Choosing the Best Medical Website Provider

| July 18, 2012

Advice on Creating and Maintaining a Successful Bariatric Practice

Part 2 of a 2-Part Series

Choosing the Best Medical Website Provider

by Brent Cavender and Kim Goin

Brent Cavender is from Etna Interactive, Inc., San Luis Obispo, California. Kim Goin was employed at Allergan, Inc., Irvine, California, when she contributed to this paper.

FUNDING: No funding was provided.

DISCLOSURES: Brent Cavender is currently employed at Etna Interactive, Inc., San Luis Obispo, a medical Web marketing company. Kim Goin was employed at Allergan, Inc. when she contributed to the paper.

You need a website—Now what?
If you want your bariatric practice to thrive, internet marketing is essential, not optional.[1] To be competitive, you will at some point need the services of an internet marketing firm for a new website design, a redesign, or optimization of an existing site. The good news: there are more than 12,000 Web vendors in the United States from which to choose. The bad news: with so many available, it can be daunting to narrow the field and choose precisely the right vendor for you.

When your bariatric practice selects the right Web vendor, you steadily gain in search engine rankings, patient leads, and ultimately procedures. This snowballs into referrals, testimonials, and positive online reviews from healthy, satisfied patients. Your business flourishes.

With a less-than-optimal Web vendor, you could spend tens of thousands of dollars on tactics that fail to significantly improve search engine rankings and Web performance. You can languish for months or years online before realizing that you are on the wrong path. The key to finding the best Web partner: asking the right questions and focusing on the main objective.

Focus on the Right Stuff
Certainly bariatric websites must provide helpful information and educate patients. Excellent design, attention to detail, and website organization should all convey a quality of care, but the main objective of an effective website is financial performance, or in marketing and business vernacular, return on investment (ROI). In an effective marketing campaign, every marketing-related activity will directly or indirectly support ROI.

If ROI defines success online, then a Web vendor’s ability to deliver and document ROI should be the cornerstone of your vendor selection criteria. A Web vendor’s capabilities, experience, track record, and counsel should all be judged against how they support ROI in an Internet marketing campaign. Developing a website can be creative and fun, but successful practices focus on ROI primarily, and they seek out proven business partners to achieve that result.

For bariatric practices insisting on ROI from their website, the following 10 questions—and the correct answers—will credential the most qualified vendors.

1. Does the vendor initially focus on business objectives and functionality or on design? We all like shiny things. Aesthetically appealing websites convey success and style, and they can inspire people, but is site design really the most important attribute in developing financial traction online?
Consider two scenarios. The first website is visually appealing. It mesmerizes with Flash animation and pretty colors and high-quality video, but there’s no execution of search engine optimization or conversion tactics. The second website is mediocre in appearance at best, but it’s built to be highly appealing to search engines for key search terms. When potential patients arrive at this site, conversion tools and tactics along with an attention to detail entice visitors to take the next step and reach out to the practice.

Which of these two websites will drive more relevant patient inquiries into the practice? While the first website is attractive and appealing, a lack of optimization ensures that few visitors will ever arrive there to appreciate the design appeal. When potential patients do happen upon it, they may be intrigued, but without personal appeals, quick contact forms, and effectively placed calls to action, the visitor won’t feel compelled to take action.

The functionally effective website will host more relevant searchers, and more of these potential patients will be persuaded to take action. With that said, there is no reason why a fully functional website can’t be all of these things: optimized for search engines, effective at conversion, attractive aesthetically, interactive, and engaging with an attention to detail. Savvy practice professionals appreciate the interplay and relative priority of all these considerations.

2. How does a vendor uncover keywords and deploy them in websites? Search engine optimization (SEO) plays a critical role in the success of nearly every website. Thus, potential Web providers must know how to identify the exact words and phrases patients use to find your services and how to weave these into the construction and content of a website. These highly searched words and phrases are called keywords, and they are unique based on the topic of a particular page and the bariatric practice geography. The “tell” for worthy vendors is whether they know how to employ special tools to select keywords (research). They’ll also be familiar with how and where the keywords should appear on page and off for maximum SEO performance.

The majority of SEO concepts are straightforward so consider whether the vendor is capable and confident enough to express SEO methodology effectively. As you encounter the topic of keywords, it is important to evaluate if the vendor is using technical jargon to keep you out or explaining concepts in simple terms to let you in? Does the vendor freely and adeptly educate you on their approach? An important rule in performing successful SEO is not to guess at keywords. There are effective tools that uncover the most valuable keywords. Capable providers will know how to use these tools with proficiency and may even demonstrate how keyword selection is made.

Authors’ Tip: When asking vendors about SEO, refrain from showing how much you know. Instead, ask the vendor, “How do you decide on keywords?” If they respond without explaining how they perform keyword research or if they suggest that you’ll provide keywords, it’s a strong indication that the vendor is not sufficiently qualified.

3. Does the online provider have bariatric and/or elective healthcare experience? Why is elective healthcare experience so important online? There are numerous reasons, but the most compelling is that healthcare experience informs providers where and at what rate to invest your resources to maximize ROI. They won’t waste your time and money on content, campaigns or tactics with little possibility of delivering a substantive ROI.

For example, providers with bariatric experience will look for keywords in the following: 1) branded names like “LAP-BAND,®” 2) desired results like “weight loss,” 3) related conditions like “diabetes,” and 4) bariatric procedures like “gastric banding surgery.”

They will know that LAP-BAND® might be spelled “lap-band,” “lap band,” or “lapband” in search queries for different regions. They will provide extraordinary value by refining terms for every new opportunity to uncover the keyword search volume. An experienced provider also knows that less formal descriptions like “weight loss surgery” are often searched more frequently than clinically correct terms like “bariatric surgery.”

Capable healthcare Web vendors will also be familiar with medical marketing laws. They will help you to navigate the laws and regulations specific to your geography. They will counsel you to be aware and to comply with more global medical mandates like The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). In medical marketing, hiring unqualified friends or family or trading services with patients is never a bargain if it puts a practice’s medical license or online success in jeopardy.

4. Does the practice retain ownership of the design, content, and URL? A strong yet subtle indicator of a Web provider’s long-term likelihood to deliver ROI is their transparency. When vendors are 100-percent transparent, they signal confidence and a track record for performance. They have the courage to describe the good, the bad, and the ugly of their approach before the deal is done, and they allow a client to leave freely because they know the ultimate bond with the client is documented delivery of ROI. Conversely, companies that rely on deception or technical/legal “hooks” to close the deal send a very different signal.

How are deception, transparency, and confidence related to asset ownership? Historically, less capable (and less ethical) website vendors used deceptively low initial costs, long-term contracts, and large termination penalties to cling to clients. The most egregious “hooks” include holding a URL, a design, or a client’s content hostage so departure is costly.[2]

In reality, every Web provider favors certain hosting services, website features, or Web platforms which make switching ships costly; but there’s practical justification for this approach. By working in a familiar environment, like a surgeon working in their own operating room, Web providers can deliver more valuable features, more affordable maintenance, and higher uptime. Bariatric practices that appreciate switching costs and understand deceptive tactics like retaining assets will protect themselves and select more carefully.

Confident, proven vendors explain all charges up front. They charge fairly and transparently for design, content, and even keyword research, and then they make the associated digital assets readily available to clients, even when the client wants to leave. The best providers not only allow clients to leave with digital assets in hand, they genuinely assist those clients to land squarely with the next Web vendor

5. Does the vendor offer exclusivity to protect their clients? Successful SEO comes down to ranking prominently in search engine results pages (SERPs), and this only happens when a Web page demonstrates its relevance versus other Web pages. Potential patients search using specific terms like “weight loss surgery Saint Louis” or “lap band Florida” so close geographical competitors are pursuing search engine ranking for the same keywords. In any search, there can be only one page ranked highest and one page ranked second highest, so bariatric practices automatically limit their potential success when they work with a website vendor that already promotes direct competitors.

Bariatric practices should expect that after they become successful online, local competitors will experience a decline in business. Those competitors will eventually uncover the source of lost inquiries—a new peer website and improved search ranking. Often, this is followed by a call to the effective Web provider requesting similar services. Ethical Web providers demonstrate integrity and a commitment to their existing clients by declining new business requests from direct competitors. When selecting a Web vendor, ask if they provide some promise of exclusivity and how it works.

6. Does the vendor have in-house clinical copywriting or direct access to clinical copywriters? In online marketing, content is critical. We consume content and interact with websites, appreciating graphics, clicking links, and watching videos, but bariatric practices best convey “quality of care” when they provide sufficient, well-written, unique, and grammatically correct text-based content. Search engines, in particular, value this and rank accordingly. In essence, search engines are judging content to guesstimate whether one page answers a searcher’s question (search query) more effectively than another page.

Text-based content is so critical that a website vendor’s likelihood to deliver ROI should be judged partially on their ability to produce well-written, optimized copy, but attracting the attention of search engines is only part of the challenge. What good would it be to website visitors if, upon arrival, they were turned off and turned away by poorly written or poorly organized content? The best Web vendors will have their own stable of proven clinical copywriters. At a minimum, qualified vendors must show consideration and a convincing plan for how to produce effective, unique copy. Copying content from other websites is not an acceptable option as search engines recognize and penalize websites with duplicate copy.
Having practice professionals create website copy might be an option, if not for two concerns. First, practice professionals are busy. Website projects can easily be delayed by months and years when copy is homegrown and every week that a website project is delayed is one more week that search engine ranking and new patient inquiries are delayed. Second, practice professionals may be capable of producing clinically correct copy, but may not possess the ability to communicate in prose that simultaneously represents the voice of the practice, resonates with the audience, and triggers the search engines to find your site.

For those that question whether a website vendor is capable of producing effective, clinically accurate copy, the answer is this: Trained copywriters have been producing successful copy on behalf of medical practices for a decade across thousands of websites. Effective website copy produced by an experienced Web provider can emulate a practice’s unique voice online while informing and educating. The bottom line is great copy attracts visitors to a website and inspires them to take action.

7. Does the vendor monitor and measure ROI, and are they basing proposed solutions on ROI? When clients evaluate various Web tactics and Web vendors, too often they set budgets and make decisions based solely on a desired “I” in ROI without a thorough appreciation of the potential “R” and how it is generated. After all, if a particular Web vendor can launch a site for a lower initial price, isn’t that always the best financial choice? The answer is, “No, not necessarily, not likely.” Bariatric practices should consider the expected lifespan of the website. If a more costly website vendor shows evidence of producing many times the return of the less costly alternative, that’s a better investment. For a practice to make this selection with confidence, however, a vendor must demonstrate their focus on ROI-based solutions, and they must possess means to monitor and measure the site’s financial performance.

Most website vendors speak about analytics and metrics, assuring prospective clients that there will be some way to review performance data, but the website vendors most likely to deliver ROI will possess knowledge and a methodology for counting individual patient inquiries and tracking those inquiries to revenue. Having ROI data provides value to practices on the following two fronts: 1) It gives confidence to continue infusing funds for marketing, and 2) It provides a roadmap to the tactics that are paying off and an exit indicator to initiatives that are unfruitful.

To go into detail regarding how ROI can be monitored and measured down to the dollar is beyond the scope of this discussion. It’s sufficient for bariatric surgeons to ask the question and to lean toward those Web vendors that speak and act in terms of ROI, and demonstrate sound tools and methodologies to gather real data.

8. Does the vendor account for site mapping during the proposal process? When contractors build a house, they use a blueprint to plan the project, estimate materials, and complete construction on time and within budget. Similarly in website projects, qualified vendors use a site map to plan, estimate, design, and construct the website. They document features, number of pages, the title, and context of every page and their sequence relative to each other.
The best site maps also assign responsibility. Is the client providing content for a particular page, or is it the vendor? Thorough site maps document all of these considerations so that the project is executed on time and on budget.

Not every website vendor addresses site mapping as a free service during the proposal process; but at a minimum, qualified vendors will raise it as a concern and convey how and when it will be dealt with. Sometimes this is for a nominal fee. The least proficient providers will ignore site mapping completely, opting to “wing it” instead. Ask every vendor up front about site mapping and request to see samples to gauge their readiness.

9. Does the vendor use account managers? Every market situation is different. The practice personality, the menu of services, risk aversion, and the evolution of a website will all be unique for a specific bariatric practice so one can’t expect a cookie-cutter approach to maximize ROI. Experienced vendors understand this and develop a discipline around project management and Web marketing processes. They assign account managers (AMs) as the primary contact overseeing a client’s individual needs.

The value of AMs becomes especially pronounced with full-service Web vendors. They employ numerous specialties like copywriting, engineering, design, site development, and client marketing. Bariatric practices that are maximizing ROI online depend on every one of these skills, so a familiar advocate inside the organization is particularly valuable.

The best AMs can multitask while engaging effectively with clients and internal departments. They communicate clear status updates during all project and promotional phases, and they have experience in medical marketing, search marketing, website tactics, and project management. Clients’ projects and promotional tactics are almost always completed remotely so account managers play a vital role as liaison and customer advocate.

In particular, AMs provide exceptional value when they are in tune with their clients. Skilled AMs know which marketing tactics are working and which are not, often saving or earning bariatric practices significant money.

10. Does the vendor convey technical and business concepts effectively? This is more of a gut check question for clients to ask of themselves, but it’s a powerful indicator of the potential financial impact that a vendor may deliver. As noted, website providers with confidence, expertise, and a successful track record share knowledge freely so practice professionals should take note of their instincts when interviewing vendors. For instance, ask if the vendor does the following: 1) Educate without pressure to buy? 2) Disclose how they deliver and document ROI for practices? and 3) Share how they earn money for themselves?
Vendors that will be more successful, more professional, and more pleasant to partner with will be adept at communicating complex concepts clearly and effectively without leaving clients bewildered or belittled. Excellent vendors practice transparency in every interaction and those that deliver ROI speak fluently about online medical marketing so that practices feel more empowered, knowledgeable, and confident after every exchange.

The Importance of Due Diligence
Selecting a website vendor may be the most important financial decision a bariatric practice can make. Beyond the lost time, money, and opportunities, failed online efforts erode a practice’s confidence in Web solutions even though effective Web marketing has been demonstrated to produce significant ROI.

Fortunately, there’s a silver bullet tactic that consistently distinguishes good vendors from bad. Practices that are serious about improving ROI perform due diligence by talking to existing clients, but even with this activity, there are proven tactics more likely to deliver results.

In most practices’ zeal to finally kick off a website project, often they’ll ask for three references and only speak to one or two. Ask for sufficient references and ensure that you speak to at least four. Medical professionals, especially successful ones, are busy so a practice should be persistent and expect a week or two lead time to actually receive feedback from references. It’s also important to avoid asking “softball” questions. The bariatric practice should ask directly about ROI and proof of performance, professionalism, and response times. It’s best to take the perspective that the business’s future prosperity is at stake and approach these calls looking for shortcomings as opposed to looking for easy confirmation of a decision that has already been made.

The following are helpful questions to ask references:
•    Has the vendor delivered and documented ROI?
•    What’s the experience like working with the vendor?
•    Does the vendor meet deadlines?
•    How does the vendor handle problems?
•    Does the vendor provide effective education and sound counsel about online marketing?
•    Is there anything you don’t like about the vendor?
•    Would you hire the vendor again?

When candidate vendors provide references, odds are high that the references will have wonderful things to say. Fortunately, when dealing with Web professionals, there is a readily available source of independent references. Any worthy vendor will have a portfolio of websites. If there’s no portfolio or a bad portfolio, this speaks volumes. At the stage when a practice is seriously considering a particular vendor, they should visit the vendor’s website, pick from existing clients, and call to ask about the vendor. When checking references, it helps to ask for the vendor’s primary contact. Practices may learn that the client and vendor no longer work together which is valuable information.

Of course, Web vendors control which clients are included in their own portfolio, so for practices that wish to scrutinize Web vendors with even more rigor, the following describes how to identify the vendor’s clients independent of the vendor’s portfolio: Go to any website developed by the Web vendor. At the bottom of the page will be some language like “website design provided by ABC Web Services.” Copy and paste that exact phrase within quotation marks into the query field of a search engine and then call any of the practices that are returned in the search results. For practices that want to ensure that they choose a worthy vendor, calling other practices that have direct experience with a particular vendor is their best guarantee.

Industry contacts in other supplier companies (pharmaceutical or medical equipment) are an additional source of valuable insight. They may already have experience with a particular Web vendor, and they have incentive to support your success in online marketing because it encourages higher medical supply sales.
An effective website represents a significant investment. It is also a critical component of a bariatric practice’s total marketing effort. As such, keeping related digital assets (text, images, multimedia) safe and secure is vital to the financial wellbeing of the practice. Sufficient due diligence—including asking prospective Web vendors the preceding tough questions—maximizes a practice’s likelihood of success while virtually insuring their current and future digital assets

Conclusion
Asking informed questions and performing due diligence narrows the field of quality website vendors dramatically and gives bariatric practices confidence in their decision. Perhaps more important, however, is vetting providers to this level of rigor fosters a partnership between vendor and client so that the website earns even more patient impressions and return on investment.

Finally, remember that financially successful online promotion is a marathon, not a sprint, so take the time to get it right and reap the rewards of an office full of eager new potential patients.

References
1.    Goin K, Cavender B. The Foundation of Your Marketing Strategy: A Strong Web Presence.
http://www.etnainteractive.com/learning-center/bariatric-marketing-strategy.cfm. Accessed June 29, 2012.

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