Most practices understand the importance of branding. Reaching out to educate consumers about who you are and what products and services you offer is critical to attaining and sustaining success. While many vehicles and techniques can establish brand identity and top-of-mind recognition, today's tough business climate mandates that practices determine the best marketing media to reach consumers in an efficient and cost-effective manner. All branding efforts demand scrutiny to maximize return on investment (ROI). It should come as no surprise that the Internet—a practice's website, in particular— plays an important role in successfully branding today's proactive practice.

Survey Says: Website Marketing Rules

Results of a survey of practices performed in 2008 and 2011 by BSM Consulting indicate the preferred method to reach consumers is via online marketing vehicles, either a practice website or e-mail communication. The table at right, representing results from 2011, shows that 49 percent of respondents listed their website and e-mail communication as their preferred marketing choice. Practice seminars and outreach programs were a distant second at 12 percent, followed by a patient newsletter at 11 percent.

Note that these results might not be true for all practices. Not all websites are created equal, nor do all websites enjoy top listing or meaningful search engine optimization (SEO) performance. Regardless of its current online presence, any practice that wants to maximize online marketing ROI needs to pay close attention to its website opportunity. If a website is not functioning as a prime marketing tool at present, it must be brought to the forefront as quickly as possible.

Finding an Online Marketing Partner

Constructing an effective website and successfully marketing on the Internet likely will require that a practice find an experienced but affordable professional online-marketing partner. Rare is the practice that internally can meet the challenges of building and maintaining a dynamic and compelling website that continuously meets the ever-changing needs of a fickle consumer base. This is especially difficult for a busy practice that is trying to do more with less in these trying economic times. Highlighted by a need to have employed personnel with unique, nonmedical skill sets, this undertaking understandably is just too difficult and time-consuming for most practices.

In such a case, it is prudent to solicit professional help. Finding the ideal website partner should be approached the same way any business search or decision is made: by having a plan in place that will result in all parties having a clear understanding of goals, objectives, and expectations. It is also critical to have a firm understanding of the request-for-proposal (RFP) process, which will allow a practice to judge and compare potential partners in a meaningful manner.

Step-by-Step Process

To select a marketing partner who will help you reach your online potential, follow this step-by-step process:

Step 1: Determine your overall practice goals and objectives. Embrace and engage in strategic planning, which should be a major component of any practice's comprehensive action plan. Determine short- and long-term goals, and create a mission statement. Conduct a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis. Make sure to understand the local market, and regional and national health care trends. A practice must have a firm understanding of itself, both in the present and in the future, if it is to make sound, forward- looking business decisions.

Step 2: Conduct a marketing assessment. Get specific. Break out your marketing effort and budget in detail. Use your research and conclusions from step one to guide your marketing plan and strategy. Determine how much you will spend on marketing and where you will spend it. Obviously, it pays to spend a substantial portion of your marketing budget developing and expanding your online presence, but remember that there are multiple pieces in the marketing pie. Look at marketing from a comprehensive and complimentary perspective.

Step 3: Perform a Website-needs assessment. Initially, examine possible objectives for your website and assess your needs. Are you interested solely in an aesthetically pleasing site, or do you want a property that will help you: 1.) create the overall brand of your practice to attract new patients; 2.) increase the retention of your current patient base; 3.) drive lead generation; 4.) increase services performed; and, ultimately, 5.) increase revenue? One of your main goals likely will be to gain market visibility. Look at where your website is today and what you want it to be in the future. Where is your site strong? Where is it lacking? The following list highlights the most common areas of opportunity when looking to take your website to the next level:

  • Website Design or Redesign
  • Search Engine Optimization
  • Copywriting
  • Lead Generation
  • Content Management
  • E-Mail Marketing
  • Pay-Per-Click (PPC) Advertising
  • Social Media Marketing (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.)
  • Online PR
  • Directory Advertising
  • Reputation Management

All of these areas are important to consider. It is not necessary to use all these opportunities, but it is important that you use them professionally and effectively so you can enjoy a healthy return on your marketing investment.

Step 4: Search for a qualified online partner.Determine which companies to invite to the proposal process. Once you begin searching for these providers, the volume of prospects likely will be overwhelming. How do you know which vendors to invite into the proposal process for your website project?

  • Word of mouth is always a great way to start. Ask colleagues (in other cities) if they have been happy with the results from their Web vendors.
  • Reach out to your practice consultants and see whom they recommend.
  • Search online for vendors with expertise that matches your online marketing needs.
  • Find competitive websites that rank well online and have the right look and feel for your practice.

Make sure companies you consider have the skill sets and experience to deliver what you need. Use the information you have gathered in the previous steps, and be specific in what you want. Do they have experience in your specialty? Do they offer all the services you want? While you might not be ready to implement all possible online-marketing opportunities today, you might want to reserve those options for the future. In other words, you want your prospective partner to be experienced and well-informed for your future growth.

Step 5: Develop a request for proposal (RFP). The RFP is your official statement to vendors about the services you require. It details your needs and asks vendors to focus their attention on choices most suitable for you. The RFP invites a bidding process whereby the best and most compatible vendors for your practice emerge with their offerings and in turn submit proposals tailored to fulfill your specific needs. Because the RFP is the foundation upon which to build the vendor's relationship with you, it requires careful crafting and review before you distribute it to vendors. See an example of an effective RFP on p. 26.

Step 6: Evaluate the proposal process. After concluding the RFP process, a detailed, internal assessment should begin. Below are a number of important factors to consider, in addition to the price of the services:

  • Rate the vendors on their customer service. Were they friendly and knowledgeable? Did they meet your timelines? Did they give you the information you requested? How detailed is the information? Have they told you exactly what they will do to help you?
  • Compare pricing structures. Make sure you understand the terms of the proposal. Tease out any hidden costs. Do they charge to make changes? Do they track your online success? If so, how?
  • How are they going to demonstrate your ROI? Most companies will supply you with a monthly dashboard with key result or performance indicators, so you will have access to the overall effectiveness of your advertising campaign. What is their timeline to complete the project? Remember, time is money.

Most companies will supply you with a monthly dashboard with key result or performance indicators, so you will have access to the overall effectiveness of your advertising campaign. What is their timeline to complete the project? Remember, time is money.

After careful analysis, you will have a good idea which company is the right fit for your practice and its specific needs. Make sure to review the vendor's portfolio and contact the vendor's references to ask about their satisfaction levels and ROI with this vendor.

Online Opportunity

Internet marketing has become the number one ROI. Are you taking full advantage of this opportunity? Take a critical look at your practice website; be as objective as possible. Is it working for you? Is it all you want it to be? What are you hoping to accomplish with it? Look at the sites of competing practices in your area and at those of your colleagues across the country, and compare yours to theirs. Consider what an online-marketing partner can offer and whether you should contact vendors who might help you meet your goals for a successful practice.

Joe Blahnik is a management consultant with the Allergan Practice Consulting Group, a specialty pharmaceutical company based in Irvine, CA. He consults with dermatology practices in various areas of performance.