Digital marketing for doctors: 4 insights from acquiring 1000s of patients

As I was researching ideas about digital marketing for doctors, I noticed other articles focusing on things like 77 different digital channels you could pursue.

If long lists of things you need to do don’t leave you feeling overwhelmed, I don’t know what does. It’s one of those things that make us feel like we are learning but also pushes us towards indecision with too many choices as explained in the book The Paradox of Choice.

I’d like to take a different approach and share a few insights that I’ve learned through my experience across digital marketing projects for physicians, clinics, and the like. I’ve helped acquire thousands of patients and clinical consultations via digital marketing channels.

I can’t promise that things will be exactly the same in your situation but perhaps it can spur a discussion that leads us both better off.

Digital marketing for doctors: which channels are best?

Let’s start with the sexiest topic; where should we spend our energy and cash to acquire the most patients for the least amount of money?

Of course, the annoying answer is that it depends.

It depends on how short-term and long-term our scope is — for example, are you looking to acquire more patients fast or build a dependable patient acquisition channel for the long term?

I know, I know. The answer is both.

The reality is that those are two totally different projects. Since building a dependable patient acquisition channel tends to be a bigger, and longer-term project, I’ll save that for a rainy day.

Regarding acquiring some amount of patient bookings rapidly, there are two key insights worth diving into.

Insight 1: pick tried and true channels

I often see interest in trendy digital marketing channels that are the new kid on the block (I’m looking at you, Facebook ads).

Unless we are working on a very unique patient use case, the path has already been paved for us — the well-performing digital channels for our situation have already been discovered and mastered by someone else. That is a huge benefit because it is faster to learn from someone else who has mastered it than going through trial and error from scratch on our own (not to mention more expensive in terms of time and failures).

The likelihood that we’ll stumble upon a unicorn of a channel that none of our competitors or even other clinics around the world haven’t discovered and exploited yet, is highly unlikely in an industry as old and well-established as ours. Usually, these gaps come through long-term experimentation with sales funnels and the advantage closes fast since there are no secrets in digital marketing.

In fact, most of what we do digitally is easy for the world to see if they know what they are doing. Any decent digital marketing employee on your team can reverse-engineer a competitor’s key channels and more in a matter of hours. Do that for, say, ten competitors and you’ll quickly notice a pattern as you can see in this article on clinic marketing ideas.

Digital channels have, in my experience, had less of an impact on performance in our industry compared to others such as traditional trade or even pharmacies because of the nature of the patient’s needs.

That leads nicely into the next insight I’d like to share: when we decide which channels to do marketing on, some will be much easier than others. Allow me to explain.

Insight 2: Customer temperature

I bet you already know about customer referrals (or word of mouth) as a channel. It has been among the best channels for many businesses since the dawn of time because its ingredients are among the best suited for marketing: someone who needs help and a trusted friend to suggest (and vouch for) a solution. The benefit is obvious.

Compare that with, for example, Facebook ads, where we scroll around, bored, looking for anything and nothing at the same time. There may or may not be a friend suggesting a solution. We may or may not have that problem at that very moment and since we are overloaded with information and cute cat videos, we are unlikely to remember it two months later when we do encounter the problem.

And the most important detail of it all is the trust factor we are missing from the person who is making the recommendation to us.

That’s why we can’t simply compare referrals to email, Facebook, and whatnot when we consider which channels to play with to acquire patients.

Instead, we are better off taking the temperature of our customers and leads when we decide which channels to use to acquire patients fast.

For example, we might map it out as follows:

Hot leads 

  • Existing customers (that we can upsell to)

Warm leads

  • Engaged people on our email list
  • Referrals

Cold leads

  • People who hear about us for the first time by finding us on search and social media

With a map like that of all our channels, it becomes clear that we can likely only get so many more hot leads since they have to have been through the clinic first.

At the same time, we can get a ton of cold leads but they will be more expensive and require more energy to persuade them to try our clinics. However, we could potentially send them to the email list and warm them up over time, so that when they do encounter a problem we can solve they have some level of relationship with us already.

There are challenges with that approach too (such as the naturally episodic needs of care that are hard to predict). 

To make this more complex, a channel like search might be mapped out as a cold leads channel but does offer small pockets of hot leads through highly targeted keywords like ‘pediatric clinic near me’. They won’t be as good leads as our existing customers and that’s what makes it complex. In fact, a map or diagram will often show that the warmer the leads are, the less the channel scales.

If you aren’t able to activate more hot or warm leads, the simplest place to start if you are looking to acquire more patients rapidly is with search ads. It likely won’t be a profitable long-term solution at scale but it’ll usually get you more patients fast.

digital marketing for doctors

If your digital campaigns just aren’t performing…

Sometimes we give digital marketing an honest attempt and things are just not working. I’d like to dedicate this next section to a different point of view than many others might have on digital marketing for doctors and clinical services in general.

Insight 3: Avoid bruteforcing campaigns

In a project I was working on a while back, we were working with social media ads. We had a decent appointment booking funnel running and were working to figure out how to scale it best. Our CAC may have been $20. We tested everything including larger broad campaigns allowing the platforms to optimize as their reps recommended at the time but also manually running heaps of small, ultra-targeted, campaigns.

Even though we were well aware that trading a low CAC for a high volume of bookings is standard and worth it, this project didn’t scale well.

The interesting part is that it led us to work on other elements and ideas to achieve the same and we later hit a gigantic home run.

One of the major changes we made was the combination of the offer and the digital marketing platforms we used to promote it — it could be for a certain type of consultation or exam, for example. The point is that sometimes the digital marketing channels don’t work for a reason that has nothing to do with what we typically think of as online marketing itself.

Many new projects feel hard at first but if nothing is working after months and several honest campaign attempts, I’ve found that bruteforcing it isn’t a realistic way to grow sustainably.

Something might be very wrong somewhere else in the sales funnel than with the channel itself or the promotional material we use. In a mature industry like healthcare, there tends to be a natural way for things to work, and attempting to force something else can take your attention away from discovering a more powerful solution.

Insight 4: Use the natural strength of the industry to your advantage

We love fixing our personal weaknesses rather than working on our strengths, even though the opposite is popular career advice these days. 

The same is true for the industry we work in and many (myself included) love the idea of being the hero that fixes the bottleneck that the rest of the industry can’t. Realistically, it’s also unlikely to happen because there’s usually an underlying reason for it being that way.

Instead, it makes more sense to focus on the part that is naturally strong in the business (i.e. earning more per patient rather than attempting to acquire them for cheap).

In this industry, retention tends to be on the easier side and acquisition more challenging. It might be due to the high level of trust necessary for health-related issues and at the same time, a healthy skepticism toward claims made online that are easy to fake.

Everyone and their mom seem to be over the moon when it comes to digital channels and the idea that it can bring cheap scale in acquisition as we see in other industries. In my experience, there are more powerful channels out there for our industry that are offline or at least less dependent on digital media.

Digital marketing for doctors: if not patient acquisition, then what for?

Since the topic is on digital marketing for doctors, it begs the question: how can we put digital channels to good use if not for acquisition?

It’s usually worth testing them out for acquisition either way since every business is different but if they don’t work we can instead run upselling promotions for example. That can help increase the customer’s wallet share and LTV, and since the campaigns are usually retargeting or communication to existing patients, we can avoid one big hairy problem in digital marketing for doctors: tracking.

Digital marketing quickly became sexy as hell because we could track how well our campaigns performed.

Finally the old adage from the advertising industry that “half the ad budget is wasted but I don’t know which one” could be put to shame.

In our industry, I’ve noticed that many patients come via the campaigns but complete the final booking step offline, meaning that it doesn’t get attributed to the digital campaigns and they appear to perform poorly.

Tracking that performance becomes less important with existing customers as acquisition tends to be a more popular topic, especially when raising outside investment — and that means our digital campaigns will likely be under less scrutiny.

On the other hand, it tends to be affordable to run digital marketing campaigns for existing customers as we can target them effectively and at a comparatively low cost compared to other channels.


  • Not all digital marketing channels are made evenly — hone in on exactly who you want to target with customer temperature to build winning digital marketing campaigns for doctors
  • If your digital campaigns just aren’t working there might be a deeper underlying reason for it
  • You might find that your digital marketing channels perform better if you focus the campaigns on upselling to existing customers rather than acquiring new ones

By Aske

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *