Conversation marketing

It’s time to start applying ourselves to some serious marketing, not just for the autumn sales campaign but also to create the momentum that will see us into 2007. I’m involved heavily in thinking about marketing, firstly because my own autumn workshops focus on ‘marketing in dental practice’ and secondly because I have businesses to fill just like you.

For years now, I have been making the distinction between:

1. External marketing – getting your message out to the local community (strangers who have never heard of you).

2. Internal marketing – enrolling your existing patients as your unpaid sales force.

I have steadfastly maintained that internal marketing is more cost-efficient and effective at finding the right type of new patient. And I’ve bemoaned the fact that, when dentists spend money on marketing, it is usually on external marketing, which is an inefficient use of money and produces low results.

So this leads me to one of my favourite subjects at the moment – blogging. Just in case there are any uninitiated, a blog is a personal website with content displayed in reverse-chronological order. Entries (or ‘posts’) are placed at the top of the page, making it easy to see the latest one. It might not sound too exciting, but blogging has taken off big time, with the number of bloggers worldwide over 20 million and counting.

About half of these are business related (not just kids messing about) and there is a wealth of information on almost any subject you could describe. My own blog at http://www.thebusinesscoachingco.com/blog/ began falteringly in September 2004 but, since then, I have become an addict, recording my personal and professional reflections as well as any good ideas I see in the world of business and dentistry. I’ve also posted archives of some of my best dental articles and some cool free stuff as well.

Back from holiday and reading business books again, I’m enjoying Naked Conversations by Robert Scoble & Shel Israel, an excellent history of the development of blogging and its application to marketing and customer relations.

Many of the quite amazing stories in the book relate to the speed with which ideas (and software) can spread once people are talking to people. The story that dropped my jaw was of a small group of high school kids who decided to try and connect with each other (in 1996) to facilitate live communication over the internet.

Encouraged by their father, an investor in technology start-ups who gave them $10,000 to play with, they found to their astonishment that 65,000 strangers joined their network in six months.

The company they formed, Mirabilis, was sold to AOL after two years for $287 million and then became AOL Instant Messenger. In terms of growth of market share, even that doesn’t compare with the rise of services like Skype (voice over internet), Firefox (internet browsing without Microsoft) and the world of blogging itself. Another fascination is that these companies have spent little or nothing on marketing – it’s just been word-of-mouth.

I know what you’re thinking and that’s, ‘What does blogging have to do with marketing a dental practice?’ Well, I’d like to quote author and speaker Seth Godin, whose books include All Marketers are Liars, who describes external marketing as ‘interruption marketing’. That term, and the way in which we deal with it, can be summarised as follows:

• We put the kettle on and switch channels to avoid advertisements between TV programmes

• We switch commercial radio station channels because the repetitive cheesy ads drive us crazy

• We install spam filters on our computers to avoid adware, spyware and all the other infuriating pop-ups

• We give short shrift to those telephone intrusions, calling us at dinner time trying and sell

• We empty our magazines of all those loose inserts before we read them

• We bin or shred direct mail before we even read it.

And so commerce spends billions each year trying to get through our barriers and, at best, reaching a 2% hit rate. Conversely, the authors of Naked Conversations suggest a far more effective way of reaching your audience. They call it ‘conversation marketing’, describing the process by which potential new clients (and existing clients) can communicate directly with you and your team.

Needless to say, that’s how some of the biggest businesses in the world are attempting to humanise themselves – with Microsoft and IBM leading the way in allowing internal employees to blog freely about what it’s like to work there and what’s going on.

Admittedly, its high-tech businesses that are pioneering this marketing method, but when the CEO of General Motors starts writing a daily blog, the writing is on the wall as well as the web! It will be sometime before we read the daily musings of the chairman of British Airways or HSBC, but there is a phenomenon in progress here.

Points to consider

1. Are you investing in any marketing at all at the moment? We dig wells when it’s raining, not when the drought begins. It’s raining patients at the moment but that will not last forever.

2. How much are you investing in marketing? Many dentists do not set aside an amount of cash for annual marketing – they just spend if they are feeling flush (and usually on interruption marketing). I recommend a minimum of 5% of annual revenues into the practice.

3. Are you involved in ‘interruption marketing’? I recommend that my clients invest in a brief but smart Yellow Pages advert that points people to a well-maintained website. But I do not recommend any form of direct mailing or advertising except in very special circumstances, such as radio advertising on local independent stations

4. Are you involved in ‘conversation marketing’? In my forthcoming workshops I will specify this as:

• Grading your existing patients and removing the ‘messers’

• Creating a Paddi Lund style welcome pack

• Utilising a ‘smile check’ to open the door to treatment planning conversations

• Handing out at least three referral cards to every patient and asking patients who complete treatment to write a testimonial letter

• Making sure your website is attractive to any potential new patients

• Developing strategic alliances and networking in your local community.

That is conversation marketing – it’s cheaper and more effective and it will separate the winners from the losers in 2007.

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