New media are coming, and hearing care professionals need to anticipate and take advantage of how (and from whom) consumers will soon be getting their information. Establishing a website is not just a case of individual marketing and business development, but it is also a necessary component for providing consumer-oriented information about quality hearing care as it relates to your professional practice.
A recent article1 in The New York Times, entitled “Web Research Transforms Visits to the Doctor,” reported on a trend that many of us are already well aware of: There is an information revolution impacting all aspects of our society, including the hearing health care profession. With an estimated 100,000 medical websites—including over 31,000 that specifically address hearing loss—experts predict that the worldwide web will profoundly change the relationship between health care professionals and their patients.
For hearing care professionals, this trend has obvious advantages. It brings into offices receptive clients who are better informed and better understand the importance of investing in quality care and instruments. The disadvantages are that, as people “surf” the web, they are vulnerable to individuals or groups whose practices and qualifications may be questionable. This is the reality of the unregulated worldwide web—true whether you are looking for information on hearing instruments or the latest bestseller.
The American Medical Association (AMA), one of the most powerful bodies within the health care arena, issued a statement declaring that the organization and its 297,000 members are “greatly concerned that a substantial proportion of the information on the Internet might be inaccurate, erroneous, misleading or fraudulent and thereby pose a threat to public health.” Nonetheless, in The New York Times article1, AMA President Thomas Reardon, MD, admits that doctors will need to deal with the Internet, noting, “I think this is the wave of the future.”
Riding and Cresting the Wave
Table 1. New media in human history.
How do hearing health care professionals ride this “wave” for the benefit of their practices and patients? How is it possible to prepare for the future? Without question, individual hearing care professionals need to establish themselves on the Internet so that consumers are better educated relative to their hearing losses and options for remediation. Additionally, manufacturers also need to help support the endeavors of these individual dispensing offices, and are doing so through increasingly innovative means. As one example, Oticon has promoted the crucial role that the hearing care professional plays in delivering quality care to those with hearing loss through its Human Link philosophy: to combine the very best technology with the very best professional care to enable those with hearing loss to live the life they want with the hearing they have. The information presented below is intended to provide readers with an understanding of why it is vital for hearing care professionals to become involved with online activities.
|Why You Need a Website|
By now, most people have heard about the “amazing” Information Age and the changes it portends. Yet, how exactly e-commerce and the Internet will affect our businesses is still largely unknown, and what their implications are for hearing care professionals may be even more ill-defined.
Much of today’s advertising strategy remains a product of the Industrial Age, a time when factories produced consumer goods and various mass marketing media—radio, print and TV—were used to drive consumer demand. While these media obviously remain effective, things are changing fast from an advertising standpoint. For example, television has gone through five basic stages, progressing from a time when there were less than a handful of channels of the 1940s-1970s, to multiple channels of the 1970s-2000s, to nearly 200 channels by 2005 (Fig. 1). To make a media buyer’s life even more complicated, average TV viewing time is seven hours less in homes with computers than in homes without computers. And in 50% of homes with computers, people watch the TV while they’re on the computer. Add to this the numerous magazines, newspapers, radio stations and other media vying for the general public’s attention, and it becomes clear that the average consumer’s exposure to any given advertisement has the potential to be greatly diluted. In addition to traditional marketing through broadcasting (e.g., TV, radio, newspapers), many businesses are increasingly looking at “narrowcasting” options like cross-selling products to existing customers, personal letters and phone calls, referral programs, open houses, direct mail, email and newsletters.
The constant change in media has driven and fundamentally changed marketing efforts during the past 80 years (Table 1). We are now on the brink of a wireless revolution that will yet again significantly change the way in which we get our information. Wireless technology will merge with the Internet to yield “Generation 3” devices which will give rise to increased email messaging, constant Internet information access, “telephony,” a greater range of personal information management and other systems that allow us to quickly and efficiently communicate.
In short, there is, and will continue to be, an explosion of media and information sources from which to choose. It can be expected that people’s preferred information resources will become narrower, more defined and targeted to individual tastes, needs, interests and lifestyles. Information will also be expected to be provided 24-hours a day, seven days a week—on demand. With this change in viewers’ relationship with their information sources, the entrepreneurs and businesspeople of today should be readying themselves to appeal to this more personalized and demanding audience.
Plunging In and Establishing an Internet Presence
What does the above mean for hearing care professionals? There are steps that should currently be taken to help those who are seeking hearing care information over the Internet receive proper guidance. For example, Oticon has launched Digilife.com, an Internet forum where people can get accurate information about hearing loss and the latest digital technologies and obtain access to qualified hearing care professionals. On a manufacturer level, these types of manufacturer websites will become a vital part of the consumer information chain.
Part of the lure of the web for many is the anonymity it provides as they discreetly seek out knowledge and consider taking action. This is a tailor-made feature for the hearing care field, as websites pose a non-threatening means for “image-conscious” consumers (i.e., those who may be embarrassed or in denial about their hearing loss) to obtain solid information about their hearing care options. As a dispensing professional, you can host a website which includes introductions to you and your staff. Remember, in the competitive Internet marketplace, offering prospective clients something that even the most sophisticated online dispenser cannot match—a trusted, established professional in their community who they can “meet” on the web without any commitments—can serve as an extremely valuable incentive for consumers.
Treat each first visit to your virtual office as the unique opportunity that it is. Provide easy-to-understand descriptions of the services provided and clearly link those services to the benefits that this expert care will provide. Focus on your own uniqueness and that of your staff, rather than zeroing in on the specific hearing instruments that are offered. Your personal touch is your best point of difference! A photo of your staff, your office and directions to your office can help further personalize the interaction between you and website visitors, and might provide the comfort level needed for someone with hearing loss to contact you directly.
In advertising and outreach to consumers and professional media, promote your website. This will help to build your reputation as a leading hearing care provider in your community and lead people— especially those most likely to surf the web for information—directly to your homepage. The author believes that even the simplest, most basic homepage is better than having no presence on the web or delaying that presence until you have built a “fancy” website. A simple, “honest,” no-frills homepage is inexpensive and easy to build. In many cases, it can be constructed by you and/or someone else in an afternoon. If you have the latest versions of the Microsoft Office Package, you probably already have the easy, web-building software FrontPage Express. So go ahead and get online!
Is this a completely effective solution to the “inaccurate, erroneous, misleading and fraudulent” practices on the web previously cited by the AMA’s President Reardon? Probably not. Nor is it a way to stop enterprises that attempt to dispense hearing instruments over the Internet without professional fitting and guidance to the users. But it is a positive and strategic step that places good, reliable information and reputable hearing care providers within the reach of people searching the Internet for answers to their hearing health care questions.
|How will your practice measure up online?|
|As if you weren’t under enough pressure already, there will someday be websites—accessible by everyone with one click of a computer mouse—that will rate your job performance, as well as the ability for you and your staff to satisfy clients. One example of this information resource is a website called healthgrades.com which offers report cards on medical doctors, hospitals, etc. As a visitor to the website, you can access a seven-item questionnaire that asks you to “Please Rate…”:
This information then goes into the current file on your physician. Instead of the words “your physician,” try replacing this with your name. In some respects, this is the ultimate Consumer Reports rating on health care professionals—direct patient reports on a doctor’s standard of care and “bedside manner” with no means for the physician to appeal his/her rating or plead his/her case. Plans are already in the works to extend this information system to other health care disciplines. For better or worse, it’s only a matter of time until hearing care professionals are given the same amount of online scrutiny.
The above is not meant to suggest that mass marketing tools should not be employed or relegated to a subordinate role. On the contrary, marketing media such as newspapers, yellow pages, magazines, direct mail, TV and radio will continue to be the staples of any marketing program far into the foreseeable future. However, the Internet will become an increasingly important Relationship Marketing component of a business’s overall strategy. Websites will help start dialogues and provide a continual stream of information for new and established customers alike.
Particularly for Baby-boomers and Swing Generation (ages 54-65) clients—who are known to be less loyal and more questioning of health care professionals than their World War II Generation (ages 65+) counterparts—maintaining a dialogue, staying in touch and constantly confirming their loyalty will be of greater importance for sustained business growth.2 To do this effectively, the professional will need to receive email from their clients and obtain permission to send materials to them. Once this permission is granted, the professional can start sending email and/or eNewsletters, provide them with Internet resources (including associated suppliers) and provide offers via email with links to their website and/or suppliers’ websites.
Some believe that this relationship marketing can actually be seen as a system of “eDating” customers, in which the marketer:
- Offers the prospect an incentive;
- Uses the attention to offer incremental information about the products and services over time;
- Reinforces the product and service incentives to retain current customers;
- Offer additional incentives for more/continued permission;
- Leverage the permission to increase the office’s customer base and profits over time.
Finally, providing customers and potential customers with information via a website also makes sense from a professional perspective. The greater the number of reputable hearing health care professionals who are represented online, the better chance that hearing health care professionals will be there to answer questions appropriately and, ultimately, advise people to seek qualified help locally. The combined efforts of qualified hearing care professionals, dedicated to delivering the kind of client care and service we all know is essential to a successful outcome, will always win out over less professional ways of doing business on the web, in the office and in the everyday practice of our profession. w
1. Web research transforms visits to the doctor. New York Times 2000.
2. Mark P: The Swing Generation: Challenges and opportunities in the new millennium. Hearing Review 2000; 7 (3): 24-28.
Correspondence can be addressed to HR or Peter Mark, MD, Oticon Inc., 29 Schoolhouse Road, Somerset, NJ 08875-6724; email: [email protected].