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3 top reasons why your dental marketing is failing [Troubleshooting guide for new patient growth]

Gary Bird


Dental marketing is not for the faint of heart.

Whether you’re managing marketing for your practice on your own or working with an outside agency, you’re tackling a big challenge. You’ll need to invest time, energy, and money — all in the hopes of creating a steady, predictable stream of new patients that can scale up as you add doctors or new locations.

And sometimes, everything goes right! When all that effort pays off, it can be exhilarating. You’ll feel like you’ve discovered a secret key to success as patient after patient walks through your doors.

But what happens when your dental marketing fails and that new patient stream dries up?

If you’re not getting the new patient growth you want, start troubleshooting to improve your results.

I wouldn’t blame you if you throw up your hands in frustration. I’ve been there myself.

But then I strongly suggest you get to work diagnosing the problem. By turning your attention to three key problem areas — each of which I’ll explain below — you’ll almost certainly be able to figure out why you’re not seeing the results you want and what needs to change in order to get back on track.

Why am I so confident about this? Because dental marketing is not what it used to be. The days of throwing ad ideas at the wall and hoping something sticks are largely behind us.

Today, for dental, at least, marketing is more of a science than an art. We marketers (especially here at SMC!) now have access to so much performance data that we’re typically able to predict your results with remarkable precision

In other words, we know exactly how your marketing funnel — from your Google ads all the way down to your call handlers — is supposed to function. And that means we also know how to pinpoint exactly what’s causing a breakdown.

I’m going to share our diagnostic approach with you. I think you’ll find it valuable.

The 3 most common dental marketing problems and how to fix them

If you’re not getting the results you need from your marketing campaign, I suggest you take a look at each of these three problem areas:

  • Broken business operations
  • Misaligned new patient buying cycles
  • Poor market and competition analysis

If you’re collecting the right marketing data, then you’ll quickly be able to identify which area is the source of your trouble and set about fixing it.

I’ll go through each area in order so you’ll get a better idea of what I’m talking about. Let’s dive in!

1. Your business operations are broken

In my experience, the number one problem with most dental marketing campaigns isn’t the marketing itself. It’s what happens after a lead — a potential new patient generated by your marketing — decides to call your office.

Here are just a few of the most common things that go wrong. 

  • Unanswered phone calls. Did you know that the average dental practice doesn’t answer roughly 35 percent of phone calls? That means that if you’ve spent $10,000 on marketing, your practice is probably flushing $3,500 down the toilet.
  • High no-show rates. Many dental practices make new patients wait a week or more before they can see them for an appointment. That’s essentially a guarantee that you’re going to see a no-show rate of close to 30 percent — and waste another $1,950 of that $10,000 marketing budget while you’re at it.
  • Poor case acceptance rates. If your doctors or treatment coordinators don’t know how to build rapport and communicate effectively, you’re going to lose patients on the one-yard line. (This one is much more relevant with high-dollar treatments.)

Now, of course, what all of these problems (and others like them) have in common is that they’re operational issues — trouble that arises as a direct result of the way your team functions. But they’re also all incredibly normal, to the point where I can say that most dental practices I’ve worked with have suffered from some or all of the above. 

Fortunately, operational problems can often be solved without too much pain. Doing this takes two steps — tracking the right KPIs and then coaching up your team to improve their performance.

Solution 1: Track the essential KPIs

First off, in order to assess your operational performance, you need to track the right KPIs. Otherwise, you won’t have any way of knowing what parts of your organization are functioning — and which are broken.

If you want to improve your marketing and new patient results, I suggest you track each of these:

  • Unanswered call rate. How often does your team pick up the phone? Aim to miss less than 10 percent of calls.
  • Phone conversion rate. How often do your call handlers turn a potential new patient into a scheduled appointment? Aim to convert at least 80 percent of answered calls.
  • Average time to appointment. How long does it take for a phone call to result in a new patient actually showing up at your office? Aim for 3 business days or less.
  • No-show rate. How many scheduled appointments show up — and how many don’t? Aim for a no-show rate below 10 percent.
  • Case acceptance rate. When your doctors present a treatment plan, how often do patients say yes? Aim for roughly 90 percent (this number will be lower for specialty procedures like implants or Invisalign, but even more important to pay attention to).

Each one of these KPIs represents a potential hole in your operations that could be leaking marketing dollars. If you’re tracking them and notice that you’re getting results that are significantly below the benchmarks I’m suggesting here, then you’re losing money unnecessarily.

(Note: two other KPIs you really should be measuring are your cost-per-lead and cost-per-acquisition, both specifically for your marketing patients alone. If you have an especially high cost-per-lead but a normal-ish cost-per-acquisition, that means something really is wrong with your marketing campaign and not your operations.)

👉 Note: We use these KPIs to optimize your new patient growth — and show you exactly how you’re performing on each whenever you open our app. New call-to-action

Solution 2: Use coaching to boost team performance

Once you’ve got some good data flowing in, you’ll be able to see where you need to improve. Next, it’s probably time to bring in coaches for your team. Consultants or some marketing companies (we do this, for example!) will be able to coach individual team members to help them do a better job hitting each of the KPIs I’ve mentioned above. 

Coaching can help your team improve its performance in two ways. First, experienced coaches can show your team members specific strategies, tactics, and proven best practices that can help them do a better job building rapport on an initial phone call, say, or encourage a new patient to actually show up for their scheduled appointment.

Second, and equally important, good coaching will make your team members feel excited to get better at what they do. After all, success is often about confidence as much as raw skills.

Here too, tracking those essential KPIs can be really helpful. You won’t just be telling your team to “do better,” but giving them specific targets to shoot for as well as the help they need to get there.

👉 Note: We offer coaching that can help you increase your phone conversion rates by 20+ percent. Learn more about it here.

2. You’re not marketing for the right buying cycle

Let’s switch gears entirely. Another huge problem area for dentists eager to turn marketing dollars into new patients is a fundamental misunderstanding of the new patient buying cycle.

The reason this is confusing is that dental patients actually operate on two different buying cycles. You need to understand which buying cycle fits with your main service offering in order to market effectively.

Here are the two types:

  • Short buying cycle
  • Long buying cycle

A short buying cycle is what you do when you order a pizza. You’re hungry, you open up Postmates, you compare a couple of local pie joints, and then you place your order. 

Boom! The whole thing is over and done in less than 15 minutes.

A long buying cycle is more like buying a house. You might spend months (or even years) simply looking at listings. You’ll consider different neighborhoods or cities. You’ll go to showings or open houses. You may even get frustrated and stop looking for a while. 

Only after going through all that will you finally make an offer — because a long buying cycle is a slow process. Very slow.

Where this gets confusing for dentists, though, is that different types of dental services operate on different buying cycles. 

General dentistry, for example, is a short buying cycle. Most patients who need a cleaning don’t put months of thought into choosing a dentist. They just do a quick Google search, find someone nearby with decent reviews, and book an appointment. 

The same goes for most pediatric dentistry, emergency appointments, basic restorative work like fillings — you get the idea. If it’s a relatively inexpensive procedure or routine maintenance, patients will come to a decision within a short-ish period of time.

But the opposite holds true for high-dollar procedures. Many people will research dental implants for months or years before even scheduling a consultation, which may itself be just another piece of research. 

Likewise, you can expect that most patients are not going to sign up for Invisalign, traditional braces, or a full smile makeover on a whim.

So it’s essential that you match your marketing to the appropriate buying cycle. You need to meet your patients where they are.

Here’s how to market for a short buying cycle

When you’re marketing to patients on a short buying cycle, you’re dealing with people who are ready to buy.

This means you want to focus on high-intent channels — primarily Google. Your goal here is to be one of the first dental practices to pop up when someone in your area searches for “dentist.”

All you really need to succeed are well-targeted ads and a website that is optimized for SEO. Run a consistent ad campaign that fits your market and you’ll have all the hygiene patients you could ever need.

So long as you’re answering your phones, that is.

Here’s how to market for a long buying cycle

Marketing for a long buying cycle is more difficult. Here, one of your biggest challenges is that the vast majority of people searching for whatever you’re offering — implants, Invisalign, or another high-dollar treatment — are only doing research.

This means that if you’re not careful, you can burn through your entire ad budget, get tons of clicks…and have almost nothing to show for it.

What you need is a way to get those researchers into your long-term marketing funnel so you can then continue to work on them over time. This sort of long-term marketing is called lead nurturing, and it’s an essential part of closing a sale on a long-buying cycle.

One way you can do this is by running video ads on Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube. If someone watches enough of a video — say, 75 percent — then you know they’re at least genuinely in the market for whichever high-dollar treatment you’re promoting.

At that point, you can get them to give their email or retarget them with additional content over time.

In other words, the goal here is to create ads that separate casual researchers from those who are more serious by making viewers jump through the hoop of watching a video. That way, you’ll only continue to invest in putting content in front of the serious group, nurturing those leads until they’re ready — not just to commit to treatment but to choose your practice.

This process takes months, but you’ll see a significantly higher case acceptance rate and ROI on your high-dollar treatments if you’re willing to stick with it.

3. You don’t have a clear picture of your market and competition

Our final top problem area is less complex to explain. The truth is that too many dental practices simply don’t market to the right audience.

When you’re first building your marketing campaign, you — or your marketing company — need to make sure that you understand your market and competition. That way you know exactly who you need to be targeting when you start running ads.

In practice, this means looking at maps. More specifically, you’ll want to create a map of your area with your practice in the middle. Then you’ll overlay that map with data on income and population density along with the locations of your nearby competitors.

👉 Note: We’ll make you custom income, population, and competition maps for FREE. (Seriously.) Learn more here.

Now you’ve got the beginnings of a much clearer picture that will show you the kind of people you’ll be marketing to. You can use this data to create a strong new patient avatar — a model of your ideal new patient — and then design your marketing campaign specifically to appeal to your avatar.

In the long run, you’ll significantly increase your ROI as well as lower your cost per lead and cost per acquisition if you target your marketing to fit your community.

We’ll fix your marketing — and fill your waiting room 👇

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