Creating an Effective Marketing Plan

 In Practice Building

Creating an Effective Marketing Plan (and Budget) for Growth and Success …

… While Avoiding the Most Common Pitfalls and Mistakes

By Stewart Gandolf, MBA and Lonnie Hirsch
The rigorous, demanding and extensive professional education and training for naturopathic physicians does not include much practical instruction about the challenges of practice marketing. This is just as true in most professional ranks, and we frequently hear from individuals who have realized that being a good or even great physician does not assure a full appointment calendar.
It’s simply not enough to be a well-trained and skilled physician. It also means being savvy about business and marketing in order to grow the practice and to achieve your personal, professional and financial goals.
Sooner or later the need for ethical and effective marketing is apparent. (By the way, sooner is usually better, while competitive practices are still on the sidelines.) And while they want to attract and retain patients, the all-important next question is: How and where do I begin?
The answer is to create a serious plan – a marketing plan that becomes your roadmap for growth. A goal without a plan is just a wish … and a distant fantasy, as well. Your plan can be modest or aggressive according to your goals, but a written plan is where to begin.
Here are some of the important basics for a good start, plus some dangerous pitfalls to avoid.

Marketing: The Cornerstones of a Plan for Success

There are many definitions of marketing, and here’s a good one: “the process of making prospective and current patients aware of your products and services, attracting new patients, and building and maintaining a patient base for your products and services.”

Even under the best of circumstances, marketing for a professional healthcare practice is rarely easy; resources are precious and you want them to produce results. We’ve included a lot of no-cost and low-cost how-to marketing resources at our website,

Planning is the starting point. It’s a complex process, and we can only highlight the essential ingredients:

Create a one-year plan. You will have short-term tasks (next week, next month) and long-range goals (1, 3 and 5 years), but build your plan to focus on a 12-month calendar. As you implement your plan, there will be steps for testing, tracking and, based on results, you’ll make adjustments as needed. Your marketing calendar will include organizational deadlines and milestones to keep the plan on course.

A marketing plan is an integrated system. Use a holistic perspective to define your target audience, your competition, the services you want to promote, the cases you want to attract, the image you want to portray, etc. Your marketing plan will include a blend of some or all of the following strategic categories:

  • Internal Marketing – Building and maintaining the systems that speak to your existing patient base, to make them aware of all that you can do for them and their family, friends and associates. This is marketing to your closest and best “customers” first, encouraging additional services, and making referrals easy. Generally, Internal Marketing is a low-risk, high-return category, and it’s easy to begin even if you are conservative about marketing.
  • Branding – This is actively shaping the message about you and your practice to differentiate what you do and to clearly stand out from the competition. Branding is not so much about what you do, but about effectively communicating how your practice is different, more valuable and more desirable in the values of the patient.
  • External Advertising – Consider all the available options that can connect you to your target audience. These will include newspapers or other print media and broadcast, as well as Internet advertising, direct mail, circulars, etc. Some media can be expensive but not effective, while others can be highly effective and not expensive, so careful planning, testing and tracking are important to making external efforts work right from the start.
  • Internet Marketing – An effective website can help attract new patients and give them a reason to choose you. It supports your branding and the overall practice message.

You have to track. Have an effective tracking system in place and working daily. Tracking the source of new patients is absolutely vital to successful marketing because it tells you what’s working and what’s not, and it is the basis of calculating a Return On Investment (ROI). From the first phone call or earliest contact, ask each new patient exactly how they heard of your practice (or “who can we thank for referring you?”).

Keep this list live, current, daily … and not in the patient chart. Review the tracking information at least weekly for constant feedback, and cross-reference new patients to individual promotional tactics.

Test, track and make ongoing adjustments. Increasing marketing success and profitability over time comes from constant adjustments in the plan, based on increasing your marketing “winners” and decreasing your marketing “losers.” Typically, you will initially test marketing tactics on a smaller, risk-controlled basis, and then roll out the winners in a larger way.

A review of marketing plan performance should be conducted at least quarterly throughout the year. Marketing results may be reviewed even more frequently (usually monthly) for decisions that may require a more real-time evaluation.

“How-to-Budget” Basic Steps. Entire textbooks have been written about the art and science of marketing budgets – and you’ll find a popular “how-to” article with a more detailed Budgeting Worksheet at Plan your budget specifically for each month, and include ROI goals for each individual tactic. Plan to invest a sufficient budget to produce results from each of the planned strategies and tactics on your plan.

The objective is to budget wisely, effectively and realistically, with a goal of producing a 4:1 ROI (that’s $4 in for each $1 out.) And if your budget is tight – as it almost always is if you’re just getting started – then invest in low-cost marketing efforts, such as posting flyers at alternative health markets, networking with noncompetitive practitioners, participating in health screening and health fair events, and giving speeches and presentations in the local community.

Avoiding Healthcare Marketing’s Most Common Mistakes

The lack of a solid plan and budget typically leads to several pitfalls. So before you begin drafting a plan, also consider the most important things NOT to do, and avoid some dangerous mistakes.
  • “Spaghetti Marketing.” Effective marketing is about carefully planned communication. When frustration grows and the pressure to “do something” is strong, it is a common trap to try many things in the (sometimes desperate) hope that something (anything) will work. Marketing without a plan is like throwing a handful of strategies, like a bunch of spaghetti, against the wall to “see what sticks.” It’s inefficient, and it can be brutal on your budget.
  • “Analysis Paralysis.” To their credit, physicians are often scientifically minded and analytical thinkers. But we know some smart people who think so long and hard about what to do that they confuse thinking with action. Give yourself a reasonable time for making decisions, and then do something. If this is difficult for you, just remember that no marketing strategy or advertising tactic lasts forever.

Analysis Paralysis is dangerously similar to…

  • “Wait-and-See.” There are two rewards to this “do-nothing” approach – and both are negatives. First, there is never an up-side benefit to waiting for practices that need or want to grow. And further, inaction frequently means lost opportunity. This is not to say that “anything” is better than “nothing” – no Spaghetti Marketing. But a well-considered, even modest, plan of action will always out-perform Wait-and-See.
  • Treating Marketing as a Cost Center. Successful practitioners know that marketing is an investment in themselves – a good investment that generates revenue. A critical mistake is to treat marketing as an expense. Done properly and effectively, it is truly one of your best revenue centers … and what better place is there to invest than in yourself?
  • Inadequate Staff Training. Getting the phone to ring is only the first step– you would not want prospective patients to be disenchanted before they ever come to your door. Help your staff understand how to welcome these new patients with open arms. The attitude that new patients have about your practice is still forming when they first arrive.  An individual will judge you and your practice – and will want to return in the future – based on his or her entire experience.

Ethical marketing for a naturopathic practice begins with a solid plan. There will be challenges, mistakes and successes along the road. If resources are thin, you may want to read books about guerilla marketing and sales. But if you don’t have specific goals and a detailed plan, you can be confident that the ROI for doing nothing is always nothing.

Stewart Gandolf, MBA, and Lonnie Hirsch are cofounders of Healthcare Success Strategies, and two of America’s most experienced practice marketers. They have worked with all professional disciplines for a combined 30 years, and have consulted with more than 3,543 private healthcare practices. They have spoken at hundreds of venues across North America and their practical guidance on highly effective practice marketing appears regularly in professional publications. Reach them at (888) 679-0050, through their Web site at, or via e-mail at © 2010 Healthcare Success Strategies

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