Straight from the horse’s mouth
Okay, students of medical marketing, let’s see who can answer this easy question: How many of you have ever shopped for a car dealer? What? None of you? No, of course not. People shop for cars, not car dealers.
Yes, eventually car buyers wind up transacting with a dealer, but only because if they want a new car, they are all but forced to purchase from a manufacturer-authorized dealer – even if it’s an online dealer or car-buying service.
If you’ve been watching the social data the last few years, it’s clear the same mindset has been creeping into doctor shopping. To be sure, a physician-patient relationship is a long ways from the often barely tolerable hour or so you spend with a car salesman every few years. Patients are typically more discerning about the professional and personal traits of their health care providers than they are about their clergy, bankers, accountants or any other service professional.
Yet for millions of Americans, picking a doctor these days starts not with a search for a health care provider but a search for health care information. But more important is an unmistakeable trend in who patients are asking to provide such information.
This trend is precisely why medical practices should be soberly realistic about the value of pay-per-click advertising on search engines.
Pay-per-click ads: A clandestine auction
For those new to the PPC concept of marketing, here’s how it works: You the seller may offer your products or services for sale on the pages of search-engine websites. Internet searchers using Google, Yahoo! and Bing see these on almost every query result, under a “sponsored links” heading in search-engine results pages (SERP).
These sponsored links are always limited to two lines of text, 130 characters total, with a hyperlink to the advertiser’s website on a third line. PPC adds appear above and to the right of the rest of the listings on the SERP, which are known as “organic” or “natural” search-engine results.
PPC advertisers select certain search phrases to trigger displays of their ads. For example, a car dealer might select “Phoenix Honda dealers” or “2011 Accord pricing” as terms that cause the dealer’s PPC ad to appear each time a Google user types those words (or some of those words) into the Google search engine.
Often PPC ads are presented on a pastel background on the SERP. However, one disturbing search-engine trend has been to lessen the contrast between PPC ads and organic listings, blurring the differences between paid advertising and organic rankings – the latter depending on a relatively fair methodology of ranking web pages based on how well their content relates to what Internet searchers are seeking.
PPC ads are what make Google so staggeringly successful, earning the company more than $30 billion a year. One reason is that this form of marketing is truly revolutionary. Unlike traditional advertising in newspapers, magazines and on billboards and radio and TV, PPC advertisers don’t pay just to have their ads displayed. The display of an ad – or an impression – is free. Rather, the advertiser pays Google or Bing or whomever only each time someone clicks on one of their ads – hence, the pay-per-click nomenclature.
Why click-through rates rule
Another reason for PPC success for Google et al is the unique pricing system. PPC advertisers bid for positioning. The more you offer to pay for a clicker coming from Google to your website, generally the higher your ad ranks on SERPs.
But wait, there’s another sizeable factor in PPC ad ranking: popularity. Ranking of your ad also depends on the percentage of Google users clicking on the ad. This is called the “click through rate.” The CTR is calculated by dividing the number of clicks on an ad by the number of times it was displayed.
Thus, if your PPC ad is displayed 10,000 times in response to certain search phrases being entered into a search engine, and 500 of those times someone clicks on your ad, your CTR is 5 percent – a rather high CTR, given that 1 or 2 percent CTR is far more common.
The kicker: you don’t know how much other advertisers are bidding in competition against you. You can only make an educated guess at how much to bid and hope your ad ranks relatively high. Bidding usually begins at 15 cents per click, and can range up to $10 or more, depending on the value of the search term you’re bidding on, the demand for the product or service you’re selling, and other factors. Some heath care search terms fetch $10 or more for top-ranking positions.
Over time, Google or the search engine you the PPC advertiser is using will tell you how well each ad is ranking in the PPC listings. The trick is to manage the search terms, the bidding, and the ad text so that you get maximum CTR for the lowest possible price.
Because more clicks mean more income to Google, the search engine likes to see your CTR to rise and will reward you by increasing your rankings without charging more.
Whew, sounds like a lot of work, right? Well, it is, and the bummer is that it can all be for naught, especially in health care.
Selling horse shoes on Times Square
When PPC works, it brings a lot of people to a website. Then what? Can you count on an automatic sale? Hardly. Persuading a patient to pick a certain doctor and/or choice of treatment plans is what professional marketers call a “considered purchase.” It’s not the same as selling pizza, beer or potato chips.
Growing a medical practice is all about cultivating physician-patient relationships. This personal connection can and should start on a website. But it’s hardly the same as selling to a customer who already knows what she wants to buy and is simply using the Internet to find the best price.
Therefore, you can spend a lot of time and money on PPC advertising and ultimately bring a lot of people to a website, only to have a lot of them look at one or two pages on the site and leave in a matter of seconds. No sale.
It’s like opening a horseshoeing service on Times Square. You can have one of the world’s busiest locations, but passing crowds don’t automatically translate into sales.
By most estimates, less than 10 percent of website visits are generated by PPC ads. That means nine in 10 visits to your practice’s website will come through other means, usually by organic searches.
In the end, what really matters is a rich patient experience. Your practice website should be an attractive and fetching store that invites lots of people to come in and browse. It’s not merely enough to bring prospective customers only to the front door. The delicate process of nurturing a physician-patient relationship must start with the patient enjoying a prolonged, pleasant and rewarding experience on multiple pages of the website.
If you don’t have such a store on the Internet, forget PPC advertising. You’ll wind up paying Times Square prices for a barn no horse will likely enter.
About Vanguard Communications
Since 1994, Vanguard Communications has provided specialty healthcare marketing with a strategy focused on patient education guaranteed to bring new patients to specialist physicians, physician assistants, nurses and therapists in private, university and hospital practices. Through its MedMarketLink program, Vanguard combines the disciplines of online and offline PR, strategic marketing and information technology for healthcare providers coast to coast.