The problem: The media portray our medicine neither accurately nor comprehensively. We need more influence over the public and our prospective patients.
The solution: One solution is to dominate the World Wide Web.
This is an easier and less expensive way to reach thousands (or tens of thousands) of people than any other. Another bonus is that you can go back and change your messages whenever you want.
One of the biggest problems confronting nonphysician acupuncturists is how to get the attention of neophytes, inquirers, and prospective customers. This happens on two levels:
locally (your business locale); and
How to market your business is too large a topic for one article, and other columnists in Acupuncture Today deal with this subject regularly. One item I can add to this topic is how to dominate the World Wide Web. You can use the Web to reach more people in your locale.
Who Controls Our Medicine's Image?
Who tells your prospective customers what acupuncture is, where to go for more information, and which practitioners to see? Probably not you, and possibly not even the three most frequently trafficked informational Chinese medicine Web sites (acupuncture.com, acupuncturetoday.com, and pulsemed.org). In fact, the sources with more media influence - popular magazines, television commercials and popular authors - are heard from more often, and believed by listeners, more than we are.
What does the "big media" say about Chinese medicine? At best, they oversimplify and undersell it. They have very little time and space to devote to it. They often cling to the 1996 NIH Consensus Statement on Acupuncture even though more good research has been conducted since.
I attempted to remedy this back in February 2003 by publishing a 12 page PDF (www.pulsemed.org/acuresupdate.htm) that summarized the acupuncture research since 1996, with an emphasis on the highest quality studies (RCTs). I can't tell you how many big magazine editors and freelance writers have interviewed me but finalized their articles without quoting me. Instead, they quoted medical doctors, relied on the outdated NIH or WHO statements, and ignored the more recent research.
Andrew Weil talks about acupuncture occasionally, but did you know he recommends medical acupuncturists (MDs or DCs who practice acupuncture)? Other sources, like ivillage.com, a leading resource for women's health, also recommend medical acupuncturists over nonphysician acupuncturists. I don't have a problem with medical acupuncturists who practice acupuncture full-time, but why are those of us with only master's degrees getting the short end of the stick - or nothing at all? What's more, some of the top Web sites for "acupuncture" searches are medical acupuncture sites.
As for Chinese herbal medicine, it doesn't even show up on the big media's radar screen, except when bad things happen. In those instances, it's characterized as being unreliable and dangerous (think ephedra or black cohosh) rather than sophisticated, powerful and compelling.
Probably the only area in which we're doing well is publishing books. Both The Web that Has No Weaver and Between Heaven and Earth rank fairly high on amazon.com. However, none of our books answer the most basic and practical questions our patients have about the value and effectiveness of Chinese medicine, or how it fits in with Western medicine. Nor do these books bring patients directly to our specific practice.
The bottom line is that the nonphysician acupuncture world is not getting its messages out. Widespread misconceptions, myths and ignorance about Chinese medicine are not being remedied. Sure, you educate your patients one-on-one, but how many patients do 13,000 mostly part-time acupuncturists really reach? And, if what you say contradicts what MDs or the popular press says, whom should people believe? We have a credibility gap - a public relations black hole.
What's the Solution?
Several solutions come to mind:
Writing in the local and national media. I've already addressed this to some degree in a two-part column for Acupuncture Today, "How and Why to Write About Chinese Medicine to the Public," which appeared in the September and October 2003 issues.
Get on the radio airwaves, which I'll write about at another time.
Dominate the World Wide Web.
The World Wide Weird
The Web is a strange world. First, you get your domain name (e.g., www.human-pin-cushion.com), which is like your business name. Second, you get hosting for your domain, which is like renting a space for your business. Next, you have someone build your website, like carpenters and artists would construct your business space.
As in any business, you want prospective customers to show up. How do you get people to your Web site? In the world of the Web, the motto, "Build it and they will come," doesn't work. If no one knows your domain name, they can't find it, and if no one links to your site, you may not show up when someone conducts a search. In the real world, it would be as if your business didn't show up in the Yellow Pages unless a lot of other businesses knew about you. Weird.
Getting More Web Traffic
How well is your site doing? How might it do better? Let's look at what the top acupuncture sites are already doing right.
Top Web Sites for Substantial Chinese Medicine Information (not just acupuncture)
Acupuncture.com (#81,390 of all Web sites)
(As of Nov. 1, 2003, per Alexa.com and Google.com)
This doesn't include every acupuncture or Chinese medicine Web site that ranked highly in my searches, but the highest ranking of those I thought most relevant to the topic of getting our messages out to the public (not peer level information, etc.). The list is a compilation of several searches, including "acupuncture," "Chinese medicine" and "Oriental medicine."
Let's look at what these sites are doing to get so much traffic.
Keys to Web Traffic
These aren't all the keys to increasing Web traffic, but just some of the most important ones. These are all attempts to get in sync with the way search engines rank pages. If you don't rank on the first page for relevant searches, you might as well not exist. There are people whose entire job is to optimize search rankings, and who sit around constantly trying to figure out how to do it a little bit better - but let's not feel too bad for them. Let's just move on.
1. A great name
One of the reasons why acupuncture.com is the most trafficked acupuncture site is its domain name. Founder Al Stone chose the best name, and got the site up and running a couple of years before acupuncturetoday.com and pulsemed.org came along. It almost "killed" the category.
If you want a great name for your site, try nameboy.com. It's a domain registration site that combines a few words you suggest together in various ways (even exploring synonyms), tells you which names are available, lets you buy domains, checks on who owns already purchased domains, and so on.
Most important, your Web site name and its overall topic should be based on your research into what people actually search for. This is just good marketing: Go where the customers are - don't make them come to you. In other words, give the fish the kind of bait it likes to eat. Don't worry about their misconceptions - you can do your influencing once you've hooked them.
2. Lots of links to the site
Acupuncture.com's success was more than its name. One of the other most important factors in getting Web traffic is to get a lot of other sites to link to you. Because Al's site was the best at that time, and because of its catchy name, many other sites chose it as the one acupuncture site they'd link to.
How many links do the top sites have? Here are the numbers of Nov. 1, 2003:
3,125 sites link in
You can see that links aren't the only factor; the number 4 site has more links in than acupuncturetoday.com or pulsemed.org. The solution, if you want more links in, is to create a links page on your site, and then exchange links with related Web sites. You can find them via a search engine like Google and e-mail the sites about a link exchange.
3. Using the title and META tags
This is a Web design technique. In the HTML code used to create a site, you can add information that regular Web browsing users don't see, but search engines do. These are called META tags, and there are several kinds. The most important for our purposes are the keyword and description META tags. Your keywords must include those that both relate to the content of that particular page, and that people actually use to search. Your description tag should include a sentence or two about the page, and mention your main keyword again.
The title tag is just as important. The information you put in the title goes at the very top of the browser window, above the File, Edit, View, etc. menus. Web surfers may not notice it, but search engines do.
To be continued ...
Click here for previous articles by Brian Carter, MSCi, LAc.
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