Direct Marketing

As a dispensing optician, you‘ve probably never considered yourself to be a direct marketer. So it might come as a surprise to learn that you are – and should be.

If your practice is a typical independent, every month it sends out a mix of recall letters, emails and texts to its patients, asking them to do something. This is usually about making an appointment for another eye examination, although it could also be about trying a new range of frames or a new professional service such as OCT.

It’s therefore a marketing campaign in the sense that your practice is promoting and ‘selling’ the need for eye care and eyewear. And because your communication is directed to individual people – named patients – you are essentially a direct marketer.

So being more knowledgeable about direct marketing could help your practice achieve more appointments and generate more revenue. By using appropriate direct marketing techniques, you can ensure more of your patients want regular eye examinations, potentially leading to more dispenses.

But to use direct marketing successfully, you need to know what it is and how it differs from other patient communication channels such as advertising and PR.

A good definition of direct marketing is: ‘any communication which creates and manages a direct relationship between you and your prospect as an individual’. In other words, the approach is personal and is usually aimed at specific people.

In the process of building that relationship, you can guide your prospect or customer along a journey whereby they will learn more about what you have to offer. This could result, for example, in an enquiry, an appointment, a product sale, or a recommendation.

Another feature of direct marketing is that it often tries to measure the response rate to a specific communication. This can involve sending out coupons, for example, which customers subsequently redeem to gain an extra benefit (e.g. a special price on a purchase). You can then get an indication of that communication’s impact.

In contrast, advertising is about communicating with people en-masse, not as individuals. Often it does not ask for an immediate response. Instead it seeks to influence people so that they choose a particular brand when they reach the point of decision. As such, advertising aims to create general awareness of a product and develop its brand image. This, of course, assumes it is noticed in the first place.

Unlike direct marketing, it is more difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of advertising. As Lord Lever (founder of Unilever) reputedly said: “I know half my advertising is wasted. The trouble is I don’t know which half.” Because of its scatter-gun approach, an advert’s message may not even be relevant to much of its audience.

Even more so, PR is difficult to target at individual people. It relies on editorial exposure in media (e.g. newspapers and radio) that are controlled by others to create a favourable climate of opinion. This doesn’t mean it’s not useful in promoting a practice, but it is impossible to know that your message will get through to its target audience.

As many dispensing opticians are practice managers, you could be responsible for your practice’s direct marketing activity. You will be communicating with your patient database, which gives you considerable marketing advantages:

  • You already know a lot about the recipients of your letters, emails and texts – their name and address, age, gender, general health, optical requirements, and purchase history. This means you can tailor your message specifically to meet their requirements.
  • Your practice has a very valid reason – better vision – to contact them regularly. It’s part of your professional service and means your communications will not be perceived as ‘junk mail’.

Most non-optical firms using direct marketing would love to be in your situation. Although they may already have customer lists with purchase history, they often lack convincing reasons for contacting those people again and stimulating repeat business. As such, their marketing might be less effective and potentially irritating.

Your patients, on the other hand, are very unlikely to get annoyed by regular contact from their optician – providing it is relevant. You are looking after their vision and appearance by communicating with them. People are always interested in their own wellbeing and self-image.

The majority of patients say they would welcome more contact from their optician. The Independent Marketing Partnership carried out a survey amongst 8,643 patients and found that 61% wanted more regular information on optical subjects from their practice.

Of course, such information needs to be worded in a manner appropriate for a healthcare and dispensing professional. And you need to avoid potentially irritating people with unnecessary contact and irrelevant messages.

But targeted patient communications that provide useful information about eye care and eyewear will make you a successful direct marketer. Sending out a quality patient newsletter with a covering letter, for example, would promote your practice’s clinical and dispensing expertise without any ‘hard sell’.

All that your patients require is carefully worded persuasion in your recall letters, emails and SMS texts, asking them to act soon, make an appointment, and consider having new eyewear.

Such persuasion will always be much more effective when it is targeted at specific patient groups, timed properly, and forms part of an overall communications strategy. So it’s important you:

  • Segment your patient base (e.g. presbyopes, kids, CL wearers).
  • Co-ordinate your patient communications (to deliver a consistent message).
  • Communicate frequently (at least twice a year).
  • Use different ‘contact points’ in the patient journey to maximise response .

Do this and your practice will reap the benefits of direct marketing. Further information is available from:

Copyright: Graham Hutchison 2021