality. Dr. Nazanin Barkhodari’s 2-year-old solo practice in San Francisco (nbsmiledesign.com) offered a discount on cleaning and x-ray services through Groupon on March 25, and the practice has already seen more than 50 of the 731 people who bought in on the deal.

“It reaches such a large and broad demographic and for a small office like ours that’s relatively new and trying to build our patient base, this is such an effective way of doing that,” said Dr. Barkhodari’s office manager Monica Martinez.

What makes a Groupon work

While it might not be familiar to everyone in the dental world, Groupon has been making an impact in the world of online retail since the company launched in Chicago in 2008. Now operating in more than 55 cities in the United States, and with recent expansion into Canada, Groupon offers a single deal at a local business in each market each day.

Promoted on Groupon’s website, as well as through e-mail blasts and smartphone apps, the deals offer discounts of 35-90 percent off retail prices, and they work because of the collective buying power of the company’s 4.3 million subscribers. Each deal is agreed upon between Groupon and the business, and it is only activated once the deal “tips” when a predetermined number of people buy in.

“We see Groupon as an alternative to traditional advertising,” said Groupon VP of Marketing Mark Desky. “With traditional advertising you pay up front and you hope that customers will come in. With Groupon there really is no upfront commitment at all. You’re featured on Groupon, and if the deal doesn’t tip nothing is owed to us and if the deal does tip we take the monies collected and we forward the agreed upon portion back to the business.”

The rise of dental deals

Originally Groupon’s offerings focused on entertainment, and many of the deals featured on the site come from restaurants, spas and similar businesses. The company has built its reputation on providing deals at businesses that are among the best in their industries.

With online forums and plenty of social media integration, Desky said Groupon is constantly receiving and reacting to feedback from customers. Dental deals began to be offered in 2009, and they partially came about because some of that feedback indicated customers would be interested in finding a dentist through the site.

“It started as an experiment to see how our consumer base would respond. We’ve been pleased, our customers have been pleased and the dentists have especially been pleased with the performance,” Desky said. “We kind of consider this a life’s essentials category. It’s things people need to get done, and if we can introduce our customers to a great dentist in their market, we think that’s a pretty good thing.”

Thus far Groupon has offered 85 deals for dental services with most of them being discounts on either teeth whitening, or like the deal at Dr. Barkhodari’s practice, a cleaning and x-ray appointment priced at around $40.

For the dentists offering the deals, those initial appointments are really just a way to get new patients into the practice. Once they’re on the schedule, it is up to the practice to provide a level of service that will keep the patients coming back. Martinez said her practice decided to offer a second discount for the Groupon patient’s next cleaning and they have already scheduled follow-up appointments for more than 35 of the patients they’ve seen while also providing follow-up care for about a dozen patients who had immediate treatment needs.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised,” she said. “We tried to have realistic expectations that a lot of the patients that came to us were probably going to be coupon hoppers who bought our deal, would come in and get their teeth cleaned and then buy the next Groupon for a dental office. We’ve done our best to provide the best customer service that we can.”

While most of the people purchasing the Groupon are patients with no insurance looking for the best deal on the care they need, Martinez said the practice has even scored some new patients with insurance because of the Groupon deal. Those patients didn’t buy into the Groupon, but because of the site’s reputation for offering deals with the best businesses in town, they treated the association with Groupon as a recommendation for Dr. Barkhodari’s practice.

 

Preparing for the offer

Martinez said she got the idea to promote the practice through Groupon because she is a customer of the site and saw another dental practice offering a deal. Once she contacted Groupon and got her practice into the “pipeline” to offer a deal, she closely followed the success of the dental deals offered before hers in order to be as prepared as possible.

She followed the online discussion about the other deals and quickly learned that her practice would fair better with the Web-savvy Groupon shoppers if it was well represented on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and the review site Yelp. She also made sure the practice website was as up to date as possible. Desky said this probably helped with their successful deal because Groupon’s customers tend to research businesses online before pulling the trigger to buy into a deal.

“Our customers need to be able to see the business online,” he said. “They’re going to want to see and get a feel for the business. I would say a website is a prerequisite.”

The other part of preparing for the offer was being ready for the deluge of attention on the day of the deal. From following the Groupon forums about other dental deals, Martinez said she learned that the biggest complaint from potential customers was a lack of responsiveness from the practice. Prior to the day of the sale, she had a second phone line installed in the practice, trained the practice’s dental assistant to back her up and came in ready for a long day. She arrived that day to two dozen voicemails and a dozen e-mails.

“People weren’t waiting for (the offer) to even finish. They were buying it and immediately calling,” she said. “I came in early, I worked through lunch, I stayed late, but I called everybody back.”

Now Martinez has been busy working to fit all the new patients into the schedule for their discount cleanings. While it has been tricky, the patients have a full year from the date of the offer to use the Groupon, and she said they mostly understand that there could be a wait of several months for an appointment.

Still, customer service is always at the forefront of how she deals with every patient, and she has made special accommodations for patients with special circumstance. One couple reached her via Skype from Costa Rica and explained they would be back in San Francisco for just one day and she moved things around to get them in to use their Groupons for that day.

Making your own Groupon offer

Desky said Groupon is always on the look out for high-quality businesses interested in putting together a deal. While the site can not offer a dental deal every day or even every week, there are enough customers out there looking for a deal and the dental offerings have performed well enough to keep them in the mix.

“We’re really just looking for dental practices with a great reputation, that are well known in their community for providing exceptional service,” he said.

Putting together the deal is a simple process. Interested businesses can contact the site through their business-to-business portal at grouponworks.com. Once Groupon decides a business is a good match they get together to work out the terms of the deal. Desky said things are usually worked out in just a few phone calls, and once the date for the deal is set, the Groupon team writes up an entertaining profile of the business and the offer which everyone approves. Then the offer goes out with absolutely no payment required from the business offering the deal. According to Desky approximately 97 percent of the businesses offering Groupons said they would do it again. Martinez said she certainly would.

“It’s just a genius way of marketing,” she added. “It’s a win win for everyone, for Groupon, for us and for the consumer, everybody wins.”.

Noah Levine is a senior editor for DPR. Contact him at nlevine@advanstar.com.