By Josiah Young, OD, MS

Marketing your eyecare practice in 2014 boils down to one succinct statement: Your virtual location should be just as well-maintained as your physical location. Remember this. Write it down. Put it on a bulletin board in your office. Do whatever you need to do to grasp this concept, because the way eyecare practices appeal to new consumers has changed dramatically in the past 10 years.


Do you know what your virtual practice looks like? Your virtual practice consists of your website, your search engine ranking, your online reviews, your availability to be found in online mapping software like Google Maps, your mobility (more on this later), and your social media engagement. All of these things combine to give you an online presence that current and prospective patients have available to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Just like owning a fine automobile, your virtual practice needs care and guidance, and as the practice owner, you are also the chauffeur. You control what it looks like, where it goes and when the horn gets tooted.

You certainly understand the importance of maintaining your physical location (the building, the grounds, etc.). Much like your physical office, your virtual office should be clean and free of cosmetic defects. That means your website should look nice, and it should convey an open and inviting message to prospective patients. Just as you trim the hedges and clean the windows in front of your office, your website should have an attractive and inviting appearance.

You can do this by making sure your website has high-definition graphics or photos. Most new point-and-shoot cameras have a resolution of at least 12 megapixels. What camera did you use for the pictures on your website right now? Chances are they need to be updated. Consider using a photographer with a nicer digital SLR to provide you with updated images. A good photographer will know the proper lighting and have the right equipment to give your website’s photos the spruced-up, crisp and professional look it needs for your photographs.

In addition to the aesthetics of your physical office, the practice itself needs to run smoothly. You probably have systems in place behind the scenes for things like entering patient data, billing insurance and managing inventory. These systems are set up to maximize efficiency in your practice. These same principles should apply to your virtual practice.

Not only does your website need to be attractive and modern in appearance, it must run smoothly and drive patients into your office. You can accomplish this by focusing on search engine optimization (SEO). SEO enhances the ability of your website to be found and indexed highly in the search engine results page. Something that many practice owners are guilty of is thinking, “I have a website. I’m fine.” That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Think about the last time you searched for something online. Did you click on the second page of results? How about the third page? Most people find what they are looking for in the very first page of results. The same can be said for patients searching for eyecare online. At one time, just having a website made you visible online. Google and other search engines continually update their search algorithms, which could potentially place your practice’s website on page 13 of search results. Essentially this is the same as not having a website at all because no one can find you.

Hiring a professional to manage your website and SEO is important to your practice in that it affects your practice visibility. If you’re not on page one of a Google search for “eye doctor near (your town),” you’re missing out on opportunities to attract new patients. Today’s consumers won’t take the time to drill down to page two or three to find an eyecare provider. Based on my research into terms used for online searches for eyecare providers, there is a list of several important things you must do to optimize your presence on the Web.

The first thing that patients search for is an eye doctor close to where they live. The second most popular search term involves their medical or vision insurance plan. These two search variables comprise the bulk of new patient searches when the patient does not know the name of the doctor or office they want to visit. Adding text in your website somewhere that indicates you are an “eye doctor located near Smithville and Anytown that accepts Med Service Insurance plan” will greatly increase your chances of being found online. This just scratches the surface of SEO strategies. Talk to your website manager for more information and strategy suggestions.

You also need to make sure a new patient can find your office. Surely, you train your staff to handle driving directions over the phone. Your staff probably still gives these directions. But do you think they did it as much in 2013 as they did in 2003? Something that is now ubiquitous with smartphones and handheld devices is GPS. Everyone traveling with a smartphone or a dedicated GPS has instant access to maps at their fingertips. Your office should be listed on all of these maps.

Luckily, search engines like Google have done a great job of plugging known business addresses right into their maps’ program. Now when someone does a search for “Smith Eye Care,” their phone or GPS device will navigate them to your location with the touch of a button. But do not assume Google has this all figured out for you OR that your office listing has the correct address online. You must go online and verify your business with Google to ensure the directions that are being accessed routinely are accurate.

Claiming your business listing in Google puts you solidly in the driver’s seat. It will not only ensure patients find your office, but it will also allow you to manage any online reviews that have been posted by patients. You can also enter details about your hours, services offered, photos and features that you think will help attract new patients to your office. If you have claimed your listing and updated your practice information, a patient will then be able to instantly see your hours and location, AND they will be able to click a single button on their phone to call your office for an appointment. Now that’s something the phonebook will never be able to do.

And while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about the phone book. I won’t argue with you about the importance of having a phone book listing prior to 2009. But if you’re still paying money for listings in the phone book in 2014, pay attention to what I’m about to tell you. In 2013, there were over 200 million searches on Google Maps per month. And that was just from smartphones alone. When I entered private practice, we had our normal office listings in the white pages, and we were paying for a larger phone book advertisement in the Yellow Pages. In 2009, we did a patient survey in our office with all new patients. Over the course of three months, we had ZERO new patients from the phone book. Zilch. Nada. Not one new patient was generated from the highly expensive Yellow Pages advertisement. In fact, we had just previous patients that entire year say they had found us in the Yellow Pages.

Immediately after this, we dropped our ad in the Yellow Pages. Our practice listings in the White Pages are a convenience for elderly patients that still look up our number in the book to call us. But even the majority of the baby boomers in America now use their computers, tablets or smartphones to look up local businesses. And are you curious to know what your Gen X and younger patients do with their phonebooks when they come in the mail? It goes in the trash. Several of our Cincinnati residents have recently reported that they no longer get the White Pages even when they request them.

After dropping our Yellow Pages ad, we saved several thousands of dollars a year. The nice old lady who located us that year in the phone book would have needed to purchase more than 10 pairs of glasses for us to break even. Getting your practice listed in Google Maps is completely free, but there are ways to boost your visibility with paid ads that are nowhere near the expense of the printed phone book ads.

We have talked about how your website needs to look nice and how you need to be accessible online. Now it’s time to talk about mobility. That is how your website displays on mobile devices. Google projects that mobile searches from phones or tablets will overtake that of searches done on PCs by the year 2016. So let’s say that you’ve followed all of my instructions thus far, and a new patient finds your website by searching their phone. Do you know what your website looks like when it renders on that smartphone?

You may be surprised to learn that most websites do not display correctly on these smaller handheld devices. The resolution may be different. The screen size and Internet browser may also affect the way your website displays on a mobile device. That is why they have come up with newer website building technology that automatically displays a mobile version of your normal website. It’s essentially your existing website, but it is displayed in a resized, touch-friendly format. This will give patients the ability to swipe through pictures and information, and click on a single button with one tap that will call your office or bring up a map of your location.

There’s a new technology out there that enables you to communicate directly with new and established patients. This online portal allows you to write interesting articles, upload pictures, and send direct messages to your patients and your patients’ friends, and it’s all free. Some of you may have heard of it. It’s called social media!

Social media is an overused term. We are constantly bombarded with social media each and every day. People talk about it at work, you hear it mentioned on the radio, you see it in television and advertising, and (to my recent surprise) news stations report social media as news. But what is social media for the eyecare practice?

One way to get eyecare practitioners to understand the role of social media in their practice is to call it what it really is: Business Reputation Management. Social media affects your public business reputation. Participating in social media allows you to engage with your patients outside of the exam room on a more personal level than ever before. Because it is so prevalent with the products they buy and the services they use, today’s consumer expects to have social media involvement. Eyecare is no exception.

There are lots of social media options out there. You don’t have to participate in all of them. Just pick one and do it well. This is a task that can be delegated to staff. In my office, we’ve increased our number of “likes” on our Facebook page over 100 percent since I had a staff member begin posting regularly on our behalf. Increasing the number of “likes” or “followers” means that we have more patient engagement on the page. That means more sharing of our posts by our patients to their friends, which means free advertising to prospective patients. The most recent statistics indicate that 50 percent of people have chosen a business based on a friend’s recommendation on social media. These social media interactions help you build a positive online presence that influences prospective patients to your office.

The way new consumers find your office has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. Make sure you know what your virtual practice looks like to prospective patients. Go online and “Google” yourself. Do you like what you see? If not, try implementing these changes little by little. Over time, you’ll be able to create a positive online presence that will help drive new patients into your office. And you thought just having a website was good enough.■

Josiah Young, OD, MS, is the director of digital marketing for the ECP Network, a national association dedicated to supporting the independent eyecare provider.