21st Century Marketing Strategies for Specialist Referral Practices

In this article, I want to give you an overview of what has been proven to work for Breathe Business orthodontic clients to increase their supply of ready and willing patients who want straight teeth. The same strategies are as equally applicable to dental practices where there is an element of specialist referrals, whether it be endo, perio, implants etc.

The market in orthodontic provision is growing, but it is also changing rapidly and becoming more ‘crowded’. This makes it more difficult for prospective patients to understand and navigate. In my view, this is because:

  • Using the index of orthodontic treatment need, the Department of Health have a lever to reduce their financial commitment to providing Orthodontic Treatment. Therefore, potentially, an increasing number of child patients will fall outside of this NHS net.
  • I believe there will be a reduction in the provision of NHS Orthodontic treatment within the hospital service, simply because of the government’s need to cut public spending and repay its debts.
  • Waiting times for NHS Orthodontic treatment have, in some areas, reduced dramatically. This means that the argument for providing Orthodontic treatment privately (to jump the NHS queue) has in some areas disappeared.
  • Increasing competition, not least from GDP’s offering treatments such as Invisalign and veneer based ‘Smile makeovers’, means that an Orthodontic Practice may no longer be the first port of call for an adult patient who wants straight teeth!
  • Many more adults are deciding they want straight teeth, thanks to the media and the celebrity cult, and these patients are also willing to pay more for ‘invisible braces’.

So, significant changes are happening. Whenever there is change, there is opportunity, and where there is opportunity, there are winners and losers! The winning orthodontists will have robust and effective marketing and sales strategies, which clearly differentiate them and their practice from all the dental practices that surround them.

Marketing without selling skills and sales systems is a fast way to waste your marketing budget. Effective marketing will attract people who are interested in what you offer however, unless you and your team have effective selling skills and systems, you will only ‘sell’ a course of orthodontic treatment to the most determined of your enquirers. There’s little point in spending your resources attracting new patients if you have a drawer (or hard drive) full of unsold or incomplete treatment plans.

Before you start any marketing, it’s important to consider what distinguishes your practice from the orthodontic practices around you and ask yourself why GDP’s should refer to you or why patients might choose your practice. In other words, it is important to decide what differentiates your practice from the rest, so that you can market this message. You may have noticed that many dental practices that are good at marketing have embraced the importance of creating a “brand”. Effective dental branding should reflect your personal and business values, and having a brand will help you gain visibility in the market place. Without it, prospective and existing patients may compare you unfavourably to the branded competition.

As you are aware, Orthodontic Practices have two sources of new patients.

  1. General dental practitioners to refer their patients to you for orthodontic treatment and
  2. Self-referring, ‘walk in’ patients.

And two different markets/demographics:

  1. Children/Adolescents
  2. Adults

These two sources of patients and the two demographics will require different marketing strategies, different sales strategies and even different facilities.

Attracting General Dental Practitioner Referrals.


It is no longer enough to move into an area where you perceive there to be a gap in the Orthodontic market, grab some UOA’s, send the local GDP’s a letter, shake their hand at the local BDA meeting and wait for the referrals to flood in.

All successful referral practices are based on the quality of:

  1. The relationships they have with their referrers,
  2. The quality of their follow through in providing the treatment.

So the most important marketing strategies in order to increase the size of your referral base are those that allow you to build and maintain relationships with GDPs and those that ensure that what you do for their patients is effective and efficient.

It’s human nature for a potential referrer to (quietly) ask him or herself, ‘What’s in it for me if I refer this patient?’ The answer to this question is the key to creating successful marketing strategies to attract new referring dentists:

So, here are 10 possible answers to, ‘what’s in it for me’:

  1. My patient needs this treatment and I don’t have to solve this problem anymore.
  2. My patient will be grateful.
  3. It’s really quick and easy to make a referral to this practice.
  4. The Orthodontist is a nice guy/woman and will make me look good.
  5. This Orthodontic Practice is really quick to see my patients; they are transparent with their pricing, offer easy ways for my patients to pay and they are brilliant at keeping me informed of their progress.
  6. This practice gets really good, stable results and my patients are delighted!
  7. The Orthodontic Practice has invited me to their: Study Club. Social Occasion, Christmas Party, sends me a gift at Christmas etc.
  8. The Orthodontist is helping me to do some of the simpler cases myself under their supervision.
  9. They send me a regular newsletter to keep me up to date with what they can offer (which I enjoy reading).
  10. Their Web site is fantastic and I use it as a resource to show my patients exactly what they can achieve.

I’m sure you can think of some more! The secret of marketing to GDP’s for referrals is to allow them to have a warm glow of satisfaction when they send a patient to you. This encourages them to feel part of your ‘tribe’ of referrers and as well as feeling like they are doing the right thing for their patient in sending them to you, they will also feel genuinely appreciated and helped by you on a day-to-day basis in their general practice.

Attracting Walk-In Patients

These strategies are effective at attracting both children (and their parents) and adult patients, however they must be tuned to suit either demographic.

This market for ‘walk in patients’ is growing because the media tell us repeatedly that straight white teeth are desirable (they are!) and because patients no longer feel the need (or understand the need) to seek orthodontic treatment by asking for a referral from their GDP. (In fact many potential patients don’t have a GDP.)

There are many marketing strategies to attract these patients, I’ve listed below the most effective, in order of their effectiveness:

1. Asking For Referrals

My coach, Dan Sullivan (www.strategiccoach.com) often says, “That all the money you need for the rest of your career is in the pockets of the clients you’ve already met and in the pockets of those they can introduce you to.” So, before you go looking outside your practice for new patients, make sure that the patients who really appreciate what you do actively tell their friends, colleagues and relatives! This simple and inexpensive marketing strategy, if systemised and handled well, can be the most effective in increasing your walk-in new patient numbers. To make it effective, use a suitably branded “referral card” (a sort of mini brochure) as a vehicle for asking for a referral and a system that has you asking the right patients. Such a request is always best timed for when the tears of gratitude are in your patient’s eyes!

You can offer incentives for introductions – even though you will have to be careful not to infringe any GDC rules (avoid using finance to induce new business) it’s still possible to say a genuine and unpremeditated “thank you” for a patient referral – but let’s go beyond the obvious shall we? Bottles of wine and flowers are very tired. Free ipod shuffles, vouchers for health spas are much more ‘now’.

2. Internet Marketing

There is no doubt in my mind that one day soon, this will be the marketing silver bullet. However, we are not there yet and it’s important to realise that Internet marketing is not just about the: attractiveness, quality or complexity of your web site, it’s a powerful combination of the right web site with state of the art, search engine optimisation.

A good web site designer will consider the web site SEO when considering the initial web site architecture and will then expect you to employ a specialist in SEO, on a retainer, to continually optimise your site over its lifetime.

An effective marketing web site is not an excuse for vanity and mustn’t be all about you! It must serve three types of market who navigate to their part of your site with ease from the home page:

  1. Referring Dentists.
  2. Child Patients (and their parents)
  3. Adult Patients.

The most effective web sites (from a marketing point of view):

  • Are clear about the offer the practice makes and exactly what differentiates it from other orthodontic practices.
  • Show lots of ‘before and afters featuring a variety of patients of different ages with different malocclusions.
  • Have lots of genuine testimonials from different age groups.
  • Have a fee guide.
  • Are willing to make promises about their service.
  • Demonstrate that their environment and their service will suit both children and adults.
  • Introduces their team and tells prospective patients what to expect.

I’m a huge fan of embedding video ‘tiles’ into web sites, as video is extremely effective in delivering a marketing message from you and your team and also from your satisfied patients in the shape of video testimonials.

3. Forming Strategic Alliances

Having another practice or business be an advocate for your business and in return you/your practice being an advocate of theirs, is an effective way of promoting both businesses and for you to gain new patients. Firstly, have a look for potential strategic alliances partners amongst your existing patients who may own local businesses that focus on delivering well-being services. You can then experiment by creating joint marketing initiatives that will potentially generate new clients for both businesses. Secondly, consider forming strategic alliances with other, ‘look good feel good’ practices/businesses such as:

  • Other Specialist Referral Practices
  • Corporate Dental Practice Groups
  • Health and Beauty Practices
  • Hairdressers
  • Photographers
  • Wedding Planners!

4. PR Campaigns

You can hire a local PR expert (although few will have experience of marketing a dental practice), usually on a monthly retainer and for this to work effectively, consider that this relationship needs to last in excess of six months and preferably twice or three times that.

If you want to do this yourself, make contact with all your local media companies and offer them advertorial that focuses on a clearly defined niche patient market (the narrower the niche the better). Don’t forget that if there is anything of the performer in you, then get out of the door with your laptop and digital projector in hand and offer your services to deliver short talks in the local personal and professional community on, “How to improve your confidence through improving your smile.”

5. Advertising Campaigns

And finally advertising! It works, of course it does, that’s why you see it everywhere! However, it is very, very expensive and in order for it to be effective, you will need clever copy writing in order to create a bold series of branded adverts that run many, many times over a period that is closer to a year than a month. Effective advertising strategies incorporate time limited offers and clear calls to action that encourages the potential patient to make contact with your practice.

Lastly, the best marketing in the world will not come even close to the power and attractiveness of having a fantastic reputation in your community. So, take enormous care of it!

If you would like some help with effective strategies to have a steady stream of new and existing patients wanting to buy from your practice, or with any aspect of developing your orthodontic or specialist referral practice, then please contact Ernie on 0845 299 7209 or ernie@nowbreathe.co.uk to discuss and find out more about how we can help you.

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