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Up Front | May 2002

Next-Generation Web Sites

Is your practice's Web site the effective marketing tool it should be?

In the late 1990s, laser vision correction and the Internet simultaneously exploded in popularity. Potential refractive patients began using the Internet to find information on surgeons and procedures, while physicians scrambled to create a Web presence for their practices as healthcare marketers began touting the Internet as an easy way to generate new patients ?7 days a week, 24 hours a day.? Thousands of ophthalmologists invested in simple, electronic brochure-type Web site designs, hoping to lure candidates as they surfed the Internet. However, few of these ?first-generation? Web sites actually delivered any measurable number of new patients because they lacked not only the content that patients are seeking, but the tools to convert Web site visitors into patients. Unfortunately, most ophthalmologists' Web sites are still using first-generation designs.

The Internet has increased consumer power by making products and services information widely available, and many industries have responded to consumers' demands for greater and higher-quality access to information. The eyecare industry has also tried to respond to this demand by greatly increasing the number of practices' Web sites on the Internet. However, many ophthalmologists have stalled in retooling their Web sites. Although a few ophthalmologists' sites have upgraded designs with some ?feel good? features (features that are attractive but do not serve a real purpose), most sites still lack what eyecare consumers want: useful information. If your Web site was built years ago by someone outside of the ophthalmology field, or if its information rarely changes, it will be difficult to compete with practices that have next-generation Web sites that act as extensions of their brick-and-mortar practices (called clicks-and-mortar). Your next-generation ophthalmic Web site should be an extension of your core business, providing detailed information to prospective patients in your market who want to learn as much as they can about eyecare and your services.

What Is a Next-Generation Web Site?
A next-generation Web site is a site that incorporates both standard features that Internet users expect in a site, as well as new, advanced features that make the site easier to use for visitors as well as you and your staff . Next-generation Web sites should be dynamic, like your practice, easy to update, and capable of integrating with your other external marketing campaigns. In addition to providing patients with all the up-to-date information that they need to take the next step and contact your office, your site must include back-end administrative features that provide you with concrete proof that visitors to your site are becoming callers to your office. Your Web host should provide you with a detailed monthly analysis of visitor activity. These reports will help you develop and test new ways of maximizing your Web site's effectiveness.

Another feature that differentiates next-generation Web sites from first-generation sites is the level of technology the site uses. All Internet users expect doctors who consider themselves on the leading edge of medicine to have a high-tech site that is easy to navigate and uses the latest in interactive Web features. This is another way in which your Web site can extend the experience that patients will have in your office to potential customers using the Internet.

Examples of how other industries moved from first-generation to next-generation Web sites can be found by looking at companies such as CNN and NBC. Their first-generation sites had a dozen or so pages of static information about their anchors, reporters, program schedules, and affiliates. Today, their next-generation Web sites are designed to deliver all the major news stories of the day, as well as to provide facts about their company. This truly makes their Web site an extension of their core business, which is to disseminate the news. Likewise, next-generation ophthalmic Web sites must be an extension of your core business by providing detailed information to your patients who want to learn as much as they can about eye care and your services.

Content Is Critical
A recent focus group study conducted by Patient Education Concepts in Houston, Texas, asked a number of seniors and young adults what they would look for if visiting an ophthalmologist's Web site. Their responses varied depending on the type of services they would be researching and their ages. However, one issue was clear: the appropriate content is critical to meeting prospective patients' needs, and patients want a lot of it! If you do not offer enough or the right kind of information, visitors will not stay on your site very long. The longer visitors stay on your site, the more likely they are to become one of your patients. Visitors who leave a site without taking a ?next step? such as registering for a seminar, signing up for e-mail news, requesting additional information, etc., usually do so because they feel you are attempting to restrict the information you want them to have or that your information is too limited or out of date. Next-Generation Web Site Checklist

Take this short quiz to see if you have a next-generation Web site.
• Does your Web site allow you to integrate the content of your marketing and promotional campaigns (radio, TV, or print) on your home page, offering patients a convenient resource from which to learn more about your offer and take the next step?
• Do you have the administration tools that allow you to easily modify and update your site with new information about you and your practice, current promotions, and upcoming events? (Or do you have to pay someone to do it for you, or are you unable to make any changes at all?)
• Is the content of your Web site specifically designed to educate, motivate and convert visitors to patients? (Or does your site read more like an AAO-sponsored brochure?)
• Does your Web site have enough information to hold a visitor for 5 minutes or longer? (Or do you merely cover a few subjects targeting only one or two services?)
• Does your Web site have links to unbiased information sources, reinforcing the value you place on patient information and education? (Or do patients get the impression that the information provided may be limited or in some way biased?)
• Does your Web site give visitors the option of signing up for e-mail updates so you can stay in touch with visitors after they leave your site, thereby allowing you to send them future news or promotions that could be important to their care?
• Is your Web site designed so that no matter what the visitor is looking for, they are only one click away from the information? (Or is your content so limited that they only have a few choices?)
• Does your Web site allow you to track what information visitors found to be most useful, as well as the number of visitors that took a “next step,” such as requesting an evaluation, attending a seminar, contacting your office, or getting directions to your office or promotion details, etc.? (Or do you simply receive a WebTrend report that is confusing to analyze or worse, offers no information at all?)
• Does your Web site have all the tools and features needed to allow visitors to respond to external advertising? (Or are you only able to convert leads during business hours, when someone can be in your office to respond on the telephone?)
• Does your Web site give visitors up-to-date information about new techniques and technology? (Or can your patients tell that you rarely, if ever, update the information on your site?)
• Are you able to share information with other practices that are using Web sites on how to make your site an even more effective tool for growing your practice? (Or do you feel isolated and unable to learn what other practices are doing?)

Dos and Don'ts of Content Development
Developing high-quality Web content is the largest roadblock most practices confront when building a site because it takes a lot of time and thought to create the wealth of information patients are seeking. Handing your Web developer a brochure, a PowerPoint presentation you purchased, or copying text from another doctor's site is likely to summon a letter from the copyright holder. Therefore, make sure your text is original. If you do choose to write your own text, it is extremely important to offer clearly written, patient-friendly content that will not frighten patients away, talk over consumers' heads, or provoke a letter from the FDA or FTC. In addition, the wording should not be sterile or overly technical. Instead, aim for text that is worded to instill trust and confidence in consumers, and design it to lead visitors to the next-step functions on your site.

Content Organization
There are two critical components of organizing your content. First, the information that patients are seeking should never be more than one mouse click away. The home page should have strategically placed links that offer visitors the shortest path to the information they desire. Second, the layout and navigation of your site should be intuitive enough that patients will know where they are going, instead of wondering, ?What happens if I click here??

Remember that the Web is a visual medium, which means that although content is the reason visitors click on your site, it also requires the right mix of high-quality graphics of lifestyle and eye images to make the content interesting. Just as “talking heads” will not hold your attention on a video, neither will Web page after Web page of plain text without eye-catching visual support. However, don't get caught up using a lot of fancy Flash technology—our focus group thought this was annoying and clicked right past it to find the information they were seeking.

The Web Site's New Role in Marketing
Here is where next-generation Web sites get interesting. Newspaper, direct mail, radio, and television ads cannot realistically give patients all the details about your practice or a promotion on which you want them to act. To maximize the results of your advertising campaigns, do not just mention your Web site's address in your ad, but instead use the ads to direct patients to your Web site for more information. By connecting your site with your other advertising efforts, it becomes the source for more detailed information about your campaign or promotion.

For instance, if you are running a campaign for a gift-giving holiday such as Christmas or Valentine's Day, the ad should suggest people contact the practice and visit the Web site for additional information. The home page of your Web site should feature the same campaign and provide the details of your offer. If you are promoting senior eye health screenings or flexible spending accounts, direct your patients to your Web site for driving directions to the next screening or to learn how flex plans can reduce the cost of laser vision correction. If your Web site does not allow you to do this, you are missing a huge practice-building opportunity.

A Web site that is truly an extension of your practice will assist in generating patients after normal business hours and on weekends as well. Many practices today feel they can only advertise on radio or TV during the hours that staff is at the office to answer calls. However, rates for many media are less expensive after hours and on weekends. If your promotions encourage consumers to visit the Web site for more information, you may decide to utilize this off-peak media and rely on your next-generation Web site to help convert visitors into patients.

Next-generation Web sites can also help convert patients into surgical cases during business hours. By providing access to your Web site in your office, patients should be able to go online, apply for procedure financing, and receive approval before they leave. Show them that you keep your pre- and postoperative instructions on your site so they can access them whenever they like. Also remember to ask your patients if they would like to be on your e-mail list and have them sign up while they are in the office.

Managing Your Site
Next-generation Web sites should also have sufficient back-end administrative tools to make updating your site easy. In addition to tracking the way in which visitors find your site, a good administrative program will allow you to change your seminar dates, update your physician information, add and remove downloadable forms, and change your promotional messages without having to contact your Web provider to make these changes.

Is Your Web Site Paying For Itself?
Many doctors will think their Web site is generating new patients if one out of 100 mentions that they have visited the practice's site. However, there are more reliable ways to know whether your site is generating new business. A good Web developer should provide you with monthly tracking reports that will provide information such as why each visitor came to the site (ie, for LVC or senior eye needs); how effectively your external marketing drove patients to the site (see Figure 2 below); and how many visitors clicked on the next-step functions. There are dozens of ways to track visitors on your site and interpret the data. Try to find a developer and a Web service provider that will help you understand what your data mean so you can use that information to modify your other marketing efforts.

Benchmarking Your Efforts
Another key aspect of next-generation sites is the ability to know how your practice is performing compared to other, noncompeting practices in similar-sized markets. You can learn this information if your Web host gathers benchmark data from your site and provides you with data from other sites it hosts. This information will allow you to correlate cause and effect and provides insights about how to make your Web site and overall marketing efforts more effective. Because most ophthalmology practices market to their local communities, the vast majority of them do not pose a competitive threat to one another. Your Web site provider should be able to make this knowledge accessible to you through user group participation, a newsletter, or by other means.

A Plan For The Future
Although creating and maintaining a Web site for your practice can be expensive, think of it as an important rest stop along the way to your patient's ultimate destination—a visit to your practice. As the Internet continues to evolve, however, it will be difficult for you to compete with a first-generation Web site. Find a Web designer that offers a plan for the future, one that allows for continuous updates and integration with your marketing campaigns. The expectations of Web-savvy consumers are on the rise, and having a next-generation Web site may be your most important tool in reaching your next generation of patients.

Robert Watson is President of Patient Education Concepts, Inc. in Houston, Texas. He may be reached at (800) 436-9126; robertw@patientedconcepts.com.
More information about Patient Education Concepts is available at www.patientedconcepts.com
Copies of the focus group responses, “What Patients Want in an Ophthalmic Web Site,” are available from PEC upon request.
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