Marketing your medical practice: buying attention vs. earning it??

T1000 on 23 Sep 2008 at 8:41pm

Social media and advertising are not one-and-the-same.  Social media is a path to earning attention from online consumers.  Advertising is an efficient way to buy attention.  There are important distinctions between earning vs. buying attention, including the impact each has on a doctor’s practice. 

When there's a scarcity in new cosmetic surgery and treatment patients, obscurity is the enemy of a cosmetic surgeon, dentist, or dermatologist. 

Getting noticed – traditional marketing declines in effectiveness

Like other businesses, cosmetic surgeons are frequently told that the path to overcoming obscurity and to getting noticed is to create ads and display them to people who want them. 

But ask a good marketer, and he or she will explain that this form of advertising is rapidly losing impact.  A survey of 133 national advertisers who spend $20 billion on advertising found that 78% believed traditional advertising has become less effective. 

A key reason for the performance decline is media saturation. Consumers are under assault by ads and Advertising overloadcommercial media. The average 1970s city dweller was exposed to 500 to 2,000 advertising messages per day. Now, it's up to 5,000 (Yankelovich, October 2006).   Frustrated consumers are quick to embrace new technologies that provide relief by filtering out untargeted advertising messages. Adblock Plus, a free browser plug-in that blocks website ads, gets downloaded more than 300,000 times a month.  80% of people with DVRs skip commercials in recorded programming.  

While new forms of advertising, especially the search engine text ads, are regarded as more effective means of driving leads to a website, it may very well be traffic that doesn’t convert.  At e-commerce firms like, this is called “empty reach,” coined after promotions that drive traffic but not sales (e.g. teens without credit cards visiting the site).

Focus on trust

Even if advertising succeeds in drawing in traffic, it does little to nothing to establish trust.  Without trust, the aesthetics consumer will stay out of the market, seek alternatives, and rely upon the advice of friends. 
Researchers point to numerous factors behind the waning trust factor in the health and beauty market; most are far outside the control of a healthcare provider. 

Consumers are losing faith in the overall healthcare system.  As described in the New York Times (“When Trust in Doctors Erodes, Other Treatments Fill the Void,” Feb '06 ), consumer perceptions are colored by their past medical treatment experiences.

Haggles with insurance providers, conflicting findings from medical studies and news reports of drug makers' covering up product side effects all feed their disaffection, to the point where many people begin to question not only the health care system but also the science behind it. Soon, intuition and the personal experience of friends and family may seem as trustworthy as advice from a doctor in diagnosing an illness or judging a treatment.

Trust continues to erode as empowered healthcare consumers turn to the web to get educated.  A survey by Kelton Research recently concluded that more than 85 million U.S. adults have doubted the opinion of their doctors or other medical professionals when it conflicts with information found online.

big marketing claimAdditional good will and upfront trust has burned off due to personal care marketers over promising and under-delivering.  Research by Wharton Business School Professor Lisa Bolton finds that "deceptive advertising can alter consumers' long-term psychological perceptions about what is and is not true." An indicator of the erosion in trust of aesthetics buyers was a 2005 study by Datamonitor researchers which found that one-third of consumers completely distrusted claims made by cosmeceuticals, and 75% were skeptical and hesitant to make an anti-aging skin care product purchase.   While no studies have focused on cosmetic surgery and treatments, there’s no reason to believe aesthetics services advertising is more trusted then skincare lines. 

New marketing paradigm – earning attention

A doctor interested in fighting obscurity needs to recognize that marketing their practice is NOT equal to advertising.  Marketing a practice is about earning more attention than your rival.
Earning is a key concept here. Anyone with a publicist can buy attention. If you’re willing to shell out for a radio or TV commercial, glossy ads in a magazine, or directory placements in websites or the yellow pages, you can buy your way into consumers’ line of sight.  But none of these secure attention based on a foundation earning consumer trust.  The effect of advertising on a practice is likely to be ephemeral.  

Fig 1: example of how NOT to earn attention

Marketing hype that won't earn trust in your medical practice

Earn attention with social media

Social media is often associated with self-absorbed people who update their Facebook, obsess over "friends lists" and author navel gazing posts about things nobody cares about. 

Yet, one of the most efficient paths for a doctor to earn greater attention is social media.  The blog Technovia points out that social media isn’t something only for “techies”, but is accessible to anyone with a computer and Internet access:

…the tools for earning attention have never been more democratically distributed, from blogging to Facebook to whatever the next thing is. Every employee in every company is empowered, at least in theory, to help your company earn attention. Every employee can be an evangelist, can connect directly with customers and help you - with each tiny blog post - to earn the attention which it's no longer practical to buy.

Earning attention comes about by standing out from rivals.  Since such a large percentage of doctors continue to rely upon old world marketing, there’s a window of opportunity for the doctor who devotes time to social media to truly stand apart from other providers. Social media earns the doctor attention because it demonstrates accessibility, honesty, transparency, candor, and authenticity.   These are precisely the qualities an aesthetics consumer is looking for in a provider and what they find are too often lacking.

Context matters to a medical practitioner

Based on the objective of earning greater attention, doctors should not react by immediately penning a blog.  Writing to an audience of family members and friends may be fine for those interested in sharing details about their recent trip to Europe, but it hardly moves the needle for a business.  Good web strategy is to be contextually relevant and present where prospective customers are, not just trying to drive users to your own website or web property.

Sites like offer doctors a highly targeted opportunity to make a connection with the right consumer. collects questions from real consumers, and provides doctors with a free way to show that they understand, identify with, and respond to potential patient information needs.  Other medical-related social media services like have evolved into powerful networks for doctor-to-doctor communication.

Social media generates Word of Mouth for your medical practice

A valuable outcome from being visible in social media is word-of-mouth.  Word of mouth is marketing gold, nirvana to any business seeking cost-effective ways to acquire new customers. Thus, doctors shouldn’t measure blogging or their activities on sites like using old metrics like “How many patients did you send me?”  It may be frustrating to analytically driven doctors, however the fact is that the benefit from social media is indirect, but very real.  

Social media gives doctors a way to demonstrate communication skills

A recent consumer survey by the American Board of Medical Specialties found that 95% of participants surveyed said that bedside manner or communications skills are very important or important as a key factor when choosing a doctor.   Writing first-person postings on the web go a long way to prove a doctor is indeed an active listener and effective communicator.

Social media isn’t for every doctor

A marketing guru recently told a packed social media conference, “If you can’t do it well, don’t do it.”  In other words, approaching social media to “get new business” the old way, won’t work. For instance, using a user-generated question on to self-promote is the surest way to see time spent online turn into a negative return on investment.  Statements like “I’m the best” break the social media code of authenticity.  Obsessing over the metrics of “hits” and search engine ranking are also sure to disappoint.  Forecasting the ROI is virtually impossible. 

Social media may be best left to those who regard it as a learning process.  Success won’t be overnight or predictable. In the words of Alexander Graham Bell,

The most successful men in the end are those whose success is the result of steady accretion... It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider - and progressively better able to grasp any theme or situation - persevering in what he knows to be practical, and concentrating his thought upon it, who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.

A doctor who has taken this steady path is Los Angeles Facial Plastic Surgeon Dr. Michael Persky.  On Dr Michael “Dr. P” has posted more than 125 answers and dozens of comments in discussion forums.  He has found that greater engagement can be won simply by addressing consumers by name, using the first-person tense.  To consumers this conveys a sense that it’s a conversation, not a marketing plug or come-on. Dr. Persky is tapping into the not-so-secret recipe to earning attention online.


Social media and advertising are not one-in-the-same.  Social media is a path to earning attention from online consumers.  Advertising is an efficient way to buy attention.  There are important distinctions between earning vs. buying attention, including the impact each has on a doctor’s practice.

Earning attention via social media lends to a level of authenticity and accessibility that prospective patients seek in a healthcare provider.  Buying attention leads a prospective patient to possibly considering a doctor for an aesthetic procedure, but it fails to build greater trust.  The impact of social media is not easily measured, but consumer trends point to a future where major aesthetics purchases are increasingly based upon word-of-mouth, the quality of patient-doctor communications, and overall feelings of trust.     

Author information Tom Seery is the President and Founder of, a social media resource for consumers researching cosmetic procedures and beauty-related topics. provides doctors with a free profile and service to connect with these consumers in authentic exchanges of information and opinion.