Simple Marketing Strategies for a Successful Orthodontic Practice

Aug. 11, 2009
Orthodontist Ben Burris believes marketing should be a part of everything you do. Day or night, at work or in the community, in the real world or in cyber space, the orthodontist and the entire team are on stage.

by Benjamin G. Burris, DDS, MDS

Marketing. The word strikes terror in the hearts of most orthodontists and conjures up different visions for each of us. The word encompasses so many things and so much variety that it’s difficult to discuss it with others in our field. The connotations are so varied that there is much confusion, and when you throw in the association of marketing with advertising, then it really gets exciting for orthodontists! In this article, I’m going to discuss the simple marketing things we do that have allowed our practice to prosper in a time when orthodontists across the country are struggling. These are examples that work for us, and I know that at least some, when regularly applied, will enhance your new patient flow no matter where you live.

In our office, we believe marketing consists of literally everything we do. Day or night, at work or in the community, in the real world or in cyber space, the orthodontist and the entire team are on stage. What we are creating by our actions is our brand. Consciously or not, if you have practiced any length of time you have created your own unique brand that labels you, your office, and your team in the minds of patients, their parents, their friends, and hopefully beyond to people who have never had contact with your office (assuming it’s positive branding!). This concept is critical. Marketing for orthodontic practices is small ball, not a homerun derby. An effective marketing campaign consists of doing several seemingly insignificant and unrelated things correctly and consistently. This type of guerrilla marketing has staying power once it has been properly established, even if for some reason (heaven forbid) there is a short-term interruption in any of your marketing patterns.

OK, enough generalizations. Let’s look at examples. Here are some of the things we do on a daily, weekly, monthly, and annual basis to establish and maintain our patient flow from referring dentists, existing patients, and the community. Just to give some perspective, well over 80% of our patients come from sources other than dentists, but we still value our referring dentists!

1) Visit the dentists in your area in person. This is an oldie but goodie. There is no substitute for the orthodontist showing up in person at the office of a referring dentist. Seeing the dentist is never my main objective. I take donuts, cookies, lunch, or whatever to the office and spend time with the front office staff and hygienists. If I’m lucky enough and the dentist has time to visit, that’s a bonus, but it is not the main reason I go. If you can befriend the lady at the front desk and the hygienists, then you’re set.

2) Take dentists to lunch. Similar to No. 1. Again, everyone knows they should do this, but most orthodontists don’t make the time. Also, don’t talk ortho on these lunch meetings. Just talk about whatever the dentist (your guest) wants to discuss and find out about him or her as a person. The ortho and dental talk will come if you let it. Finally, make sure you have plenty of time. Never be the one to end the lunch because you have to get back to the office. Adjust your schedule so that the dentist has you one-on-one for as long as he or she wants.

3) Have your team members take lunch to the dentist’s team members. The bonding between teams is invaluable. The dentist’s staff will ask questions of your team they will not ask you, and if properly prepared your orthodontic staff can make big headway into a dental office in this way.

4) Deliver a tooth-shaped birthday cake with a bracket on it to the dentist on his or her birthday. The staff members can make a big deal, take balloons, and even sing to the dentist. This is probably our most popular activity with the dentists.

5) Deliver Christmas baskets. This is another one that has been around forever but it’s still effective if done correctly. Make sure you do baskets that look awesome and truly reflect your practice. Presentation is everything. Doing baskets correctly is labor intensive and time consuming if you do it right, and the payoff is well worth it. Also, make sure to be “the firstest with the mostest” as a famous general once said regarding how to win a battle. Be over the top, wear a Santa hat, and start delivering on the first of December so that you get the referrals for the rest of the month. If you wait until the week of Christmas you’re missing out big time! If flamboyant is not your style, then have a staff member come with you and make noise while you’re there to show you care. I can’t tell you how many times our team members are told by dental staffers that they know I care because I show up every year with a Santa hat, baskets for the doctors, and gifts for the dental team members. Speaking of which, every dental team member gets an individually wrapped gift with his or her name on it!

6) Give Omaha steaks. We have them delivered to referring dentists’ homes. We try to hit the ones who have been doing the best for us recently. They love it.

7) We give handwritten notes from the doctor to each new patient we see and each patient that we debond. Staff members prepare the envelopes and put the cards on our desk. This only takes a couple of minutes, but the patients and parents really appreciate it. We used to call our patients, but we now text them and have found that the note “souvenirs” are useful and have staying power because the kids keep them and show them to their friends. The treatment coordinators (TCs) also write notes to their patients.

8) All the TCs have iPhones that are owned by the practice and we pay for the service. The patients all have their “business” numbers and are constantly texting questions, communicating by e-mail, and discussing issues on Facebook (all things we encourage). Kids these days are technically adroit and appreciate that we communicate with them in their preferred medium. The phones also allow us to discuss any and all issues as a group in e-mail form, and I know we make much better decisions when the TCs are consulted. They’re on the front lines and we orthodontists aren’t always as in touch with what happens during the new patient visit after the DX is done as we like to think we are.

9) Conduct electronic communication with patients. This is critical. I was always a big believer in calling patients before appointments as a courtesy. I thought it was appreciated but I’ve found that many people (including myself) would rather get an e-mail or text than the interruption of a phone call. We also save big bucks by sending our newsletters, Christmas card, birthday wishes, contest announcements, and more electronically. Not having to pay for printing, letterhead, and postage pays for the software and hardware to make this possible in no time. We use Ortho Sesame’s system for this online communication.

10) Offer flexible financing and online payments. These are huge factors when patients are choosing an orthodontist. Over the last few years we have eased up on the traditional down payment requirements and found that our delinquencies have not increased proportionately, which makes us happy and makes braces possible for more people in our community. Along with more liberal financing requirements we have implemented a system where all “in house” payments are on a credit card or checking account. This makes it easy for patients and us and I’m convinced automatic drafts cut down on delinquencies. We use OrthoBanc for this service.

11) Keep a Facebook page for the office that is maintained and current. It should be monitored hourly and questions and comments answered in a timely manner. We have also purchased a video camera that is compact, easy to operate, and designed for Web use. We have two team members assigned to get testimonial videos from patients and post them regularly. Nothing will connect with a teenager like a teenager. We edit and put the best ones on our Web site.

12) Develop a practice Web site and Web positioning. This must be state-of-the-art, up-to-date, and updated regularly. Web site design, search engine optimization, Google adwords, Google metrics, and other interesting words are beyond the scope of this article, but there are several companies who can get you set up. We use Ortho Sesame for our Web sites.

13) Conduct patient contests. This is a concept as old as the hills, but we have one going all the time. From pictures of patients wearing our T-shirt in exotic places, to guessing how many jellybeans are in a jar, the patients love contests, which are a great marketing tool. They’re effective because when we start one, have a winner, end one, or just want to talk about a contest we send out e-mails, talk about it on Facebook, put it on our Web site, and do testimonials with patients talking about what they’ll do when they win the grand prize. This is well worth the effort.

14) Offer Invisalign. For the first few years I was in practice I did not use Invisalign and had no interest whatsoever. Ultimately I got tired of patients coming in and asking for it. I have been an Invisalign provider for a couple years now and am an ardent believer. It was difficult to get the hang of treating cases with a removable aligner (comparable to learning how to do a Herbst appliance), but once I got a few cases under my belt it got easier. Also, no one has the name recognition, market position, or patient referral system that Align Technology has for Invisalign or Invisalign Teen. It’s well worth the “extra” cost for aligners when you figure marketing, new patient flow, number of appointments, and lack of emergencies. Invisalign has done a great job of branding and this is helpful when expanding your own brand.

15) Offer Wild Smiles. Like Invisalign, I was slow to warm to Wild Smiles. I’m a big fan of self ligation and didn’t really want to go back to using O-ties. I’m using Wild Smiles heavily now (after our TCs told us we were stupid not to use them and we finally listened) and they are a big hit. A bracket is a bracket when it comes to moving teeth. The kids now get the all-important colors when they get their braces, which we had resisted for years. Everyone is happy, it is a great marketing tool, and the technical aspects are no big deal. I highly advise you look into them as they are a great branding aid.

16) Offer bucks/wooden nickels/credits to reward good behavior. We give Burris Bucks and Fergus Fives (Dr. Kelly-Gwynne Fergus is my partner) to the kids for good brushing, A’s on their report card, wearing elastics, breaking nothing, and getting a cleaning and having the hygienist sign a form. The kids, and adults for that matter, go nuts over these things and it gives us leverage to get them to do what we want them to do. The items they earn with their bucks are all embossed with our practice logo and go a long way to reinforce our brand. Beach towels, baseball hats, and hooded sweatshirts are among our most popular items that are highly sought after and worn with pride.

17) Develop patient appreciation days. We do these annually and have great luck renting out an entire movie theater (a multiplex actually) and giving each kid in the practice three tickets: one for him or her, one for mom, and one for a friend with crooked teeth! I’m always amazed by how appreciative the patients’ parents are that we have a party in their honor.

18) Give to charity. Like most orthodontists, we do charity work. However, it is no longer good enough to do free cases in secret: you must be seen to do good works. Orthodontists hold a very special place in the community, make a good living, and have a responsibility to give back. There are a number of ways to do good for those in need. You can start your own program or choose one of several of the national orthodontic nonprofits. Smile for a Lifetime is the program in which we participate. We have found that having a local board of directors composed of community leaders and media members truly integrates the program and insures success.

19) Get involved in the community. Everyone says it but how many orthodontists and teams actually get out there and do it? Writing a check is not enough. Just like with charity, the orthodontist and team need to be seen contributing to and interacting with the community.

20) Offer a referral reward program. We encourage patients to send their friends to see us if they are happy with their treatment, and we reward them with a Sonic or Starbucks gift card for doing so. A $5 coffee or slushy is not much of a reward, but the fact that we take the time to send them a thank you means a great deal and reinforces good behavior!

21) Offer comp cards. We have complementary new patient visit cards that we give to general dentists, their team, and the public. This card entitles the holder to a visit to our office, an exam, and records (including radiographs). People in general like to have something in their hand when they show up or call. This creates value for the appointment and increases the likelihood that they’ll show up. It also gives us a way to reward someone for referring a new patient to us because the referrer writes his or her name on the back of the card.

22) Make fliers. Low tech but very effective. The secret here is not too many words and a nice picture. I carry them around and when I’m in an appropriate place I ask if I can hang one up. My team members do the same. You would be amazed at how much traction we get from this.

23) Perform self ligation. I’ve seen the studies about how self ligation is no faster, better, does not have less friction, and on and on. I disagree, but that is not the issue here. An archwire change takes about 20% of the time with self ligation as it does for twin brackets and that gives team members time to talk to the patient and parents. I’m advocating self ligating brackets here for marketing reasons, not clinical (and I’m certainly no clinical guru). As I said earlier, a bracket is a bracket but the take-home message is for the active appointment to include time for the doctor and clinical assistant to talk to the patient and parents. In case you were wondering, we prefer GAC Innovation-R for several reasons. (E-mail and ask me why. I really don’t want to open up an argument here.)

24) Pay attention to staff appearance. The team that looks professional will be treated as professionals. I’m not a fan of scrubs so we don’t wear them. We have a uniform with several different, brightly colored shirts and a calendar to keep the team straight. If you prefer scrubs, that’s fine, but they MUST be coordinated, and it would be great if they were clean and pressed so they don’t look like the pajamas worn to bed the night before.

25) Pay attention to office ambiance. This is crucial. I’m not saying you have to do major construction, but a coat of paint every 20 years or so whether it needs it or not, new carpet now and again, removing the sliding glass window separating the patient “waiting room” from the front office, removing the clutter from desks and counter tops, and generally a clean and warm feel to your office will make a huge difference.

26) Accept assignment of benefits. This is probably one of the single biggest ways to grow a practice. I’m not going to go into the specifics because it’s different in different places and I’m not advocating taking a drastically reduced fee or PPO. I’m just saying take assignment of benefits. You don’t have to be a provider or abide by the insurance companies’ fee restrictions — just take assignment. I know it’s the same money whether the patient gets it and hands it to you or it’s sent to you, but patients have a mental block and will go to someone who takes assignment almost every time over someone who doesn’t. Patients in our country have such an insurance mindset that this is the one financial aspect I’ve not been able to find a way around. You can charge more, have a higher down payment, and shorter payout and get away with it if your customer service and product are excellent, but not taking assignment of benefits will kill you in this day and age.

I’ve listed a few of the things that, in my opinion, will help grow your practice without billboards, radio commercials, or TV ads (not that there is anything wrong with these should you choose to spend the money). People ask me all the time how we do what we do and what “the one thing” is that we do that enables us to continue to grow and prosper. My answer is that the “one thing” is do the little things, do them daily, do them correctly, and continue to do them over the long haul. This is not rocket science but it does take a willingness to make sure it gets done properly. The future, she’s a comin’! Get on board or get run over!

Dr. Benjamin G. Burris is an orthodontist practicing in northeast and central Arkansas. He is a Fellow of the AAO, and member of the ADA and the Schulman Study Group. Contact him at [email protected] or visit his Web site at