You've probably heard of at least five of these, even if you don't live in the United States: Hotmail, iPod, The Grateful Dead, Google, "Just Do It," YouTube, Macs, TiVo, the new VW Bug, Rubik's Cube, Beanie Babies, "The Blair Witch Project," the Mini (car), the mini (skirt), Air Jordans, Harley-Davidson and "Is that your final answer?"
All of the above involved some kind of viral marketing - marketing spread by consumers instead of the marketer. At its very best, this kind of marketing influences people not to just use the product or service, but become involved in it. It becomes part of their life. Sometimes they even take on names (such as followers of The Grateful Dead becoming "Deadheads"), get tattoos of their favorite logo or even participate in events like the Harley-Davidson annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D.
As a TCM practitioner, you're probably not going to have patients with your logo tattooed on them and you won't make billions of dollars. However, you definitely have two distinct advantages over the above companies. What you offer (health) is something people need, not want; and what you offer is much more effective than alternatives such as drugs, invasive surgery, etc.
These two advantages mean you can make a far bigger impact on a person's life than anything mentioned in the previous list. As a result, you're worthy of just as much attention - just on a smaller scale. Perhaps you're already getting similar attention and your reputation is spreading like a virus. If so, you're already benefiting from viral marketing, even if it's by accident.
You may have noticed by now that viral marketing is a fancy name for word-of-mouth marketing. So, why didn't I just call it that? Because comparing marketing to a virus helps us understand how to make word-of-mouth spread. Unlike a real virus that spreads illness, viral marketing spreads word of your reputation and abilities.
Epidemiology is the study of the spread of diseases. (Note that a virus normally is a bad, nasty thing. We're discussing spreading a good thing; so don't let the analogy put you off.) There are three main ways to improve the infectiousness of your marketing:
Cause more exposures. Have patients sneeze more. ("Sneezing" is the act of a patient talking about you.)
Improve infectiousness. Make it more likely that people will accept the idea of seeing you for treatment.
Prolong the infection. You need to keep a certain level of involvement in your patient's lives to keep them "infected."
Not one of these is more important than the other. It's like a three-legged stool; if you're missing any of the "legs," the message fails. For example, if patients don't sneeze, it doesn't matter how infectious the message is or how long the patient remains infected. Likewise, patients who don't stay infected never get around to sneezing.
Having people sneeze more actually is the easiest way to improve the infectiousness of your marketing. How do you get your patients to sneeze more? Simply ask them to. It's called "asking for referrals." The best time to ask for a referral is after a treatment when a patient says something about how much better they feel. Simply tell them, "That's great. You're a good patient and I'd like more patients like you. Do you know of anyone with a problem I might be able to help?"
When you ask for referrals, ask your patients for specific kinds of referrals. Otherwise you're actually limiting the number of referrals you get! Here's a story to explain why: I was making a grocery list the other day with my son. He was telling me his favorite foods he likes to eat. He could only come up with six. That's not enough to keep a 7-year-old well-fed. So, I started asking him for specific categories. What kinds of vegetables does he like? What kinds of fruit? What does he like from the frozen section? What does he like to eat for breakfast? Because I made him think in specific categories, we suddenly had nearly five times as many things on the list.
If you ask patients if they know of anyone who can benefit from acupuncture, that's too general a question. They may think of their Uncle Bob with his arthritis or their friend who's frequently out sick with stomach trouble. You're only going to get a limited number of referrals - people who immediately come to mind as complaining a lot.
If you ask them for patients like themselves, you make it much easier for them. It's far easier to recall other people with the same job, sport interests or lifestyle-related condition. However, you are in no way limited to asking patients to refer others like themselves. If you enjoy seeing the results of pain management, ask for that kind of referral. If you're successful in treating allergies, ask for that. If you're really good with back pain, ask for that.
By asking for specifics, you make it much easier for patients to search their memories and find specific people to refer to you. It's counterintuitive by making a specific, limited inquiry about a limited number of people. You actually get more results than a general inquiry about everyone they know.
If you're not already doing this, you'll be pleasantly surprised at the results. Many acupuncturists are reluctant to ask for referrals because they think it will be an imposition. Asking in this way almost never comes across as an imposition, instead a simple question - and an opportunity to help a friend.
Give it a try, and give your viral marketing a jump start.
Burton Kent runs Acupuncture Clinic Marketing. This article includes core concepts from his upcoming book Never Market Again.