Extra! Extra! Newsletters can sell your practice

Great way to reach potential patients

When Pam Pierson, MBA, practice manager of Lexington (MA) Eye Associates spent about $8,000 in May to send out 23,000 newsletters, perhaps some of her 10 physicians thought she was risking a lot. But Pierson is convinced that newsletters are a great way to market her practice, both to existing patients so that they remain loyal and also to potential patients.

"It tells people who you are and introduces yourself with pride in a professional, yet enthusiastic manner," she says.

Does the newsletter do the job? Pierson says that existing patients mention it, and when new patients make appointments, they are asked how they heard of the practice. She hasn't done an in-depth study of its success, but she knows it is reaching the target audience and letting them know that the practice is cutting-edge and on top of new technology. "We are a premier group, but we didn't talk about ourselves before. We felt it was important to do so."

Advertising - what the newsletter is - works, Pierson adds. "But you have to keep doing it."

There are those who think newsletters aren't the best way to go. Keith Borglum, vice president of the Santa Rosa, CA, consulting firm Professional Management & Marketing, says that people are more likely to read a letter than a newsletter.

"Go ahead and use special announcement letters containing one to three topics," he advises. "Make [the letter] no longer than one page. It will get read more and have more impact than newsletters - especially the 'canned' [newsletters] upon which you put your own mastheads. They promote specialties, not the particular practice. And they are extra embarrassing when a patient or target gets the same newsletter from multiple physicians."

Lee Jones, marketing manager at the 13-physician Cardiology Associates in Corpus Christi, TX is working on her third newsletter. She has learned the hard way that the "canned" efforts aren't the best way to go. She used a service provided by the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) in Englewood, CO, which while good for some practices, didn't serve her needs.

"They do the copy for the inside stories," Jones explains, "and we did the stories for pages one and four." On the front page, the administrator has a column discussing things such as the practice Web site or new office hours. There is also room for a big newsy story - one recent effort was about diet drugs and their impact on heart patients. An upcoming one will deal with hormones and heart patients; in the future, there may be an article about Viagra.

Page four included room for continuations, a list of physician names, and the seven office locations. But inside the newsletter were stories that had no bearing on the practice or its patients. One, says Jones, related to sledding accidents. "We live in Corpus Christi. We don't know about snow."

Another article mentioned the danger of bacterial contamination from leaving dishes soaking in the sink. "We had a heart patient who thought it was about leaving your hands in the water for too long, and she was worried about what that meant to her heart condition," Jones says.

In the future, Cardiology Associates will produce a newsletter on its own. Aside from making it more relevant, it should also cut the cost down from the $7,600 she spent on the last run of 18,500.

Target carefully

Pierson's effort included a single sheet of good quality 8½ x 14 inch paper, printed on both sides with one section left blank for address labels. Along with articles on laser surgery and questions about cataract surgery, space was devoted to an introduction of new physicians and a report on a fourth location for the practice.

She targeted homes in ZIP codes around the offices but also asked the mailing house she used to look for people who met certain income criteria, who were homeowners, and who had children. "You can target in many ways," she says. "It can be as fine or as broad as you want. A good mailing house will be able to provide you with the list that meets your needs."

Targeting becomes especially important in large cities, where two blocks can completely change the demographics of the population to a different socioeconomic base of the community, Pierson says. "You don't want to just throw it at people. You want it to get to people who will use your services."

Jones says you shouldn't limit yourself to individuals. For example, Corpus Christi has a large population of "winter Texans" who come only to escape cold Northern winters. They reside in condominium complexes and mobile home parks. Jones says she sends a stack of her newsletters to those common rooms so that people who might not otherwise hear about her practice will be able to find it if they need to.

"We do get calls from people who see fliers or newsletter in condo complexes," Jones says.

Pierson says while your physicians should have input into what kind of content they want to see in a newsletter, their involvement should be minimal. "They don't have time to be involved. This isn't about technical writing but about writing for the public. You don't want to have a constant going back and forth. You would rather let them see the draft and then go on to your printer for layout and printing and get it out the door."

Costs will vary depending on how many copies you send out, Pierson says, but printing and production will run about $2,000 for two colors. The rest of the budget was spent on mailing. "You have to be careful because you want the paper to be respectable, but not weighty. You don't want to break the bank with postage."

Keep it simple

Don't get hung up on design, either, Pierson advises. Rather, let a good printer do it in-house for you. "You don't need to go to a graphic designer. A printer will do it for less. Find someone who will take you through the process and through the different grades of paper."

The content should also be simple. "You have to be able to write, understand how people think, what they think, and what issues would be good to address. Some newsletters will contain numerous pages defining a particular disease or medical condition in depth, such as cataracts.

"If a prospective patient receives a newsletter with nonstop type, he or she is not going to take the time to read it. The goal of sending out a newsletter is inform people how your practice can help them.

"Tell them what you can do for them. Don't tell them what the problem is. They usually know that. Or if they don't have the problem, they don't care, but they are willing to hear about what you can do for them if they have one. You want to open the door for the reader on how to deal with problems, ease their fears," she says.

The newsletter goes out about every four months. "It isn't the only part of the marketing plan," Pierson says. "It is more PR than marketing. But it is part of the whole package. This supports our other efforts."

Jones agrees."It is one means of communication, and any time you communicate with your patients is good. It tells them they are important. It personalizes your practice."

· Pam Pierson, MBA, Practice Manager, Lexington (MA) Eye Associates Inc. Telephone: (781) 862-1620.

· Keith Borglum, Vice President, Professional Management & Marketing, Santa Rosa, CA. Telephone: (707) 546-4433.

· Lee Jones, Marketing Manager, Cardiology Associates, Corpus Christi, TX. Telephone: (512) 888-8271.

· Susan Haro, Practice Administrator, Grosse Point Allergy and Asthma Centers, East Point, MI. Telephone: (810) 447-4200.