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Up Front | Jun 2003

Should Marketing Take a Summer Vacation?

A marketer's thoughts on the mystery of reduced summer surgical volume.

Every year at about this time, scores of surgeons, administrators, and marketing personnel pack up their marketing toys and put them away for the summer because they're convinced that it's just not the ideal time to invest advertising dollars in LASIK and cataract campaigns. Should you try and buck this summer trend? Or will you follow the majority of practices by dramatically reducing your marketing efforts from June through August?

To answer these questions, we first need to determine whether or not the phenomenon of reduced summer surgical volume is fact or fiction. If the downturn indeed occurs, is it self-induced, a result of surgeons' extended vacations, or is it related to an overall change in the buying habits of consumers during the summer months?

Although little research has been conducted on the seasonal slowdown in LASIK volume within the ophthalmic industry, noticeable trends exist within various regions of the country. In some of the northernmost states, cataract and refractive surgical volumes tend to remain somewhat higher during the summer months compared with the rest of the country. Senior patients who flee those states during the bitter winter season return for the pleasant summer months. If they haven't already undergone cataract surgery by a friendly competitor in the southern region, summer is the perfect time to have their vision restored.

Many LASIK practices in the north, northwest, and northeast enjoy a healthy surgical volume during the summer months. It's a time for the public to get out and enjoy the beauty of the outdoors, and LASIK campaigns that promote visual freedom via happy, adventuresome models tend to work well. Obviously for practitioners in these areas of the country, taking a marketing hiatus during the peak of the outdoor season may not be the wisest move.

Cities along the eastern seaboard such as Philadelphia and Baltimore experience an annual summer exodus as the general public flees to the seashore or mountains every weekend. As a result, the majority of these consumers spend their summer disposable income in those areas. Additionally, summer may not be the ideal time for seniors in these cities, due to the high heat indices. The ideal seasons for this patient group in the East (and most regions in general) to elect LASIK are the spring and fall. In these regional markets, our clients generally end their campaigns in June and reinstate them in late August or early September.

In the South, summers can be brutally hot and humid—not ideal conditions for motivating the public into spending. On the other hand, much of the South is warm to hot all year long, so marketing during the summer is often just as effective as during other times of the year. Practitioners there may want to avoid marketing in July, however, because (1) so many consumers travel around July 4th and (2) July is typically one of the hottest times of the year, and buying habits change when heat becomes a major factor. Therefore, southern surgeons who want a little vacation from marketing should consider the month of July.

Practices out west are blessed with good weather year round, so they cannot really blame reduced summer volume on the temperature. In this region, reduced surgical volumes may be the effect of vacations taken by both the general public and by surgeons as well as staff members. In the northernmost portions of the West Coast, summers actually tend to be a good time to market cataract surgery and LASIK. Practitioners here should study the trends of the past few years as well as the market as it enters the higher peak seasons, then simply reduce their expenses when volume traditionally drops.

Regardless of geographic location, I generally believe that summers are a time when everyone takes a more laid-back approach to life. The public as a whole typically spends less time in the office and more time with their families, and big-ticket purchases are usually related to travel and vacation. If you decide to market during the summer months, your advertising message should complement this relaxed mode.

For cataract campaigns, remind seniors and grandparents of all the memories they will enjoy with their families this summer through the beauty of restored vision. Remind them how easy, comfortable, and safe cataract surgery has become. Also, educate consumers about how little time is required to undergo cataract surgery, and how today's technological advances in cataract care have reduced recuperation time.

For LASIK campaigns, encourage consumers to “get out there” and “see it all.” Remind them of all there is to do and see in this picturesque time of year and how burdensome their old glasses and contacts are. Have fun with your campaigns. Infuse them with a little humor. Keep them fresh, upbeat, and exciting.

If you are considering using television as a medium for advertising this summer, just remember that, when the days are longer, the public generally spends more time away from the tube. The networks will not premiere any new shows until fall, and many people take time in the summer to rent the movies they missed in the theaters during the busier times of the year. If you do choose to advertise on TV, run the ad either early in the morning or after 9:00 PM.

For LASIK surgeons, this summer may be different than any experienced in the recent past, because both Alcon Laboratories, Inc. (Fort Worth, TX), and VISX, Inc. (Santa Clara, CA), have received approval for their customized wavefront-guided ablation technologies. The systems represent a legitimate leap in refractive technology and are worthy of marketing during the summer because of their timeliness. Why wait until the fall to promote this new and exciting LASIK technology when many of your competitors will have been doing so for months? Will you still be able to promote customized laser vision correction this fall? Absolutely. Whether or not the public's initial excitement will have worn off by then, however, will depend on your competitors. If they have beaten the customized LASIK drums all summer, you may be a little more challenged in launching your campaign come fall.

Therefore, it is imperative that you keep an eye on your competition. I encourage clients to approach marketing proactively rather than reactively. If surgeons in your area start positioning themselves as leaders in customized LASIK this summer, you may want to join the fray rather than let them promote themselves as the only surgeons in your area to offer the benefits of this breakthrough procedure.

As I write this article, my company is running several ongoing customized LASIK campaigns for both CustomCornea (Alcon Laboratories, Inc.) and CustomVue (VISX, Inc.) LASIK. Because of the current state of the US economy, we have been most successful with conducting live seminars that allow the public to witness the power of this incredible technology. During these seminars, a handful of attendees are given complimentary wavefront evaluations, the results of which we then share with the other attendees. Even practices that have used seminars in the past to promote LASIK experience success when they use new seminars to properly promote and explain the benefits of LASIK to attendees. To further entice participants, we typically offer a savings certificate for those who attend. You can often offset the cost of these certificates by increasing your LASIK surgical fees.

If yours is like most practices, you haven't raised your fees much during the past 2 years. In fact, you may even have reduced your rates. With the recent approval of customized LASIK, however, all of our current clients have substantially raised their fees with little or no resistance from the public. Increasing your overall fees for refractive surgery will allow you to offer limited savings or a discount to the public without substantially affecting your bottom line.

So, should you increase your marketing budget this summer or take your advertising staff on vacation with you? In all honesty, I do not recommend that most practices increase their advertising this summer. Those that have new technology to promote or exist in an area that relishes the warmth of summer, however, may be in for surprising returns from continued marketing efforts.

Once again, spend cautiously, promote carefully, and monitor regularly. Happy trails this summer.
Michael W. Malley's monthly column offers perspectives on effective marketing strategies for refractive surgery practices. Mr. Malley is founder of The Centre for Refractive Marketing in Houston, and he does not hold a financial interest in any laser manufacturer. He may be reached at (713) 839-0202; mike@refractivemarketing.com.
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