Advertising Strategies: What Works Well, What Doesn’t Work



Author: Karen Appold

When looking to increase business at an audiology practice by advertising, there are many different mediums to choose from. For Jana Austin, AuD, doctor of audiology and owner, Allison Audiology & Hearing Aid Center, PC, Houston, Texas, newspaper and direct mail advertisements have generated the most traffic, with direct mail efforts being the most profitable. “We choose sections in the newspaper that have a regular viewership, such as city/state news and senior sections, and specify local zip codes for mailing efforts,” she says. “This has been more successful than a broad approach because we have been in Houston for almost 20 years,” she says.

Dr. Austin feels fortunate to have numerous neighborhoods near the practice, as referrals have been its lifeblood. “Many times the print media provides the final push for patients to come in, although typically patients know or know of a patient who has been to our office before,” she says.

Greg Frazer, Au.D., a doctor of audiology with Pacific Specialists in Los Angeles, Calif., also finds newspapers to be a top choice. “You can target the population that you want, such as age 65 and above or an affluent area,” he says. “It is mailed right to their home and potential customers will have all of the information there.”

Direct mail can work even a little better than newspaper ads since readers may miss the newspaper ad or throw it away after reading it. However, many patients keep a high-quality direct mail piece. “We see patients who collect our direct mail pieces and those from other offices as well,” Dr. Frazer says. “They bring them all to their appointment when they are finally ready to do something about their hearing loss.” This is why it’s important to market continuously and consistently. You want them to go to you, and sometimes it is the last ad that they call.

Audra N. Branham, Au.D., doctor of audiology, Hearing Innovations, Youngstown, Ohio, has different sentiments regarding newspaper ads, however. She would actually rank them as least effective. “We have tried both top-of-mind/branding ads as well as call-to-action ads and neither have had any noteworthy success over time,” she says.

With more and more people researching online and using the Internet as a tool, Allison Audiology & Hearing Aid Center is currently in the process of updating its website and enhancing its online presence. “We need to stay ahead of the curve because even if our patients are not searching online, their family members are,” Dr. Austin says.

Dr. Branham has found the business’ website and social media to be the most effective advertising mediums, especially with search engine optimization. “The future is digital and with more patients as well as their friends and family members looking online for resources, it’s important to keep a strong online presence,” she says.

Hearing Innovations is currently exploring the possibility of advertising online, including on the local newspaper’s website, news station websites, and Facebook, since other practices have reported great results in getting new patients to call their offices. You can purchase ads at a flat rate, called ‘pay per click’ advertising, so you are only charged when someone clicks on the ad and can set a maximum budget.

Knowing that digital advertising is the future, Hearing Innovations recently asked the local newspaper to write and publish a lengthy feature article with photos about one of the practice’s audiologists who traveled to China on a mission trip to fit patients living in poverty with hearing aids. The practice used this article as its first boost post on Facebook. “I added a link to our Facebook page to the digital version of the article and ‘boosted’ the post by paying $20,” Dr. Branham says. “That $20 helped that posting to reach more than 5,500 people (our average was 30 to 75 people previously) and added five new ‘likes’ to our page. It was well worth it and something I will definitely utilize in the future.” This kind of activity can greatly increase your online presence when a new patient searches for somewhere to go, getting your practice’s name at the top of the list.

Dr. Frazer is also a proponent of search engine optimization and has focused on keywords such as hearing loss, hearing aids, dizziness, and vertigo. “When potential customers type in a keyword, hopefully we will come up on the first page,” he says. However, at this time he is not sure why it hasn’t been as effective as expected despite an information technology team’s efforts to constantly optimize these words in articles about the practice.

Dr. Frazer uses other mediums, but hasn’t found as much success with them. For instance, he has a brief listing in the Yellow Pages. “People don’t refer to this book like they used to,” he says, adding that trying color, bold type, and so forth didn’t make a difference. “Now they do a google search on their smart phone.”

He’s also used the website ZocDoc.com with disappointing success. “Patients can search for an audiologist, but if they type in ‘hearing loss’ or ‘tinnitus,’ it still pops up with ear, nose, and throat specialists as well,” he says. He’s had some success with e-mail newsletters, however they are targeted to existing patients.

Ineffective Mediums
If a medium doesn’t work well, Dr. Austin advises considering why it didn’t work. “There are many variables in marketing; it typically is not the medium that’s problematic, but more so the audience, the message, the components of the piece, and so forth,” she says.

For example, Allison Audiology & Hearing Aid Center routinely receives opportunities to advertise in various publications, but its subscriber demographics don’t fit the practice’s ideal patient, therefore it’s not a good match. “It would be unfair to say that the medium is not effective, and more appropriate to say that we did not do a good job of gathering information before making a marketing commitment if we were to run an ad and not receive any calls or traffic,” she says. According to Dr. Branham, effectiveness is relative to your goal. “If your goal is top-of-mind advertising, billboards are quite effective on a busy street where passersby can’t help but see them,” she says. “However, they can be least effective for a call to action because it’s harder for patients to stop and write down the information for the call to action while driving.”

Most Effective Messaging
Allison Audiology & Hearing Aid Center does a mix of messaging to ensure that it communicates all of the pertinent information to ideal patients. “We focus on establishing trust and professionalism in our ads, therefore we tend to lean toward ads that showcase our team, our history with the community, and broad technology (not product-specific, but more on updates with how hearing devices have improved in general),” Dr. Austin says. “We have found that these ads tend to draw more than price-driven ads alone.”

Dr. Austin believes that price tends to get overlooked among all the “noise,” whether it’s in the paper, a direct mail piece, or other medium. “Establishing an immediate rapport with a potential new patient when the focus is on expert hearing healthcare and how you can help her replace a $XYZ off offer gets noticed,” she says. “Again, there is more to the message, but we have found that when the bulk of the content is “$XYZ off, we do not get the response we are aiming for.” Dr. Branham, on the other hand, has found that mentioning price can make a big difference. When stating that there are options as low as $30 per month or that hearing solutions begin at $995, or by adding that financing options are available, it has helped encourage patients to use a technology either for the first time or to upgrade to a new technology sooner. Dr. Branham has also found that promoting the fact that the practice treats tinnitus has been a large draw in the past two years. “As technology has become available that can help patients better manage tinnitus, we have seen an increase in these patients as we are better equipped to handle their needs,” she says. “Tinnitus is so prevalent that whenever we mention options for tinnitus sufferers, we notice a large response to our ads, regardless of the pitch.”

In addition, Dr. Branham says when mentioning that an out-of-town expert will be available at an event, such as a manufacturer representative or audiologist, it always seems to draw a larger crowd.

Dr. Frazer has a different approach—that is promoting the fact that better hearing offers a better life. “For untreated hearing loss, there is a higher incidence of anxiety or depression, cognitive dysfunction, paranoia, withdrawal, and so forth that can be reversed by using hearing aids,” he says. “It’s important to keep stimulation to the brain in order to prevent cognitive decline. If you don’t use it, you lose it. You’ll have a better quality of life. If you can’t hear, you can’t participate and enjoy life to its fullest.”

Least Effective Messaging
Unlike others, Dr. Frazer chooses to not mention price. “A lot of audiologists are still promoting price, but if you compete on price point there will always be someone less expensive,” he says. Ideally, patients of Pacific Specialists will not be so much focused on cost, rather they will want to hear better and be willing to spend the money to hear better. One reason for this is that he hasn’t found a low-end inexpensive technology that works well.

Dr. Frazer also appreciates patients who are more focused on having an expert properly fit a hearing aid. “Many factors play a role in how well a device fits, such as the material, canal length, venting, programming, size and length of tube, and so forth,” he says. “There are so many factors that you need to be aware of. That’s why patients are paying you for your professional expertise and time. And if you do it wrong, it’s hard to correct.”

He likens this to a patient having hip surgery. Even if a patient is getting a great implant, if the surgeon doesn’t do a good job the patient won’t have a good outcome.

Dr. Austin admits that promoting pricing has its limitations. “An ad that focuses solely on price tends to not get the same response as an ad focused on the benefits of an improved technology or an ad focused on our clinic, team, reputation, and long-standing history in the area,” she says. “This is because so many ads focus on price and get lost in the shuffle; but ads with quality content get noticed.”

Dr. Branham found that branding for too long without switching to a call to action from time to time resulted in a decrease in new patients over several months. “We immediately switched to some call to action items such as promoting new wireless technology and its benefits and stating that we treat tinnitus. The number of new patients began to rise with these ads,” she says. “I think any messaging that is done for too long can become ineffective. If the message doesn’t change, patients don’t stop to take note of your message after a period of time.”

Regardless, the market is always changing, Dr. Branham continues. “We have replicated events, finding great success the first time with little to no results the second time,” she says. “There is no magic formula for marketing that can be applied at all times. It’s a matter of realizing your community and its needs and evaluating which mediums are better for the area.” The most important aspect of marketing is consistently tracking results to find the best method for your area and target patient base. Without tracking each and every month and event, it’s easy to get off track in your messaging.

Positive vs. Negative Advertising
Overall, audiologists favor positive advertising. “Any negative cues in ads can create negative attitudes or perceptions from potential patients toward the idea of the individual ad itself,” Dr. Branham says. “They can also cause detrimental negativity toward hearing evaluations, hearing loss, hearing aids, treatment options, audiologists, and/or audiology as a whole.”

Dr. Branham views the negative cues in ads as a scare tactic—which helps no one in the long run. “Patients don’t want to go to a hearing care professional and feel anything other than confidence and trust in their audiologist’s skills and experience,” she says. “Negative ads don’t promote a welcoming attitude with patients.”

Dr. Austin tends to lean toward highlighting the effects of better hearing and steers clear of any negative connotations, whether it’s about competition (big box, online, or down the street). “Depending on the piece, we highlight our expertise, business history, patient testimonials, and so forth,” she says. “Depending on the message and medium, negative tones can take the message to the wrong place. We prefer to highlight the positives and benefits, and appeal to that emotion. The only times we may incorporate negativity would be the negatives associated with hearing loss, and I don’t particularly classify that as negative marketing. Even if we went that route, we would discuss the solution and provide the positive light, almost as a before and after.”

Pacific Specialists’ ads mention the negative consequences of hearing loss if left untreated, but also convey the positive benefits—such as the fact that negative consequences can be reversed with hearing aids.

Dr. Frazer sees no point in using euphemisms that mean the same thing—such as “hearing aid” versus “instrument.” “You can’t fool people,” he says. “People are smart. A rose is a rose.” Instead, focus on explaining what hearing loss is, the benefits of amplification from a hearing device, and the importance of being ready to try a technology.

He believes that focusing on breaking down the negative connotation of wearing hearing aids is key. Studies have shown that people view wearing a hearing aid as admitting that you’re getting old and are disabled. “Hearing loss has a stigma, like being in a wheelchair,” he says. “But it really depends on how a person personally feels about it.”

There is external stigma (how others feel about hearing loss and hearing aids) and internal stigma (how someone personally feels about his or her hearing loss and hearing aids). “In the long run, it does not matter how others perceive us, it is more important about how we personally think others perceive us,” Dr. Frazer says. “Patient perception is reality.” Dr. Frazer has tried using manufacturer’s suggestions to overcome stigmas with little success. “People see products in a broad price range,” he says. “They are looking for something about a product that will differentiate it from other products.”

A Patient’s Perspective
There’s lots of ways to inform prospective clients about your practice and what it can offer. For patients, some mediums work a lot better than others. Here, two patients weigh in.

Newsletters
Newsletters give insight into new products, the latest technologies, and how they work. “This is a great way to inform patients who might need to upgrade a device,” says Janice Platt, of Struthers, Ohio, a patient of Audra N. Branham, Au.D., in Youngstown, Ohio. “But a newsletter would most likely only be mailed to patients who currently have hearing aids, so as an advertising medium to get new patients, it won’t work.”

Television
TV ads can be effective, if informative. Platt prefers to see information about hearing aids, office hours, what insurances are accepted, and if payment plans are offered. “I like to see one-on-one interaction between the doctor and the patient, showing how comfortable people are wearing hearing aids and talking to the doctor about it,” Platt says. On the other hand, Janet Ashman, an audiology patient from Boardman, Ohio, who also sees Dr. Branham, doesn’t find TV commercials effective. “I tend to mute them as most of them are annoying,” she says. In addition, a person with hearing loss may not be able to hear commercials.

Internet
When looking for an audiologist, many people begin by looking on the Internet. “A website is vital to get yourself out there,” Platt says. “Having information on it regarding hearing loss, types of hearing devices to help those particular types of hearing loss, the technology behind them, and a general idea of price would be helpful,” Platt says. “Of course, stating a practice’s hours and physician’s names is important as well, as is information regarding financial assistance. But many elderly folks don’t have a computer and therefore don’t have access to the Internet, so web sites wouldn’t be effective for this population, Ashman points out.

Newspapers
More and more people have stopped receiving daily newspapers, so they are hit or miss. An ad needs to be informative in order to be effective. “If it contains information about hearing devices, technology, and how it improves hearing, that would enhance the ad,” says Platt. An ad simply featuring the doctor’s names, photos, and office hours wouldn’t be engaging.

Billboards
Billboards bring attention to a particular doctor. They provide an address and a reminder that the office is nearby or available. “Billboard ads don’t bring me to a doctor, but they do make me familiar with them by seeing their pictures,” Platt says.

Advertorial magazines
While Platt hasn’t seen an audiology practice ad in advertorial coupon magazines, she believes that they would be a good medium to bring attention to a hearing facility and what it offers.

Radio
Platt has heard Dr. Branham speak on a radio talk show. “Her show was informative and interesting,” Platt recalls. “I think doing this occasionally or advertising via a call in to a radio host would be effective if the physician provides helpful information.”

The Meaning of the Message Regardless of the medium, providing an appropriate pitch is important. “Showing people having a hard time hearing, or in some way belittling them because they can’t hear, is not effective,” Platt says. “Many people have reservations about wearing hearing aids, so it is important to make people feel comfortable with having this need, just as we are with glasses.”

Platt is intrigued with ads that show how a hearing device will change her life, how it works, and the type of technology. “I received a newsletter explaining one that I could wear in the shower or while swimming. That interested me!” she says. Platt would also pay attention to an ad that showed a hearing aid that wasn’t visible or showed the types of devices available. “Explaining the ease of use of a hearing aid would help, too,” she says. “Letting people know that the device will filter out background noise and raise and lower the volume as needed is essential.”

Ashman feels that pricing is utmost in people’s minds, followed by technology and office location.

Positive or Negative? An ad needs to be positive to garner Ashman’s attention. “You want to feel good about choosing a provider,” she says. “Hearing aids are an investment in a person’s well-being and advertisements should point toward that well-being.” Platt agrees. “Showing how hearing devices can improve my life, their ease of use, and how I will get the attention I need from the doctors is important. Positive is always better advertising in any business.”    
Karen Appold is a medical writer based in Lehigh Valley, PA. For more information, visit her website at www.WriteNowServices.com or e-mail kappold@msn.com.