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Pandemic marketing lessons

Optimising online content and ethically adjusting to market changes are keys to success

Howard Larkin

Posted: Thursday, April 1, 2021

Around the world, cataract and refractive surgery clinics that focused on online marketing fundamentals saw patient inquiries – and procedure conversions – rise as the COVID-19 pandemic progressed in 2020.

Their experience shows what clinics can do to position themselves to weather a looming global recession and any other downturns, said Rod Solar, director of LiveseySolar Healthcare Marketing, London, UK.

Indeed, recent market research and interviews with surgeons around the world suggest that surgery volumes are returning to pre-pandemic levels and elective procedure volume may even be higher, creating opportunities for practices that can ethically adapt to changing conditions, said Kristine Morrill, president of Medevise Consulting, Strasbourg, France. Solar and Morrill addressed an international audience of ophthalmologists in the ESCRS Practice Management & Development Webinar “Rebuilding Your Practice in a Challenging Environment”, which took place in January and is available free of charge online.

CATCHING THE ONLINE WAVE
Early in the pandemic, Solar and his associates laid out potential futures as the pandemic progressed, and how the cataract and refractive surgery markets might respond. They correctly projected that after a period of denial and panic, interest in surgery would rebound after the initial shutdown.

At the webinar Solar showed the volume of searches on terms such as “laser eye surgery” and “cataract surgery” throughout 2020. They dipped markedly in the first three months of the pandemic followed by a gradual rise to close to pre-pandemic levels for refractive surgery that remained steady throughout the year. Cataract searches rebounded to a lesser degree, possibly because the population is older and more likely to limit activities due to pandemic restrictions, he said.

Solar also presented data from 11 refractive and cataract practices around the world that successfully increased online traffic as well as conversions – and a couple that were not successful. He found that the successful clinics all shared three online marketing approaches: new content and website design; search engine optimisation and blogging; and implementation of an online “lead magnet”, which is an interactive self-test along the lines of “which cataract or laser surgery is right for you”.

Several also offered online consultations.

“All of these things were done so they could ride this wave of renewed interest and actually do better than they anticipated,” Solar said. By contrast, practices that hibernated didn’t do as well. Paid traffic, or advertising, also helped generate new leads where it is allowed.

STRATEGIES THAT INCREASE TRAFFIC
Solar expanded on several strategies the successful clinics adopted, and how they drove increased conversions to paid appointments and procedures.

Fresh and fast new website designs. Keeping web content up to date is essential both to keep visitors engaged and to keep your site in search results. Viewer expectations for web content are rising and sites must be redesigned periodically to keep up. Successful clinics “kept [web sites] fast and they kept them current. That’s super important now”, Solar said.

Focusing on video content. On websites and social media, visitors are much more likely to engage with and respond to video content, which, like all content, must be kept up to date and topical. “The more video you put out there the more they get to know you and the more likely they are to convert down the road,” Solar said.

Optimising existing content. Search engine optimisation is critical so that your site shows up high on searches for common terms, such as “laser eye surgery” “Lasik” and “cataract surgery”. This is key to riding any interest wave.

Offering a “lead magnet”. Online interactive self-tests, addressing questions such as “which cataract surgery is right for me”, have worked so well that Solar is seeing up to 15% of conversions to appointments from them. But following through is critical.

“On the back of a self-test you must follow up with email,” Solar said. Automated systems are best, he said. On the other hand, cost calculators were of no value. “Don’t do cost calculators, they are useless.”

Offering online bookings. “If you take one thing away from this presentation it is offer online booking,” Solar said. “Many people still call but this has a huge impact. Now I am seeing that most of our leads on web sites are coming from booked-online consultations.”

At clinics that adopted online booking, callback forms that ask for patients’ contact information died almost completely, he said.

Offering virtual consultations. At some locations, 10-to-15% of face-to-face appointments began with online consultations, Solar said. “It opens the ability to engage with patient who might a little bit scared walking into clinics and being out and about.”

None of these practices did any print, TV or radio advertising, or cut prices to increase business. Yet these online strategies are important not so much because they worked in 2020 but because they will work in future times of adversity, Solar said.

“Everything they did will help them succeed thorough the global recession that will follow the global pandemic.”

ETHICALLY BALANCING THE MESSAGE
Medevise’s Morrill noted that the pandemic has two sides for the business of ophthalmology. “In a way it has been a boom. We see consumers with more money and time underscored by the understanding that glasses and face masks are not particularly compatible things.”

Because they can’t spend money on holidays and travel some have more to spend on themselves, as well as time to investigate refractive surgery options, she added.On the other hand, shutdowns, reduced patient numbers in the clinic and the need for PPE, disinfection and COVID-19 tests raise costs while reducing facility capacity, Morrill noted. Even so, a survey she conducted in the US and Asia found that surgery volumes are returning to pre-pandemic levels, and there is growing interest in refractive surgery in Europe.

All of which presents an ethical question for marketing messaging: How do you balance encouraging doing elective procedures with the realities of managing the current public health crisis?

Morrill advised making sure that both ideas – “yes we want to help you see better” and “we are doing everything to keep you safe in this environment” – are featured together on your web landing page and elsewhere. Adding details, such as your new office hours and what you are doing to ensure a safe environment, such as requiring or providing masks and limiting companions in the clinic, helps foster confidence. When you are not open for surgery, telling patients you are available for consultation for procedures later helps keep the pipeline flowing.

Morrill emphasised that, because cataract and refractive surgery are elective, consent is more important than ever in today’s environment. Make sure yours is careful, thorough and well-documented, and ask for verbal consent at the beginning of any virtual consultation.

To protect patient privacy and data, Morrill advised leveraging commercial online physician consultation platforms, such as Doctolib in France and Germany, rather than trying to do it yourself. Data security standards are strict, so make sure any portal you use complies with all local laws and regulations.

That said, virtual consultations that include family members can help ensure thorough understanding. Given restrictions on patient numbers in the practice, virtual consults are practical, and can even improve conversion rates, Morrill said.

Share regular updates via your website and social media on your clinic’s COVID management practices, including number of tests and vaccinations administered. “Let patients know you are committed to their safety,” Morrill said.

Rod Solar: rod@liveseysolar.com
Kris Morrill: kris@medevise-consulting.com