Between seeing patients and juggling office responsibilities, dentists are busy. With so many things competing for their attention, how can a company break through and gain their loyalty? Better yet, how can a company make a dentist a self-professed ambassador for its brand? In other words, how can you make a dentist your ultimate cheerleader? For SomnoMed, a manufacturer of continuous open airway therapy (COAT) devices, it was a matter of doing something counterintuitive: Somnomed gave some of its best marketing resources to dentist—for free.
Taking stock of an emerging field
Despite its growing prevalence in dental practices, the dental sleep industry is still considered an emerging market. SomnoMed, for example, has been in business since 2004, but only expanded from Australia to the United States in 2006. Since that time, the company has worked with many sleep dentists, but no one, not even SomnoMed, really knows how many sleep dentists are out there or where they are.
That's a big problem if you're trying to sell to sleep dentists, which is exactly what Erin Anthony, associate marketing director for SomnoMed, is paid to do. Without a reliable census of sleep dentists, it's hard to find them and win them over. "There is a finite number of sleep dentists in the United States, and we have a large portion of them, but . . . there is no master list anywhere," Anthony says. Such a list would be invaluable for marketing new products and engaging with customers. When Anthony joined SomnoMed in July 2014, she knew that the company needed to build such a list. She also knew they would have to invest resources to do so. "To entice anyone to give you their information," Anthony says, "you have to give them something that is not just of value, but that is exceedingly more than they would expect."
Relationship marketing is interaction with the customer that emphasizes customer satisfaction and retention rather than sales and promotions. The goal is to create long-term symbiotic relationships with customers in which customers can share feedback and be assured that it will be considered and incorporated in future product and service development.
In building the SomnoMed brand, Anthony also had another business principle in mind: listening to the customer. It's an often-praised principle in business, but as any consumer knows, it's one that is rarely followed wholeheartedly. That's because at the end of the day, business is still a complicated balancing act of give and take. Anthony, however, realized that SomnoMed could give dentists something they were desperately asking for that no one was giving them-marketing knowledge. How did she discover this? Anthony and the SomnoMed team took a close look at frequently asked questions.
"Really, what I saw was the same questions being asked by the customer base over and over again," Anthony explains. "The sleep dentists wanted to know about how to market themselves to patients, particularly if SomnoMed could produce a waiting-room video for them. They wanted to know how to connect to sleep physicians and market themselves so that they could build that relationship and increase referrals."
The breakthrough came when Anthony realized that SomnoMed's marketing knowledge was a resource it could offer to dentists and that offering it to dentists could help guide SomnoMed's own marketing. What followed, however, was not just a plan to increase sales. "I think this was just a natural response to a decision to listen to the customer," says Anthony. "You can, as a big brand, determine what it is that you want the customer to know, or you can listen to the customer, and what they're already asking, and answer the questions, and use that to formulate further strategy down the road."
Developing continuing value
After determining what sleep dentists really wanted and needed, Anthony and the SomnoMed marketing team set out to develop a way to offer that value to dentists in exchange for their information and engagement. The result was SomnoMed's Extreme Marketing Makeover, a contest open for six weeks in January and February 2015. The contest offered a chance to win exactly what so many sleep dentists wanted: expert marketing resources. However, the contest itself was not an end point for SomnoMed. "A lot of contests that companies run, they run them, and then they're over," says Anthony. "There's nothing left for that person who entered to derive any value from."
SomnoMed decided to add value both during the contest period and afterward by offering resources that would continue to benefit dentists, even if they did not win or actually enter the contest. These resources would be made available on an infosite that would replace the contest web page after the entry period ended.
The SomnoMed team didn't envision this infosite as a static entity. Like the contest, it needed to add continuing, significant value to visitors looking to learn more about sleep dentistry and marketing. The SomnoMed team created an editorial calendar for the site to ensure the completeness and relevance of its content. Anthony puts it this way: "At the end of this year, will [the user] have learned something, or [are they] just repeating [themselves] over and over again?" Planning for marketing content more holistically "allows you to refine your content and to make sure you're providing that educational value."
The editorial calendar covered marketing articles as well as webinars, training PowerPoints, and how-to videos for clinical applications and customer service. The team also planned a training session and educational suite for dental hygienists, who are often in the best position to market sleep dentistry to patients who will benefit most. "We get a lot of calls from dental hygienists who [have been] delegated the responsibility of integrating sleep [dentistry] and catering to these patients," explains Anthony. "We want to make sure they have the right information, because a lot of times the end user of the product is going to be interacting with them even more so than the dentist."
Although the site's purpose was to promote SomnoMed's oral devices, Anthony and her team wanted it to remain functional as an information source, "just like any other website where you go to get information" by browsing and learning.
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Launching the contest
SomnoMed did not allocate a large budget for promotion of the contest-they wanted to see how it would perform via word-of-mouth marketing, which is often the most powerful. The marketing department released one email blast and ran one print advertisement. They also promoted the contest on social media. Although these tools did perform well (the email campaign was one of their most successful to date), word-of-mouth was the primary success. Much like relationship marketing relies on connections between individuals and businesses, the entries largely relied on relationships between sleep dentists. To enter, a dentist had to provide his or her information, as well as that of a colleague in sleep dentistry. This person would then receive an e-mail invitation to enter and provide a new referral of his or her own.
At SomnoMed, the contest and infosite represent a significant brand shift, one that has relied on relationships like those described above. The shift has used content and relationship marketing to better meet the needs of SomnoMed's customers and to project its own company voice-something absolutely vital in an era when customers expect access to plenty of information before they contact potential vendors. Anthony draws on her knowledge that "by the time [a customer] calls your company, they've conducted a little over 50% of their research already." They've been greatly influenced by content online as well as talking to their friends, professional peers, or families. "My personal experience in the market taught me that it's a good idea to listen to the customer and what they want. None of our competitors were doing [that]; we weren't even doing [that] in terms of creating an actual outlet and portal for people to come and get the information they need." The need was obvious to Anthony when, shortly after joining the company in July 2014, she created a small dental sleep marketing toolkit. The response from dentists was huge-"We got so much positive feedback," she says.
But changing paradigms is never easy. Businesses are naturally protective of trade secrets and in-house strengths. "One of the things that is absolutely new in this era of doing business is that you have to give your best content away," says Anthony. Giving away content, as strange as it may seem for an oral device company, has paid off thus far. The SomnoMed blog, a major focus of their rebranding efforts, has resulted in a 30% increase in traffic to their site. At press time, recent topics included dental sleep branding, factors to consider for minorities, insurance billing for sleep disorders, and how dental practices can create engaging blogs of their own.
Everyone's a winner, really
Remember the "self-professed brand ambassador" from the opening of this article? That dentist actually exists, and there are more like him. His name is Thomas Armstrong, DDS, of Bakersfield, California. He won the Extreme Marketing Makeover contest by being randomly selected from a pool of about 200 entries. As the winner, Dr. Armstrong received a customized patient testimonial video, a co-branded marketing brochure, SomnoMed Academy training for his entire office, and other winnings valued at $25,000. Because SomnoMed used in-house resources, the actual cost to the company was much less. Dr. Armstrong was so pleased with his experience, according to Anthony, that he requested a special "SomnoMed Ambassador" button to wear to conferences and trade shows. "As the inaugural office, we were over the top with excitement to be part of this program," Armstrong says. "Now that SomnoMed is setting up for the next contest, it's time to join the 'family' if you're not a member yet."
Beyond Dr. Armstrong's winnings, SomnoMed's marketing department will continue to engage and evaluate how to best serve its customers in an ongoing relationship. The entire program can be perhaps best understood by Anthony's own example: Imagine that you meet a new acquaintance who you like well enough, but who has a habit of only showing up when he or she needs something. "You probably aren't going to enjoy that relationship too long," Anthony says, laughing. "But if they're coming to you and looking out for your needs, and trying to provide value, then it's going to cause you to say, 'Hey, this person is different,' or 'this company is different.' And that's what we want to be. We want to be different."