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Members wield Web marketing tools

Dr. Jamie Sledd upgraded her Web site earlier this year and couldn't be happier with the results.

"It gives new patients a sense of who we are before they even walk in the door," says Dr. Sledd, a member of the ADA Council on Dental Practice. "They know what the staff looks like and what the office looks like. They're comfortable from the outset."

That's quite an achievement, according to Amy Morgan. A dental consultant for more than 15 years, Ms. Morgan has presented at major dental meetings throughout the country and frequently speaks about the importance of developing an effective online presence.

"If your Web site doesn't establish a relationship with its viewers and lend your practice credibility, all the technology in the world won't save it," says Ms. Morgan. "Falling in love with just the technology is a common mistake dentists make."

Dr. Mark Silverman, a practicing dentist and president of 2d Marketing, a dental and medical business marketing company, agrees. He says even dentists who are on a shoestring budget should be sure their Web site, no matter how basic, can be customized enough that the practice's personality is conveyed.

"Keep patients interested in the practice so when the economy turns around or a friend has a toothache, the name of your practice comes up," Dr. Silverman says.

Dr. Sledd's Web site includes attractive photos and brief profiles of herself and each member of her staff, as well as a statement about the practice's goals. Also included is information about treatments Dr. Sledd provides, new patient information, patient forms and releases, and links to oral health sites, such as the American Dental Association, the Minnesota Dental Association and the Pankey Institute.

Ms. Morgan says that in addition to being a sales tool that generates leads for the practice, a Web site should offer value to existing patients and serve as an educational forum.

"You can't be just one thing or the other," she advises. "Dentists shouldn't fool themselves into thinking that just because patients can download forms and confirm appointments the site will bring in new patients."

She says a specific purpose and intention should be thought out before a dentist even considers mapping out a Web site.

"A Web site is not a silver bullet to practice success," says Ms. Morgan. "A dentist should only have one if he or she has a vision, a strategy and a profile to project."

Questions she recommends dentists ask themselves include:

  • What types of patients do I want to attract through the Web site? Long-term patients? People seeking cosmetic treatment?
  • What makes my practice unique in answering the needs or desires of my target audience?

Hiring a Web site developer

Ms. Morgan recommends dentists consider how the marketing piece of a Web site will convert a visitor's interest into action.

Although many dentists may not know about Web marketing they have to be cognizant of whether the Web developer they're contracting with is savvy to a marketing approach.

"It's the dentist's responsibility to know at least enough to be able to ask the right questions of a potential developer," says Ms. Morgan. "A lot of companies are popping up out there and saying they can do everything. Remember the old adage: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

In addition to securing references and incorporating accountability measures in the contract, Ms. Morgan recommends dentists ask potential Web site developers specific questions about the site's projected outcome, including:

  • What is the expected return on my investment?
  • How will the developer lend additional support if the projected outcome doesn't occur?

One area in which Ms. Morgan says dentists have been fooled before is search engine optimization.

SEO is a process of improving the volume or type of traffic to a Web site from search engines. It's up to the Web site developer to use optimization techniques that include editing content and HTML coding to increase a Web site's relevance to specific key words. Dental practice management experts say SEO is vital because the earlier a site appears in the search results list, the more visitors it will likely receive from the search engine.

Ms. Morgan advises dentists to be wary if a company insists the site will be within the top three of a search engine page at all times because "not everyone can be at the top all the time."

Making the most of e-mail

Anything that keeps the practice in communication with patients creates what Dr. Silverman calls "top of the mind awareness," and is a good idea, he says.

Some dental office systems incorporate integrated software that allows dentists to send newsletters, invoices and appointment reminders. The e-mails can be tracked when they are opened.

The company that hosts Dr. Sledd's Web site accepts patient e-mail addresses uploaded from Dr. Sledd's practice management software and allows patients to access account and treatment information. The way the search engine optimization is set up, the more hits on the site the higher Dr. Sledd's Web site appears on the search page.

"People tell me they like having the information available to them 24/7, whether they're in the office or not," says Tessa Harper, Dr. Sledd's scheduling coordinator. "That way they can confirm future appointments or check information on their own schedule."

The ADA in October will release the newest version of CEO Crash Course, which will include a section on developing an effective Web site. Another publication, Frequently Asked Legal Questions: A Guide for Dentists and the Dental Team, includes a chapter on legal considerations related to Web sites and electronic communications. To purchase these resources, call 1-800-947-4746 or visit