Somewhere-on nearly every healthcare marketing plan-is a line item titled "event." For a medical practice it might be a new office "open house." For hospital marketing, it could be a community involvement or PR project. And for any healthcare provider or doctor marketing professional it is an opportunity to remove the "white coat factor" and engage a target audience face to face.
But while the intentions are lofty and the objectives are valid, the well-intended "open house" often falls flat on its face. (And the "event" line item quietly moves off the marketing plan and is relegated to the "we-tried-that-once" backwater bin.)
An open house or other public event can be a highly effective tool in healthcare marketing and shouldn't end up in the "never again" column. To move from flop to fantastic, here are seven of our tips for success.
Consider your target audience's taste first. The event needs to appeal to the people you want to attract. An open house for the general public will be different from an event aimed at professional colleagues. Don't be drawn to your personal tastes over those of the intended audience.
Pick a theme that gets attention. Be creative and, if possible, relate the theme to what you do. (Some professions lend themselves to themes more than others. As one example, have an art show if you are an ophthalmology practice.
Make it a party or event that you'd want to attend. But don't try to do it on the cheap. Ordinary wine, cheese and crackers won't make a memorable impression. Or worse, it may make the wrong impression. But really good, unusual wine, cheeses and crackers could. (A word of caution here, alcohol may not be appropriate in a number of circumstances.)
The venue really matters. The office may be suitable, but a better venue might be a restaurant within walking distance where the event can be staged following a brief tour of the clinical facility.
Thursday night often works best. The weekend is within sight, but your event is not competing with Friday night or weekend plans.
Have great, compelling invitations. Unusual, attention-getting invitations are persuasive and signal a not-to-be-missed occasion. Conversely, a plain or ordinary invitation suggests an unremarkable (and easily skipped) event.
Hand-deliver invitations to VIPs. Have someone on your team personally deliver the invitations to people you really want to attend. The personal touch is more direct and meaningful and therefore more compelling.
Not long ago we invited comments from our readers about their public event experiences and to share their success formulas. (Our blog post, Share Your Doctor Open House Ideas Formula: Unique Healthcare Marketing Ideas Wanted, is here.)
With a warm thanks to everyone who contributed online or via email, here are some of the notes that we received:
VIA EMAIL MESSAGE From Diane Haugen, Director of Patient and Community Relations, Foot and Ankle Center of Lake City
"We had a fantastic Holiday After Hours in 2011. Our practice is located in a building with other health care practitioners. Seven of us combined ideas and funds to host a Chamber Holiday After Hours. The purpose was to bring people to see and meet the health care practitioners-many of whom are new in the building, and to continue building the reputation that this location offered many types of health care, convenient to the neighborhood.
"Results? Several guests made the effort to say, 'This is the BEST after hours I have ever attended.' 'What a great idea!' 'I didn't know all these offices were here!' 'We had a blast!' 'How can I have one of these at my office?'"
"From our [event] debrief: We met every couple of weeks to nail down the details and figure out who was responsible for what. The timing worked: People are generally in a party mood in December and we did our best to not conflict with other events in the area. This event was targeted towards referral sources. The next one (in May) will be marketed to patients and the general public.
"This is a great idea for independent practices in a office/medical building and we all agreed it was fun getting to know each other better. Win-win all the way around."
VIA HEALTHCARE SUCCESS BLOG
I am so glad that you have come up with the "Open House " topic except that I need some advice NOW as I am hosting my Open House [in February]. As a female sole owner/operator of my prosthodontic practice I am so excited about my new office and passionate about my work that I hope I will be able to convey this enthusiasm to all my guests. Being close to Valentine's Day weekend, I may want to use that theme and present my practice and profession as a cultivated labour of love. I will greatly appreciate your feedback."
RESPONSE: "Since Valentine week is only a couple weeks away (and you may not want to rush things) you may want to consider having more than one event...perhaps one now for patients, friends and family that you can reach easily. And perhaps one (or more) events again in a month or so that specifically targets fellow professionals and professional referral sources/practices.
"Remember, to the public, a new office, practice or location is still "new" for quite a while. I've seen 'open house' events and themes that extend for months beyond the actual 'day one.' Take the time to do it right and then do it more than once."
VIA LINKEDIN GROUPS
DISCUSSION (Medical Marketing Network): "I am a new medical billing service start up. An open house sounds very interesting but I work from home. Any ideas?"
RESPONSE: "Thanks for the challenging question. How to have an open house when you are a home office business? Perhaps you could stage your event at, in or near a medical office complex... somewhere convenient to clients or prospective customers. Alternatively, perhaps stage your event at the office of a current client that would carry an implied endorsement of your services. (The office manager could invite their counterpart managers or administrators from other practices.)"
DISCUSSION (Pittsburgh Advertising Federation): "When I was a partner at a digital printing company (during the infancy of digital printing) we had a "Day to Remember" open house. When guests arrived, they completed a form with their name and any birthdays, anniversaries or other days throughout the year which were special to them.
"After a lot of key-stroking into a spreadsheet behind the scenes during the event, each of them went home with a wall calendar personalized with their name and their special days on their calendar. 15 years ago, that was amazing to the guests."
RESPONSE: "Very clever idea...and something that makes the event highly memorable as well. These days, personalized digital printing is something anyone can do online or in partnership with a local firm. Perhaps slightly less amazing these days, but clearly different and distinctive with the personalization (and behind the scenes preparation)."
VIA EMAIL MESSAGE From Wilma Erasmus, Physical Therapist
"I am a physical therapist in private practice in a rural town in South Africa and really enjoy your newsletters and articles.
"I use to send gifts to the referring doctors at the end of the year to thank them for their referrals of the year. But in 2010 I decided to change this and to thank the patients instead by having an open house with a difference.
"We send out invitations to our existing patients for a Christmas barbeque. (It is summer in December in South Africa). We had about 50 patients who pitched in and we had a beautiful barbecue, only sausages, rolls and cool drinks. We had patients of different sectors of the community some very rich and some very poor, but they mingled and shared stories and really had fun.
"This was much cheaper than [gifts], the patients really appreciated it, and it built patient loyalty towards the practice. It is now a set program every December.
"Thanks for your articles, I use some of the content (with references) in practice management courses that I give around South Africa to health practitioners."
REPLY: Thanks for your note and BBQ idea. I imagine that this idea could work anywhere...in warm summer months with a 'Christmas in July' twist, or even in cold winter months as an out-of-season 'BBQ event' (pretending it's warm) if the venue was sufficiently sheltered or staged indoors.
Bonus Tip: As you can tell from these comments, a key ingredient in the formula for success is enthusiasm. If our tips and these comments from readers inspire comments, suggestions or success stories from your experience, please let us know. A community and patient involvement special event can be a powerful and effective doctor-marketing tool. We welcome your ideas, and we'll share the best real-world material in a future article.