For most of us in the audiology profession, marketing is something that we have had to learn about on the fly. It is generally associated either with an individual practice's efforts to promote services within the local community, or it is associated with the glitzy advertisements manufacturers and large chains use to attract either providers or end-users to their brands. Either way, marketing remains the method of choice in building demand for, well, anything.
According to the Chartered Institute of Marketing, at the core of the marketing process is the responsibility for identifying, anticipating, educating and satisfying customers' (or, in our case, patients') needs profitably. The underpinnings of any business, service or career is its ability to serve customers, pay for itself, and provide an acceptable livelihood for those involved in that business, service or career.
According to the American Academy of Audiology, the definition of an audiologist is someone who specializes in evaluating, diagnosing and treating people with hearing loss and balance disorders. So, in order to market audiology successfully, we as individual audiologists, audiology practices and as an audiology national professional body need to:
- Identify the people requiring audiology care
- Anticipate the needs of people requiring audiology care
- Educate these people about the solutions to these needs that audiology specifically provides
- Satisfy these needs with audiology care in an effective and impressive way
In order for audiology to be effectively marketed in any environment, audiology marketing must first secure a fundamental shift in consumer thinking. Instead of thinking, "I have a hearing loss, I need to get hearing aids", consumers need to be thinking "I have hearing loss, I need to see an audiologist". And, as heady and as daunting as this "shift-in-thinking" project may seem, it is actually very do-able if the audiology community recognizes and accepts three fundamental realities.
Reality One: creating a shift in consumer thinking requires a national marketing presence
According to I-Data Research, the U.S. hearing aid market in 2009 was valued at $4.68 billion dollars (iData Research, 2010). In other words, it is estimated that U.S. consumers spent $4.68 billion dollars last year on products and services related to hearing health care. If we take a conservative estimate that 10% of the money earned by the hearing care industry was reinvested in marketing the industry and its products to the U.S. consuming public, then approximately $400 million dollars was spent last year marketing hearing care products and/or distribution brands to adult Americans.
This represents a nationwide marketing presence of considerable resources and visibility, marketing something other than the value and expertise of audiology care. So, if we want to shift the thinking of the general public from "I have hearing loss, I need to buy a hearing aid" to "I have hearing loss, I need to see an audiologist", then the audiology solution message needs to secure comparable nationwide exposure. Individual audiology practices marketing the value of professional audiology care simply get lost in comparison to the massive nationwide marketing effort currently educating consumers about things other than audiology credentials.
Reality Two: creating a shift in consumer thinking requires more than a philanthropic effort
Effective nationwide marketing of audiology care is not cheap. As much as it makes sense that such an effort should be spearheaded by one or another of our professional associations, these associations simply cannot generate enough needed revenue through dues or donations to legitimately capture the needed mindshare of consumers nationwide. Instead, audiology marketing needs to be approached in much the same way as any other form of nationwide marketing in ours or any industry. It needs to be approached as a business.
Consider this: at least 50% (Strom, 2006) of the $4.68 billion dollars spent last year on hearing health care was generated through the care provided by audiologists. As such, $200 million of the estimated $400 million in marketing capital spent by the industry as a whole was generated by the business economy of audiology practices. As long as individual audiology practices continue buying products individually from suppliers, they cannot expect to have any real influence on the message this money places in front of the consumer. However, if all audiologists bought products from suppliers under one collective business entity, that business entity could now fund its own marketing message - the importance of audiology care.
The "Got Milk?" campaign in one of the most commonly referenced examples of a successful campaign to gain consumer mindshare. The revenue behind this effort came from the combined business activity of milk producers who agreed to allocate a portion of the cost of each gallon sold to fund marketing and advertising efforts to promote the consumption of milk. These providers collectively underwrite a business, the California Milk Processors Board (CPMB), that directs a percentage of the economic resources that each of their businesses already generate into a national campaign that is still successful today, 17 years after its initial launch. And, to this day, it remains a case study of how to shift consumer thinking. If you want to change thinking, you have to invest your business in it. Since audiologists currently control over $2 billion dollars of the industry's economy, the resources needed to effectively underwrite a national campaign promoting audiology care already exist. They exist in the business side of the audiology profession, not the philanthropic side.
Reality Three: creating a shift in consumer thinking requires audiology to be visible where people search for hearing care information
Consumers don't typically research text books to get the information they need when making health care decisions. They research online through search engines, health blogs, and major media online distribution channels. In today's world, where newspaper readership is declining, and one 30-second prime time national television spot can cost $1 million or more, the Internet has risen in popularity - both in terms of affordability and accessibility. In fact, most consumers consider the Internet to be the main media resource for gathering and disseminating information on a broad scale.
According to Pew Research, 71% of American adults go online, and 61% of those adults look online for health information. In addition, 52% of online health inquiries are on behalf of someone other than the person typing in the search terms. Perhaps most important, 60% of adults who found information on the Internet said it positively affected their decisions about health care. If the audiology community is indeed seeking a wholesale shift in consumer thinking about hearing health care, the Internet is the place for that message to reside.
Getting the Audiology message front-and-center on the Internet
When people are looking for information on the Internet, they start by typing in key words into a search engine browser. Search engines like Google, MSN, Yahoo and Bing are constantly crawling websites all over the world looking for sites that contain content meaningful to the key words typed into their browsers. We all know that the return these search engines often provide is overwhelming. Sometimes, several million websites have been found that have content potentially meaningful for the searcher. But simply finding a website full of content about the value and importance of audiology care isn't enough. That website needs to be on the top of the first page of results. There are two main methods for making that happen.
1) Search-Engine-Optimization (SEO)
Search-engine-optimization (SEO) is a term used to describe the variety of website development tactics that can be used to increase that website's attractiveness to (and, as a result its placement on) search engine listings. SEO creates organic search-engine appeal. Websites that have achieved first page listings through their organic SEO have certain things in common:
- Thousands of web pages (which can be directly visible or hidden, but which all contain relevant content)
- Thousands of inbound links (links to the website from other websites on the Internet)
- Regular content refreshment (new content is appealing to search-engine crawlers)
- Ample content surrounding the key words (the more relevant information, the better, as far as search engines are concerned)
- Video content (people like to watch a movie more than they like to read. Therefore, video content increases the value of the website to the search-engine crawlers)
One approach to securing large organic SEO for a given marketing message is a Tower website. Tower websites are well-funded and well grounded in key SEO tactics. In the case of audiology marketing, a Tower website contains thousands of pages of information (both hidden and visible) about audiology care. The website's key-word research helps insure that its content is well placed by search engines when consumers type in key words associated not just with audiology, but with hearing care services or hearing aid products. Extensive video content about audiology care is also a key component of a strong Tower website.
Once searchers find, read and view the information about audiology care on the Tower website (and accordingly make their decision to see an audiologist) then, through the Tower website's Audiology Locator, consumers can be directed to the audiology providers in their area. In turn, each of these audiology providers can link their practice website to the Tower website, increasing the inbound links of the Tower website, and thus further driving up the SEO value of the Tower website.
Such a cooperative approach to Internet marketing dramatically increases the Internet visibility of the individual audiology practices associated with the Tower. But, perhaps more importantly, the Tower website approach helps to position the audiology message in equal prominence to other Internet marketing messages that may not be carrying the banner of provider credentials as the reason to choose a hearing care provider.
2) Pay-Per-Click Sponsorships
Another way that websites can secure top-of-first-page listings on search engine results screens is through sponsored links. Sponsored listings are listings found in the shaded area at the top of the first results page, or in the sponsored links column on the right side of the first results page. To secure a sponsored link, one must choose the key word or words they want their sponsored link to be associated with, and then pay the search engine company a fee every time a web surfer clicks on that website's sponsored link listing.
The fee for key words is based on how often these key words are historically typed into browsers by web surfers. The more commonly typed key words are more expensive than the less commonly typed key words. A pay-per-click sponsor loads a dollar amount into the search engine, selects the key word or words they want their website to be associated with, and sets a daily spending limit. Once that spending limit for the day has been reached (or once the remaining dollar amount has been exhausted) the sponsored link is removed from the search results page until the next payment cycle.
Individual audiology practices can purchase regional sponsored links for certain key words typed in by web searchers in their area. Key words such as audiology, audiologist, hearing care, etc., can be purchased by practices and their website will be listed as a sponsored link during their budget cycle whenever someone in that geographic area types in those key words. It is interesting to note that, purchasing the key word "hearing aid" costs substantially more than purchasing the key word, "audiology" because the consumer traffic associated with "hearing aid" is currently so much higher than the consumer traffic associated with "audiology". This fact alone indicates just how impregnated searching consumers are with the notion, "I have hearing loss, I need to get hearing aids."
Tower website administrators can also purchase key words. And, because this sponsored link effort is spread over a larger population of provider beneficiaries, getting the audiology message prominently displayed at the top of the first results page even for the word "hearing aid", is facilitated. As a result, the opportunity to change consumer thinking to "I have a hearing loss, I need to see an audiologist" increases.
Summary - the Chicken and the Egg
The audiology profession already possesses the economic influence that can be the basis from which to underwrite an effective and ongoing national consumer education enterprise. This enterprise can change the mindset of hearing care consumers across the country from their current belief "I have hearing loss, I need to get hearing aids" to the more appropriate belief "I have hearing loss, I need to see an audiologist."
Audiology is not yet a household word because audiologists are still trying to accomplish the mind-shift goal either on their own, by associating their practice with organizations where the audiology message is not the focus, or by pursuing philanthropic efforts that simply cannot match the media presence currently defining the hearing care industry to consumers. To build national consumer awareness and demand for audiology care, the profession must approach this task as a business. Just like milk producers across the country are collectively underwriting the "Got Milk?" campaign with their own business economics, so also must the audiology profession collectively underwrite its national campaign of consumer awareness with its own business economics. Audiologists are annually responsible for over $2 billion in hearing industry revenue. At least 10% of that revenue is currently being used to market messages to consumers across the nation other than the message of the value and importance of audiology care. The more audiologists pool their business resources into a collective economic structure, the more funding can then be used to underwrite Internet and other media efforts to make audiology a household word.
For most, it is easy to understand how success can foster increased participation in a cause. However, when it comes to making audiology a household word, increased participation by audiologists is what will drive the success of changing consumer thinking. Only audiologists can decide which needs to come first.
iData Research. (2010). U.S. market for hearing aids and audiology devices 2010 - report synopsis. Retrieved May 26, 2010, from http://www.idataresearch.net/idata/reports_view.php?SubCategoryID=112&Catorgyld=54
Strom, K. (2006, June). The Hearing Report 2006 dispenser survey. The Hearing Review. Retrieved May 26, 2010 from http://www.hearingreview.com/issues/articles/2006-06_11.asp.