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Community Marketing: A Comprehensive Guide to Engaging Your Neighborhood

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

Two men having a discussion in a conference room, sitting across from each otherCompared to other forms of marketing, community marketing doesn’t get a lot of attention or even respect. In fact, truth be told, I’m a digital marketer at heart, and until a few weeks ago I really didn’t appreciate its power either.

My “awakening” came when I recently had the opportunity to sit in on a podcast with my boss, Stewart Gandolf, CEO of Healthcare Success, and his friend Matt Hall, Vice President of Marketing for Pacific Dental Services (PDS). During the podcast interview (see below for full podcast), Matt and Stewart had a lively discussion about how powerful--and fun--community marketing can be.

I’d like to share with you some of the insights I learned from these industry leaders with the hope you can use them for your own practice or hospital.

Defining community marketing...

Before we tell you how to make community marketing work, we have to tell you what community marketing is. The definition of community marketing varies widely. For as powerful as it is, there’s honestly no commonly accepted definition. Here’s our definition.

Community marketing seeks to engage with and attract prospective customers on a very local level, through their cities or even neighborhoods.

The most common way of doing this is to leverage community events. Every year you’ll be at the Halloween parade or annual movies in the park series. You’ll sponsor some local sports teams or kids summer camp. You may even hire the high school band to play at the grand opening of your practice or hospital.

You don’t have to do it all, but you do have to be present in more than one way. It’s common for many marketers to brush off community marketing as simple community events or sponsorships, which it is, but it can be so much more.

Community marketing has some key benefits over other tactics:

  • Grows loyalty – Consumers want a sense of belonging. Creating a sense of community for your patients helps foster a lasting relationship with them. It takes more than just one or two community events, however, to build brand loyalty. Read more about the importance of brand loyalty.
  • Maintains Authenticity – Reaching out to the community truly shows you, as a physician and practice, care. One caveat is that it’s important to be authentic, or your efforts may seem intrusive or insincere.
  • Affordability – While there are some costs involved, it’s almost guaranteed to fit your overall marketing plan.

Focus on the community...

This seems like a no-brainer. Most doctors understand that their community has its own unique characteristics that should be included in marketing efforts.

For example, advertising copy needs to match the language of the region. Patients in the Northwest are different from patients in the Midwest, which are different from patients in the Southeast. Those differences should be reflected in the way the ad copy is written.

Ad photos are equally as important. You can’t use photos of lush, rolling hills if the practice or hospital is in an area surrounded by plains that stretch to the horizon.

But what most doctors miss is that capturing a sense of community comes down to branding, something that PDS has undoubtedly mastered.

“The genesis is from our owner-doctor model, where doctors are owners of their individual practice,” Matt said in the podcast.

Each office is named, owned and branded locally. Many of the clinicians are serving their hometowns, which is what drives them to get involved in community activities.

“Our brand is local,” Matt explained. “And if they’re named local, they should engage local."

“Healthcare itself is local,” Stewart added. “Community marketing is on the ground level, it’s effective, but it’s labor intensive and takes energy.

So, how do you make community marketing work?

Passive sponsorship vs. engaged sponsorship

Community events are the bread and butter of community marketing. Like any other marketing tool, these events require thoughtful planning and a clear strategy. You wouldn’t publish an ad in a local paper or run a television commercial without first doing your research. The same applies here.

“There needs to be intentionality,” Matt explained. “It’s easy to write a check for the little league team and put your name on the back of the hat or a t-shirt.” But efforts like that are passive. The real results come when your marketing is more engaged. “Little league teams need snacks every week,” Matt added. “Why not put the snacks together and actually show up?”

Community events need to make a lasting impression. You’re guaranteed to grab parents’ attention when you go the extra mile for their kids.

Being an engaged sponsor certainly doesn’t happen on accident. As Matt mentioned, it takes intentionality and planning. It also takes a certain willingness on the part of the doctor and staff to help the event succeed. “The more engaged you are, the better,” Stewart explained. “It’s supposed to be fun…it’s not about selling services, it’s about connecting with the community.”

Also, please don't set up a table and just sit behind it. Matt suggests that doctors and staff stand in front of the table, hand out flyers, and actively talk to passers-by. Cat got your tongue? Here are a few helpful tips for starting a conversation:

  • Find a topic that’s local to the community. For example, we’re based in Orange County, California. You could ask if someone likes surfing, or which beach is his or her favorite.
  • Talk about the local sports team. This sounds cliché, I know. Just make sure you’re discussing a sport that’s “in season,” so the conversation is relevant.
  • Ask a question. You never know what someone’s healthcare needs are; so don’t be afraid to ask. Do you have a primary care physician? When was the last time you went to the dentist’s office?

So, how do you know if the event was successful?

Critical Success Factors

For many doctors and practices new to community marketing, events can seem daunting and even nerve-wracking.

“The biggest ‘over the hump’ is year one,” Matt said. “Once you make it past year one of doing events, it’s easy. You’ve done it before, so you know what to expect.”

As I mentioned earlier, community events require thoughtful planning and a clear strategy. It’s important to choose the right event. We’ve talked a lot about sponsoring local sports teams, but there are many other types events or outreach programs:

  • Any sort of run — 5k, 10k, half or full marathons
  • Health fairs
  • Local or state fairs
  • Town events
  • Educational seminar
  • Community/Patient appreciation
  • Create your own

There are several critical components that will help ensure the success of your event:

  • Bring an appointment book or tablet. Most events are considered a success based on the number of booked appointments. Set a goal for your staff and representatives. It also helps give the event a purpose so employees will be more engaged.
  • Contact sheet. If an event attendee doesn’t want to make an appointment quite yet, it’s always a good idea to have a supplemental email sign-up sheet where you can gather information to initiate an email marketing campaign.
  • Free stuff. It seems kitschy, but it’s undoubtedly effective. Remember that you need to make an impression at an event, and what a better way than to hand out free goodies? This could be a range of things. Pens and water bottles are the standard, but why not get creative? Remember, you need to make a lasting impression.
  • Screening. While similar to giveaways, screenings are their own category. This is a great, easy way to interact with potential patients and pique their interest in your practice. Set a goal for how many screenings you’d like to perform during an event. It's also an opportunity to book appointments.
  • Bring your top staff members. Stewart argues that whom you bring to the event to represent your practice is the most important factor. While you certainly value all of your staff members, the ones you choose to represent your practice or hospital at a community event should be engaging, friendly, and excited about his or her participation.
  • Follow-up is key. The appointments you book during the event won’t matter if they don’t show up. Be sure to follow-up with all the potential patients you schedule or received contact information.

Promoting community events to your own patients

While the ultimate goal of a community event may be to attract new patients, it’s also an opportunity to connect with current patients. Reach out to current patients — whether it’s via email, phone call, text, social media, or mailers — to let them know you’re participating in an event. Using existing channels and patient touchpoints is one of the best ways to promote your events and activities to patients.

“It’s great to have your own patients involved,” Matt said. “And the community sees that. They’re walking testimonials.”

During our interview, Matt also shared his secret, #1 most critical factor to succeed at community events. However, Stewart made me promise not to tell you here. You’ll just have to listen to our podcast.

Bonus community marketing idea #1 – Support your efforts with advertising

The “A” students among you can leverage your participation in your events by supplementing your efforts with external advertising. I spoke to our media buyer, Charlie DeNatale, about some best practices for promoting community events with traditional media:

  • Find a media vendor like a radio station or newspaper to partner with who can help promote the event in several different ways. If it’s newsworthy, arranging an appearance on a local station a few days before the event will help boost attendance.
  • Have a calendar posting about the event and your appearance. You can put the posting on most local radio station and newspaper websites yourself.
  • Invest in an inexpensive post-it note advertisement on the front page of your community newspaper announcing the event.
  • Utilize external marketing, like radio or print, if you are partnering with a local sports team. You can also consider a “radio remote.” Highlighting your partnership can lend credibility to your efforts.

Bonus tip: Don’t be afraid to ask the local station to cover the event for free while you’re there! It’s likely that radio and television stations need ideas for stories.

Bonus community marketing idea #2 – Support your efforts online

I also spoke to Raheim Bundle, our Digital Marketing Director, about best practices for promoting community events online:

  • Add a landing page to your website with dedicated information about your event. Be sure to include as many details as you can about the event and your participation — including where patients can find you at the event.
  • Generate multiple postings on social media. Facebook has a variety of ways to promote events that will extend far beyond the limited reach of your own Facebook Page fans. If there’s room in your budget, you can spend a few dollars to boost your event to cast a wider net online.
  • Create a video! This year is all about sight, sound, and motion. Video drives higher engagement online and reaches more potential patients. While it doesn’t have to be a professional production, it’s important that your video is high quality and conveys your message in a fun and meaningful way.

Community marketing: Your new friend and powerful ally

Any practice or hospital can use community marketing as part of its overall strategy. And like any other marketing tool, you can help guarantee the success of your event with thoughtful planning, intentionality, and effective promotion.

We covered a lot of information in this article, but we want your efforts to be spectacularly successful. From understanding the different types of events, to how to promote them, we hope you feel empowered to engage with your community.

For more information about community events, including our secret, additional tips, please listen to the full podcast with Stewart Gandolf and Matt Hall.


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