Word-of-mouth dentist referrals

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word-of-mouth dentist referrals
Photos: Ruslan – 123RF, dekzer007 – 123RF

Practice owners can find it difficult to know how much time and effort to put into advertising their business. But could the most effective strategy come free of charge and be sitting right under their noses? By Tracey Porter

Dentists help patients with what’s in their mouths and patients help dentists with what comes out of theirs, according to a recent study.

A research paper, authored by a group of academics at the University of Sydney School of Dentistry that delves into health advertising, suggests word-of-mouth is more effective than testimonials and conventional ads, when it comes to spruiking health services.

The paper ‘What do Australian health consumers believe about commercial advertisements and testimonials? A survey on health service advertising’, was published in BMC Public Health.

It found nearly two-thirds of the 1564 people surveyed (64.3 per cent), agreed that word-of-mouth recommendations from a known individual were more reliable than testimonials, with less than half—48.5 per cent—agreeing that healthcare comparison websites were a trustworthy source of information (with 18.8 per cent disagreeing).

This tallies with the accepted wisdom that word-of-mouth is the most valuable form of marketing because it leverages the power of personal recommendations. 

When the person endorsing a product or service is someone you know and trust, the spruiking is seen as credible, genuine and authentic compared to the sales pitch given by more typical forms of advertising.

One of the research paper’s authors, Sydney Dental Hospital and Oral Health Services clinical professor Alex Holden, says the public do indeed value others’ experiences when making their choices. “We find that recommendations on social media and review media such as Google reviews are highly valuable in the context of their social capital, and this is what consumers have told us when we conducted research on how testimonials are being used.”

On the other hand, most respondents did not trust testimonials from strangers with 67.7 per cent saying they were lacking in reliability and that they should not be used in healthcare in the same manner they are used in other industries. 

Only 44.8 per cent of participants reported they felt confident they could spot a review not written by a genuine user of a service.

WoM is like a wild horse. You can’t always control where it goes—or if it goes at all. And what if it’s only bringing you in the s**tkickers and not really the clients you really want? That’s where a real marketing plan and alternate strategies shine.

Casey Jones, principal, CJ&CO

Perhaps it is just as well the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) forbids dentists and other registered health professionals using testimonials on channels they control, as part of their advertising.

However, testimonials are allowed on third-party websites which dentists don’t control, which is where social media platforms come into their own.

Dental marketing specialist, CJ&CO agency principal Casey Jones, says word-of-mouth is “like the golden ticket” for dentists, however it comes with one big caveat.

“WoM is like a wild horse. You can’t always control where it goes—or if it goes at all. And what if it’s only bringing you in the s**tkickers and not really the clients you really want? That’s where a real marketing plan and alternate strategies shine.”

Jones says although AHPRA rules forbidding direct testimonials are clear, the likes of Google reviews make it a ‘tricky space’. “Social proof (is) brilliant for trust. But bending the rules? That’s playing with fire. Although AHPRA doesn’t seem to do a whole lot about it … It’s something the industry needs to have a good chat about.”

When it comes to using paid social media for advertising, Jones says he often has to curb the enthusiasm of dental practice managers. “A lot of them come to us saying, ‘Let’s do Facebook ads’—probably because that’s what the big brands we all know and love are doing. But I always ask, ‘When did you last jump on Facebook to find a doctor, or a speech pathologist?’”

Jones says out-of-home advertising, which includes billboards or ads on buses and bus stops, often works best for dentists marketing in their local communities “when paired with the right digital strategy”.

Professor Holden says his own experience advertising a relatively new dental practice in a busy and saturated part of Sydney that he purchased with his wife, has given him invaluable insights as to what works, outside of the research.

“Since running the clinic, the most effective ‘marketing’ for us has been sincere community engagement. It is higher human cost but builds greater trust and more sincere connections with patients, including those who already access the clinic.”

“Dentistry is a niche human service that sits somewhere between a grudge purchase and an essential health service. We aren’t selling cream cakes, and advertising today may generate a lead in six months or longer, so the return on investment can be hard to track.”

Professor Alex Holden, Sydney Dental Hospital and Oral Health Services

The normal rules of advertising for consumer goods and services simply don’t apply to dentistry, he says. “Dentistry is a niche human service that sits somewhere between a grudge purchase and an essential health service. We aren’t selling cream cakes, and advertising today may generate a lead in six months or longer, so the return on investment can be hard to track.”

Consumers need to look closer at value than they do price when assessing dentists, he says. “Special offers will attract patients looking for a good deal, not necessarily those looking for the best care, so it would be unfortunate to use this approach and then lament that no-one seems to value the extra time you might take during an exam. 

“There are no shortcuts in building a successful dental practice. I see a lot of practices using unrefined advertising to try and attract patients—advertising way out of area etcetera. 

“If this works for your business, great. My advice would be to focus on your local community, establishing a relationship so that when someone thinks about a dentist, they naturally think of you. Being omnipresent and helpful in your engagement is key to this.”

This largely synchs with the conclusions Professor Holden and his fellow researchers drew from their survey.

“The data demonstrated that many health consumers felt that while commercial health advertising was helpful, it was also confusing,” the authors wrote.

“While the advertising of healthcare services might have educational effects and be superficially empowering, advertising is primarily intended to sell, not educate. 

“This research demonstrates that there is significant potential for healthcare advertising to mislead.”

The researchers recommended any future developments in regulatory health advertising policy need to consider how healthcare consumers “might be better protected from misleading and predatory advertising practices”.  

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