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Thu 1 Nov 2007 04:00 AM

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Wired for web

Creating a virtual presence for your practice can do more than just raise your profile. Joanne Bladd reports.

In the last two years, the dental wing of the web has started to get busy. Check any search engine and you'll find, like a virtual urban highstreet, dental practices jostling for patients and business. While Middle East practices have been slower on the uptake than their Western peers, Dubai-based web designers CyberGear say regional dentists are fast realising that a little internet interaction can help make the difference between a packed or slack appointment schedule. "Every self-respecting practice needs its own website," says CEO Sharad Agarwal.

So what is driving this newfound fondness for the net? A Wall Street Journal/Harris Interactive Poll suggests that patients are pushing for more virtual services from their dental providers. Three-quarters of the adults surveyed said they would like to schedule their appointments via the internet and that they'd appreciate e-mail reminders when they are due for some type of care. More strikingly, 54% said the availability of online services would influence their choice of provider. In a wired world, patients are beginning to expect the same level of internet services from their dentist that they routinely receive from their bank.

If you can’t do it well, you are better placed not having a site at all. If your site does not look professional, patients won’t believe that you, as a dentist, are professional.

In a nutshell, says Dr Hibah Shata, director of a Dubai dental practice, dentists that want to stay on course should get online. "Websites are like your shop window. [They] provide a very effective medium for targeting dental patients and providing the information they need."

But it's a mistake to think of your website as just a tool to please your patients. Get it right and the web can put a small practice on an equal footing with the largest dental chain, opening up new markets for little money. "Having a website is like creating a new sales channel for your business," Agarwal explains. "It's 24/7. Even when you're sleeping, there are prospective patients looking at your website."

Web-based marketing is also less intrusive than direct advertising, Shata adds, so can yield better results. "Patients choose to visit your site; it isn't forced upon them like direct mail. They don't consider your internet marketing materials as obtrusive. They perceive your website as helping them make a decision they already want to make."

Practice perks

It's astounding, says Rachael Sizeland, founder of the UK-based RAS Marketing, how few dental practices use their websites to their full competitive advantage. "Aside from basic practice information, websites can be used to highlight your services and to display patient testimonals and newsletters," she explains. "They are one of the most cost-effective ways of getting your name out there."

Despite the options, some practices continue to sell themselves short, creating webpages that stop at offering the practice's location and basic contact information. Called first edition sites, these are static electronic brochures, typically created from a scanned pdf and, Agarwal says, barely worth the code they are written on. Under the CyberGear umbrella, Agarwal has created award-winning websites for regional names such as the American Hospital, Dubai, and Welcare World Health Systems. By including features such as appointment scheduling, practice events and Frequently Asked Questions on sites, he explains, you can cut the amount of time your staff spend on the phone, help patients access the information they want quickly, and help streamline your working practices. "Administratively, websites more than pay for themselves if the content is relevant and adequate," he stresses.

If you're considering setting up a site for your practice, some simple guidelines can help ensure your site ticks all the virtual boxes.

Picking your partner

Your website, says Jon Catanese, webmaster for the Cleveland Clinic, should essentially be viewed as an extension of your business. "One of the first places prospective patients will go to now to get an impression of your organisation is your website," he states, "We call it our front door. For that, even if for no other reason, it's important for you to have your act together online."

As an online representation of your brand, your first step when going online is to layout exactly what you want from the site. "A website is a business tool to help you meet an objective," Catanese explains. "You need to have a stated goal associated with your website. What do you hope your website will achieve? Who are you looking to provide a service for with this website?"

The second step, for most dentists, is to pick a web developer to partner with. For those of you who feel you have creative flair, it's worth noting that, when asked whether homegrown sites were acceptable, all the experts we spoke to answered with a resounding "No". Unless you have a background in web design, DIY sites are a recipe for disaster and can be spotted at 30 paces by any net-savvy consumer.

"In the healthcare sector especially, your site has to be professional, to raise any credibility within your market space," Sizeland says. Agarwal goes one step further. "If you can't do it well, you are better placed not having a site at all," he says, flatly. "You need to look better than you are on the web. If your site does not look professional, patients won't believe that you, as a dentist, are professional."

So how should you select a vendor for your site? Agarwal recommends starting with a background check of the firm. "The UAE particularly has seen a lot of fly-by-night operators," he explains. "Check how long the company has been in business."

It's also important to look for a company with a track record within the dental industry, he adds. "If this is the first website they've done in your field, your experience may be a little shaky. It helps if they know what to bring to the table."

Agarwal also advises asking whether the site design will actually take place in the region, or whether it will be outsourced to an overseas branch. "If you are a novice when it comes to websites, then you need someone with relevant regional experience to guide you," he explains. "Companies that outsource might not be on the same wavelength as the sector in the Middle East."

Back to basics

Just as a practice reception would look strange without a front desk, online offices boast their own key elements that each site should incorporate. A common mistake made by net novices is thinking that a good-looking site is a good site. If you can't match style with substance, your site won't suceed. "Content is king," Agarwal stresses. "The more information you provide, the more time people will spend on your website, and the more chance they will do business with you."

If you're unsure what information you want to include, don't panic. Most web vendors have a good grasp of the content you should be posting online. "We start by asking the client what they have in mind, to put on the site," Agarwal explains. "That probably makes up about 50% of the content that goes on the site. We'll add the other 50%, through interactive features and other functions."

It can help to think of your site as having three stages of development. The first stage should include a basic introduction to your practice, such as your practice mission, the services you offer, staff - such as dentist and hygienist - profiles, a ‘Frequently Asked Questions' page, and your location and contact information.

FAQs are some of the most heavily visited pages, Catanese reports, so putting these answers online can help free up your front-desk staff.

"Look at the number of calls that are received by your average hospital or practice - how many of those could be dealt with online?" he asks. "If you have FAQs, location and contact details available online, it stops your receptionist having to field these questions."
Not sure what questions to post in your FAQ section? Poll your staff. They can update you on the most common requests they hear. "We refer patients to our website for information about procedures and techniques in their treatment plan," Shata adds. "We provide as much information as possible about services as this is our first line of marketing."

The second stage of your site adds in administrative functions, such as online appointment booking, pre-registering and access to downloadable forms. Lastly, the third stage involves interactions with patients, such as online payment facilities. At this stage, you'll be handling sensitive patient information, so you should seek professional advice to ensure your site is secure.

Content is king. The more information you provide, the more time people will spend on your website, and the more chance they will do business with you.

"Security on the web is a concern in this part of the world, but more through ignorance than anything else," Agarwal admits. "We work with Emirates and Mashreq bank, both local banks, to support online payment gateways, and we can support this function on any site."

Desperately seeking...

Designing your site is only half the battle. Your website might be a paragon of online perfection, but if your patients can't find it, it's still a waste of web space. "If your customers can find one of your competitors on the web, but they can't find your site, there is very little likelihood that they'll come to you," Sizeland says.

Search engine optimisation is a must, she adds. "People should find you straight away - on the first page of Google."

With the gaggle of sites competing for visitors, its worthwhile getting professional advice on the science of scoring with search engines. "You must have the right keywords on your site, not from your point of view but from the users," Agarwal explains. "It's not enough to say ‘Saudi' and ‘dentist'. I have to think about what people are typing into Google to find me. You need to have the right meta-tag."

Sites need to be periodically submitted to search engines, so any new content that has been posted also gets indexed. And navigation doesn't stop once visitors have reached your homepage. A smart site should be easy to find your way around.

"The key thing to any website is to have a well-thought out and logical navigational system," Catanese stresses, "And then the ability to use an internal search engine that's inherent in the site to find that information, and to fine-tune your search results within that search."

It's something that regional sites often fall down on, Agarwal reports. The golden rule for any site, he adds, is to provide the right information within three clicks. "We call it the three click principle," he says. "Providing the right content, quickly, is the biggest challenge we face."

Repeat business

In the battle for market share, the more patient affiliation you can create via your website, the better for your business. So once your patients have located your site, how can you entice them to return?

One tip is through building an online community. Practices ask visitors to register to receive e-newsletters for example, or to join a discussion forum or blog - essentially any tool that will encourage users to spend time on the site and become regular visitors.

"We look for ‘stickiness' in sites," Agarwal explains. "If you can create a forum that encourages user interaction, it helps foster loyalty with patients and referring dentists."

Hibah Shata's site invites visitors to subscribe to its newsletter and entices patients through monthly promotions. "These are all dynamic tools that increase our database,"she explains.

A week may be a long time in politics, but it's an eternity in cyberspace. So it's essential, says Catanese, to remember to update the content on your site regularly.

Agarwal urges his clients to be proactive with their content. "Provide the compulsion for people to visit your website again," he says. "It's the same as going to Harvey Nichols and seeing the same window display on a weekly basis. Shoppers would think there was nothing new. It's the same with websites."

Site smart

Used correctly, a website is a cost-effective means to educate patients, free up staff time and market your business to potential customers. A web site that is dated, difficult to navigate and unprofessional can damage your credibility. If you take the time to properly plan and design it, your site can be a great asset to your practice.

Don't forget; the competition is only a click away.

MED tips: hints for novice netters

• Understand your site's purpose

"Weigh up the business value of creating a site and have goals and objectives associated with the venture," says Catanese. What does it offer in terms of benefits for your practice?

• Put the user first

"Pay attention to the end user, understand what it is they want to use your website to accomplish, and design around that." Catanese stresses. "Don't become so internally focused on what the website means that you forget the consumer." Your objectives as an organisation and your users' needs should be meshing.

• Keep it simple

The trick, says Argawal, is to make your design stimulating while keeping it user-friendly. Slow download times, complex graphics repetitive text are all website sins that lead to sluggish pages.

Your homepage should appear within six seconds, or you risk losing up to 60% of your site traffic," he explains. "In the Middle East, I see sites with flash intros that take forever to download. It's not justified and it's not good practice."

• The three click rule

Make your site easy to navigate, with a simple layout and an internal search engine. Your goal is to provide the right information quickly. Try to make sure no page of your website is further than three clicks away from any other.

• Update content regularly

"Even more than the look and feel of your site, your content has to be up-to-date," states Argawal. An out-of-date site suggests a shoddy practice and can turn your patients away. Keep your pages fresh if you want to keep your visitors interested.

• Audit your site

Install tracking software to identify the search terms people use to access your site from main search engines, and to track how they navigate your site. Then use the results to tweak your site to fit your user needs. "Audits can tell you where visitors are coming from, how much time they are spending on the site, and which part of the site they are accessing most so you can develop it," Argawal explains. "Listen to your consumer and base your design refinements on their needs."

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