Patient acquisition: 3 tactics to expand (without breaking the bank)

Recently, the crew and I were running patient acquisition campaigns on Facebook.

We saw strong signs of interest despite just a few clients pulling the trigger. The click-rate was through the roof considering that this was a freshly launched product and we hadn’t dialed in the targeting configurations yet.

After the initial good vibes had worn off, we got suspicious as that pattern continued. We investigated the situation and discovered that we were getting a ton of eyeballs from ‘rewards ads’.

If you don’t know what that is, welcome to the club.

It turns out to be ad placements in mobile games that offer in-game rewards like coins or an extra life, in exchange for watching an ad.

These tend to be video clips with a ‘skip’-button so small, it’s hard to click. That leads to loads of failed attempts to skip the ad, which inflates the click-rate.

Patient acquisition’s two hidden problems

As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, the term patient acquisition is often referred to as systematically driving new patients through the door of your clinic.

It’s one of those sexy challenges any marketer wants to solve to be a hero, and I’ve felt no different.

Through painstaking trial and error, I’ve come to learn that patient acquisition doesn’t always lend itself to the typical performance campaigns we see in case studies plastered all over the internet.

Take your standard dental appointment booking campaign, for example. Provided that the offer is attractive, patient acquisition is often straightforward as many people have problems with their teeth or just want to whiten them after drinking too much coffee. 

Build a digital ad campaign, let people click to the landing page and book an appointment right then and there, or leave their details and get a callback. The flow is simple and trackable.

With other types of care, like sick care, I’ve noticed two distinct problems that tend to show up again and again.

One is that patients often don’t need help right when they see your offer, meaning that looking at campaigns through the lens of this straightforward flow can be misleading.

It’s the result of most online platforms not offering features to target patients based on timing: when patients are looking for help. The exception is search marketing, as we can assume that most patients are looking for help when they are searching for information about it.

More on that in a minute…

Second, many are afraid to see a professional as they fear it’ll lead to bad news. They prefer living with the notion that if they don’t know, it doesn’t exist. 

The irony is that that leads to reinforcing this experience since the longer we wait, the higher chance we’ll get negative news when we do see a physician.

In this article, you and I will look at three straightforward tactics for patient acquisition:

  1. Drive new patients (if you’re expanding to new cities)
  2. Expand beyond your existing patients with (almost) no budget
  3. Long-term patient acquisition (rather than a short burst of new patients)

Let’s dive into the first one.

1. Drive new patients (if you’re expanding to new cities)

From time to time, I’ve found myself having to acquire new patients without being able to take advantage of a database with existing patients.

This can happen in situations without a proven product-market fit or if you’re looking to expand to new cities.

In this case, distributing your offer tends to be the easier of the two as we can solve that with money. I’ve found influencers and digital ads tend to be among the most cost-effective channels.

Influencers can be powerful because you’ll instantly get access to a pool of potential patients and be able to tap into the existing relationship (trust) they have with their followers. The trick is to avoid the obvious influencers that everyone else partners with, go the extra mile to find up and coming ones, as they’ll be easier to work with and more affordable.

The downside is that it’s hard to target followers in the cities you’re expanding to. It’s also challenging to scale as you’ll need to pay an influencer agency to manage them, or do it in-house which requires at least one dedicated team member (but probably more).

It’s inconvenient to manage, which is why many avoid it. On the other hand, it’s not the most common strategy I’ve seen out there, so there’s a higher chance that the performance is better.

Digital ads can be a hit or miss depending on the channel you use. On the surface, social channels like Facebook often appear more affordable than search if you only look at the price. 

Though, there’s a hidden cost as social ads require more creativity and experimentation with different offers. That can take longer to crack, whereas search is pricier upfront but targets potential patients who are looking for care right here, right now.

After driving thousands of patients over the years, I’ve found search to be the simplest and most effective channel to begin with. An effective approach is building funnels based on the “temperature” of potential patients.

patient acquisition - thermometer example

Basically, how ready they are to convert.

The first funnel in patient acquisition is targeting potential patients when they are “red hot” and ready to book an appointment.

These are simple direct book now-campaigns with hard-selling landing pages targeted towards healthcare keywords like “clinic near me”.

You’ll be targeting the most competitive and expensive keywords as they convert the best, and you’ll quickly get an understanding of whether things work or not.

The second funnel targets warm leads – patients knowing they need to visit a physician but haven’t yet picked the best clinic (or physician). 

You can look at that as being the level in-between the two first two funnels. Here you might test hooks like a page comparing clinics in the area with exams they offer and pricing.

I get into more detail in this article on medical PPC and using search for patient acquisition.

The third funnel targets lukewarm leads – patients that probably should see a physician but may not have made that conclusion themselves yet.

Here, information-based articles offering answers to questions work. An effective conversion point tends to be softer than in the funnel above. It may persuade them to download a sheet with common symptoms or something similar, as they join your email list centered around specific and relevant symptoms or diseases.

You can either retarget those signups on other platforms with an offer, email them with more information or attempt the hard-sell offer within a few days as their situation may develop.

2. Expand patient acquisition beyond your existing patients with (almost) no budget

Next, let’s look at expanding beyond your existing patients without breaking the bank.

Acquiring new patients at no cost… it sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

In many cases it is and in order to pull it off successfully, you have to leverage your existing patients for referrals.

If you’ve been to any ecommerce store lately, you’ve probably seen these spin-the-wheel gimmicks or “share this on social media and win…”

I have yet to see something go viral and have a powerful effect on patient acquisition when selling care services. Patient referrals are still an effective marketing channel, it just looks different. 

In my experience, most patients aren’t comfortable yelling from the top of a mountain about their health issues (i.e. sharing on social media), but I’ve found that many do share their experience with their close family and friends.

The uncomfortable truth is that your existing patients are already doing that and their experience is either referring or pushing away new patients behind closed doors. There is little to nothing you can do from a marketing standpoint as this is a product or customer service experience thing.

Instead, we can take advantage of the positive conversations and extend them by creating offers based on inspiration from the referrals we’re already getting.

For example, take note of the kind of services most commonly used by referral patients and build an attractive offer around that while pushing it via low-cost channels like email marketing.

3. Long-term patient acquisition (rather than a short burst of new patients)

Sometimes the target is a long-term, steady stream of patient acquisition through branding rather than a short influx of patients that are hard to handle with top-notch service and a good experience.

Having worked with performance marketing for years, it’s hard for me just to burn thousands of dollars and feel good without knowing if it goes down the drain, actually makes a difference, or even reaches the right people.

For all we know, we might just be paying for ads shown to bots or cats playing fishing games.

mobile game for cats - facebook ads example

I’ve found that typical performance marketing channels can actually work well as branding channels if you shift your perspective.

They tend to have a major advantage over traditional media in that they offer transparency via auction-based self-serve platforms, where you can optimize ad campaigns on the fly while understanding the cost and performance each specific ad drive.

Instead of optimizing for conversions, we can optimize for the cost per impression or a certain type of engagement. Combine that with targeting your city, and you can leave a powerful branding footprint.

SEO can be a powerful branding tool too, but the downside is that it’s hard to target city specific for non-local keywords. That also means that when we look at the volume of searches, we have to narrow it down to our cities to understand the true effect we’re getting.

The problem with branding campaigns is that you’ve got no idea if what you’re doing is actually hitting home, and producing any value for the patient and the business in the future. 

Besides looking at cost, I like to keep a general overview of brand engagement. If you’re running i.e. Facebook ads, they’ll have a metric that shows fan page and post interactions as a result of the ad. That can be looked at as brand engagement.


  • Not all types of patient acquisition are straightforward in the world of care and you’re sometimes forced to get creative with your tracking
  • Search tends to be an effective channel to drive new patients but can also cause a large influx of patients that’s hard to manage while offering a good experience at the clinic
  • Typical performance marketing channels can also be used for effective branding campaigns to increase the flow of patients steadily over time rather than in a one-off burst

By Aske

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