Web sites as marketing tools: Boon or bust?

Hits don’t always translate into business leads

Speak to promoters of physician-referral sites on the World Wide Web and you’ll be convinced that the information superhighway is paved with gold. Speak to some physicians, however, and you find that the World Wide Web’s golden image is tarnished.

For example, one of the hottest health care sites on the Web is called SportsDoc (address: http://www.medfacts.com). SportsDoc is an interactive site that combines medical information on sports-related injuries with irreverent humor. It has been written up by Internet server providers as one of the best offerings on the Web. (See sample of Web site, p. 24.)

Less than a year after the site began operating, it already attracts over 80,000 Internet visitors ("hits") a month. On that count, it’s a huge success, says its promoter, John Babb, of Tele-Visual Communications in Clearwater, FL. The site is a hit with Net-surfers because it is entertaining.

For example, a user can choose to click on "PLAY DOCTOR" and determine how he or she would treat a virtual patient. There are contests with prizes for hard-core devotees of the site.

With 80,000 hits per month, the physicians who pay $425 annually to list their practice on the site must be raking in the dough, right? Not exactly.

In many instances there is no strong correlation between Web site hits and office traffic. For instance, of last month’s 80,000 hits at the SportsDoc Web site, Brad Henderson, MD, of Marietta, GA-based North Cobb Orthopedic and Sports Medicine received one follow-up call. The potential patient wanted the doctor’s professional advice but declined an offer to schedule an appointment.

Many physicians and administrators have been disappointed with the results they have gotten from their Web sites. For example, the South Carolina Heart Center in Columbia has had a home page for a year but has no new business to show for its efforts.

At the same time, there are medical practice Web sites that have reasonably good results. The San Francisco Spine Center gets 400 to 500 hits in an average month, says the clinic’s program supervisor Eric Swift. The practice adds two new patients each month as a result of its two-year-old site (address: http://www.spinenet.com). Swift says the site more than pays for itself because the site requires very little monthly maintenance.

What accounts for the variances among practices’ Web experiences? Differences in patient profiles, regional differences in Internet use, and other variables.

"From what I gather, most Web pages don’t get much response," says Keith Borglum, president of Santa Rosa, CA-based consultant Professional Management and Marketing. (For tips on how to design an effective Web site, see story, p. 25.)

"I think most businesses on the Internet don’t follow good marketing and business practices," he elaborates. "Most Web pages are created by artists or somebody with computer skills but no training in marketing. They can make pretty pictures, but that doesn’t yield results."

To get good results, you need a better understanding of the medium. Borglum, who helped design the San Francisco Spine Center site, considers the Internet to be a cross between the Yellow Pages, the newspaper, the encyclopedia, billboards, direct mail, and marketing lists. "The Internet has very particular criteria for being effective," he says.

It is better suited for a specialist practice than for generalists, Borglum says. Web site marketing attracts potential patients from all over the world. Meanwhile, the delivery of health care is essentially local.

For example, the Internet makes it easy for a patient to pose questions about the flu to a primary care physician. But if the flu sufferer is in Ashtabula, OH, and the physician is in Washington, DC, no business will likely be transacted between the two.

"If somebody is looking for a generalist, they usually just go to the Yellow Pages," Borglum says.

When a patient has a very specific need — an organ transplant, alternative cancer treatments, cardiac surgery or a spinal cord injury — there are fewer places to look, and the need is more urgent. People are willing to travel for those services.

The Internet therefore is better suited to a practice such as Swift’s. The San Francisco Spine Center attracts patients from all over the country because it specializes in treating patients who have had previous spine surgery. They need a new physician with exceptional skills.

People who contact the practice after visiting the Web site are very knowledgeable about their diseases, and generally, they use hard-core research methods to identify the clinic as a potential source, says Borglum. They are likely to be motivated to follow through with treatment if the their conditions are severe.

While entertainment value, games, and contests lure potential patients to Web sites such as SportsDoc, Borglum is skeptical about that approach. Sick people don’t want to be entertained; they want information that will help them get better, he says.

Content at the SpineNet site is composed of technical medical articles of interest to physicians and some potential patients and pertinent human interest stories for laypeople. "We also have a pre-visit self-evaluation for patients to determine whether they need to see a spine specialist," Borglum says.

The idea is to give away something at your site so that visitors perceive they have already received something of value by the time they call your office, he adds.

Borglum says that a dedicated site such as SpineNet works better for most physicians than a shared site such as SportsDoc. Usually a shared site will charge somewhere between $20 and $125 per month to list a participating physician. For a little more than one year’s fee at a shared site, a practice can customize its own Web site, which is likely to generate more qualified patient leads, he says.

Because potential patients correspond directly with listed physicians, there is no way to know exactly how many referrals result from SportsDoc’s popularity, says Babb. He argues that there is real value in shared sites because of the low cost of entry to the physician and the extraordinary amount of traffic a popular site generates.

Giving away SportsDoc T-shirts and pens to contest winners is building a powerful brand identity that over time will bring huge benefits to participating physicians, he says.