How to Responsibly Market in Times of Uncertainty? What History Says.

How to Responsibly Market in Times of Uncertainty? What History Says.

1024 576 The RealSelf Team

The COVID-19 public health crisis is confounding daily life for all of us regardless of our demographics, where we live, or even our current health status. It’s a rare instance when an international emergency has a direct and visceral effect on just about each and every one of us. We’re all triaging priorities across many dimensions of our lives, and we’re doing it all at once.

We’ve already heard from aesthetic providers that navigating this time has entailed figuring out what’s best not just for themselves and their families, but also for their patients, their staff, and their businesses as a whole.

On the business front, adjusting to this “new now” means figuring out what it looks like to be an aesthetic practice at a time like this: how to staff, what to say to customers, what patient- and business-facing work to prioritize, and how to prepare for an eventual return to relative normalcy.

On the business front, adjusting to a “new now” means figuring out what it looks like to be an aesthetic practice surgical practice at this time. One set of decisions that practices will have to make: marketing.

One set of decisions practices will have to make is about their marketing: whether to do it all and, if so, what to prioritize and how much to spend. In the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing consumer data, research, insights from your peers, and more information that will help you see your way through this time. But to start, we’re going to focus on what historical research and insights say about how to think about marketing in uncertain times.

Take a breath before you take a hatchet to your marketing budget

Decades of research has consistently concluded that when times are uncertain, businesses should keep some degree of marketing going.

A 2015 Cornell study of how the hotel industry fared during the 2008 downturn revealed that hotels that performed significantly worse than their counterparts made one major change that foretold their fate: “a significantly greater reduction in total marketing expenses than winners.” Likewise, a 1990s study of American Marketing Association member companies concluded that “fortune follows the brave”—companies that increased their marketing increased their market share. Many more studies of marketing in uncertain times draw the same conclusions about its advantage.

We know that suspending marketing might be unavoidable, but before you make an on-or-off decision, consider how you might be able to take a proverbial scalpel to your budget instead.

We know that suspending marketing might be unavoidable, but before you make an on-or-off decision, consider how you might be able to take a proverbial scalpel to your budget instead.

Getting a handle on consumer behaviors and values in the current moment is a great way to target your marketing towards promoting behaviors that move them along in their journey in ways that will benefit your practice when things return to normal. And remember: consumers are still online doing research, and others might be willing to try online appointments they would have otherwise done in person. If you need to make budget cuts, consider retaining spending for the richest areas of opportunity—those that build a bridge to a future when the reigns loosen on public interactions.

  • If you have uncontacted inquiries sitting in your inbox or patient management system, you might consider having your practice manager work through them with the goal of driving those consumers to a virtual appointment. Remember: the recommendation is to contact inquiring patients within an hour if possible and, if they haven’t responded, twice within the following two days, then weekly for eight weeks if non-response continues. Staff should have a COVID-19-related script and FAQ so they can talk to patients about your practice’s operating procedures during this time.
  • If you’re light on inquiries, focus on getting consumers who are interested in your services into your pipeline. Tell them your staff is available for initial contact (and virtual appointments further out if you plan to offer them). People who are interested in procedures will want to hear about how COVID-19 affects their treatment options and process. Make sure you have a clear answer, then pivot to coursing them through your intake process.

Related: Visit RealSelf University for a multi-part education module, Virtual Appointments: We’re Not Closed!

What to do next. Assess your current patient pipeline to determine what set of targeted activities you and your staff can implement that will create value for your practice now and when the tide turns. If you want to continue marketing, think about where you can spend time and/or energy that will best support those targeted actions.

Ask the classic business question

In his classic, McKinsey Award-winning 1960 essay, “Marketing Myopia,” business management scholar Theodore Levitt proposed the key question businesses should ask themselves: “What business am I really in?”

Levitt formulated this question to inspire businesses whose growth had stalled to broaden their thinking about what services they were qualified to offer customers. (An aesthetic practice might conclude in normal times, for example, that they’re ultimately in the “confidence business,” making them eligible to provide confidence-boosting but non-procedural services, products and/or content.)

In the spirit of Levitt’s question, what set of services can an aesthetic practice credibly provide at a time when physical contact is constrained due to a public health emergency? What are the right set of business- and customer-facing activities a remotely operating aesthetic practice should undertake in these circumstances? And how does marketing support those activities?

What are the right set of business- and customer-facing activities an aesthetic practice should undertake in these circumstances? And how does marketing support those activities?

What to do next: Work through this thought experiment. Start by thinking through the range of work your practice does in normal times. What pre- and post-op (for patients you’ve treated recently) work and services can you maintain and adapt given the current circumstances? Consider remotely opening the exercise up to your staff.

Understand how patients perceive your services

Harvard Business School professor John Quelch defined four product categories that describe how consumers view spending in the event of a downturn:

  • Essentials. Necessary for survival or perceived as central to well-being.
  • Treats. Indulgences whose immediate purchase is considered justifiable.
  • Postponables. Needed or desired items whose purchase can be reasonably put off.
  • Expendables. Perceived as unnecessary or unjustifiable.

Long-consideration services like aesthetic procedures are perceived by consumers as being in the “essentials” and “postponables” categories. But in this climate, elective procedures that patients perceive as “essentials” might be forced into “postponables” territory if they’re affected by mandated business closures. This means that if you choose to market, you should focus on building a pipeline of patients you can action against when the postponement period is over. 

Think about it like this: a restaurant that is forced to shutter for three months because of COVID-19 will not benefit from three months’ worth of pent up appetite when consumers return (unfortunately). That missed opportunity is gone forever.

But a consumer with an intent to have an aesthetic procedure will not have “spent” that intent in the interim—although they will have to postpone acting on it. And for a potential patient thinking about a longer-consideration procedure, this can be a crucial time to start and maintain a conversation with them that will pay off later.

What to do now: Consider how patients perceive the treatments you offer, and stay tuned to this section for our first wave of COVID-19 consumer insights. (We’ll also link them here once they’re published.) If your treatments are perceived as “postponables,” how can you maintain an ongoing conversation with those consumers so that when things return to normal, you’re positioned to be chosen?

Understand what patients are looking for

As we mentioned, you should watch this space in the coming weeks for COVID-19-related aesthetic consumer data, specifically around how their aesthetic consumer journey is affected by the virus and its societal fallout. Some of the questions we’ll be answering include:

  • How interested they would be in doing a virtual or video consultation with an aesthetic provider.
  • Whether COVID-19 is affecting the type of procedure they eventually intend to have.

There are also broader consumer insights that illuminate how consumers have historically behaved during times of uncertainty. One study concluded that while “postponable” services will inspire consumers who are prone to quickly stop spending in moments of uncertainty to do just that, the reaction from consumers who are well off, naturally given to spending, and/or less anxious about spending is more mixed. Those consumers will spend money in certain circumstances. While closed doors suppress that opportunity in the near term, this might point to a willingness to move forward with research, conversations, and online interactions that drive toward an eventual procedure.

What to do now: Consider how your patients map to these consumer segments, and check back for RealSelf consumer data that highlights how consumers are thinking and behaving vis-a-vis aesthetic procedures in light of COVID-19. 

Focus on patient loyalty

Existing clients are much less expensive to acquire than new customers. They’re also the engine of organic growth and cash flow for businesses.

If your practice offers followup procedures or other medaesthetic services that are sources of recurring revenue, those could be promising areas to focus your organic or paid marketing efforts.

And remember: your reviews are where loyalty pays forward to new customer acquisition. Virtual post-op appointments could be a prime opportunity to share photos, discuss results, and ask your patients for reviews.

Related: How To Get A Patient Review In Five Minutes Or Less

What to do next. Consider what opportunities you have to engage with loyal patients. These don’t always have to be about selling. For example, you might offer post-op tips specific to the current moment.


How are you responding?

We’re in this together. Tell us how your practice is adapting in the wake of COVID-19 so that we can share best practices with everyone.