Back to school and beyond: Building an effective optometry marketing strategy

With the end-of-year health fund rush in full swing, and back-to-school around the corner, planning an effective optometry marketing strategy is best approached with a coordinated year-long view, industry insiders say.

For Somerville & Merrin Optometrists, part of the ProVision network in Toowoomba, their end-of-year campaign is their biggest for the entire year. 

“End-of-year health fund related communications gives us the highest return on investment compared to any other campaign. Planning for end-of-year campaigns begins in August, or early September,” optical dispenser Mrs Danielle Bauer says.

Bauer has worked in the business for 16 of its 23 years and is stock and marketing manager across its two practice locations.

About eight years ago, she was asked to manage social media content, but her responsibilities have grown to now include implementing marketing campaigns, with support from ProVision’s headquarters.

Rather than bombard patients with marketing-related offers, Somerville & Merrin are specific in their communications. 

“We use our software and database to tailor our end-of-year communications so that we are only targeting the people that will get value from the campaign. For this campaign, that would include people who have a calendar year health fund, that have visited in the last four years, they’ve purchased glasses before, but they haven’t bought anything this year,” Bauer explains. 

“We start rolling this out at the end of September or very early October with mail-out communications to that target group and follow up with email and text messages throughout November and December.

“Some of our early October messages to this group of patients is along the lines of ‘Avoid the December rush. Come in early to use your health fund benefits’, because it just gets busier and busier in December. We always have detailed target groups, to ensure we’re contacting the people who will find the information useful.”

Bauer says Somerville & Merrin’s initial end-of-year communications are relatively general and information-based, followed by an incentive to visit the practice before the end of the year.

“Initially, our communications are broadly suggestive. For example, ‘We noticed you haven’t used your health fund? Do you have benefits to use? These are some options for you’. Or we might say, ‘Perhaps you would like a spare pair? Do you want to update your look? Do you need a work-related digital eyewear solution?’,” she says.

The practice also leverages offers from frame and lens suppliers. Its main lens lab will typically offer a discount on a second pair of lenses purchased for the same person on the same day, allowing the practice to pass this saving on to their patients. 

Bauer says the notion or suggestion of a ‘second pair’ is better received by patients when you can impart information about the various options and benefits.

“You might give them options for digital eyewear – obviously there’s a lot of information available now about blue light reduction – and the eye health implications of using digital devices. You might ask, ‘Do you need contact lenses for sport? Are you outside a lot? Are you protecting your eyes with sunglasses?’. It’s about getting to know your patients and giving them tailored information as to why you would suggest a second pair.”

Alongside patient-focused communications, managing stock is an integral component of end-of-year campaigns, Bauer explains.

“We do have to stock up over that end-of-year timeframe because we want our patients to be able to see something new and fresh. It’s a point-of-difference for us. In most cases, we won’t order a same frame twice. We might get the same frame in a different colour, perhaps, but rarely will we have exactly the same frame on the shelf. Once it’s sold, it’s sold,” she says.

In addition to launching an end-of-year campaign in October, Somerville & Merrin roll out a Summer sunglasses promotion in November through to January, followed by a back-to-school campaign.

Somerville & Merrin Optometrists’ practice in Toowoomba’s The Range Shopping Centre.

“Somerville & Merrin has two behavioural optometrists who work with children and vision development. Our kids’ range is our biggest push throughout January. Usually, we roll out back-to-school after Christmas because as a mum with three kids, I know that time between school finishing and Christmas, nothing is going to get done,” Bauer says.

The practice’s back-to-school promotion is generally about raising awareness. If kids are starting school for the first time, it advises parents to give their children the best start to their schooling life. Two pairs are always recommended to kids, especially if they only have to wear them in the classroom. 

“They need to have a pair they can keep at school, and a pair at home for homework or any screen time. That type of information goes out at the end of December, throughout January and into the beginning of the school year.”

The success of each campaign comes down to planning.

“The industry as a whole gets really, really busy by the end of October, November, December,” Bauer explains. 

“All of this [marketing] has to be planned in August, September. We don’t have the time or manpower to be figuring it out at the start of December. It’s important for us to have a cohesive plan of how it all fits in, when it comes out, and how we market it in store and digitally via our social media and website.

“Everything that we do as a starting point comes from ProVision. They give us an outline of a marketing plan we can follow, then we add in our own campaigns and our individual flair. It’s also important to ensure everything is cohesive, including consistent imagery from our window displays to our social media and other digital marketing, to what people are seeing on their mail-outs or emails.”

According to Bauer, consistent point-of-sale and communication at each touch point means patients will be familiar with the campaign before entering the practices and beginning conversations. 

‘Like going to the gym’

ProVision’s national retail operations manager, Ms Kate Hall, whose role encompasses supporting practices like Somerville & Merrin Optometrists, says ideally a practice will have a marketing plan for the full year, not just for end-of-year.

“This way, you have a strategy with a schedule of marketing activities to provide you with a high-level view of where you’d like to be and how you’re going to get there,” she says.

“It is a little like going to the gym. You can go to the gym and wing it and get a workout or you can have a program that is designed for you to get the best workout and results. Same amount of time and effort goes in; however, it is not about the effort – it’s about doing the right things in the right combination.”

Hall says members who have a well organised and executed marketing plan have achieved sustained growth. 

“An effective marketing plan enables them to take a targeted and cost-effective approach to drive increased revenue and return on investment, rather than the far too common and wasteful ‘spray and pray’ approach,” she says.

“Once you have a plan, it is about executing it across all forms of marketing, both internal with your current patients through patient communications and attracting new patients through media/social media, window displays and community networking.”

She says maximising the potential of a promotional plan comes down to a focus on the “3 P’s”, people, product, and process.

“Educate the entire team around the philosophy of a holistic lifestyle eyewear approach to provide the best patient care. Ensure they understand the rules and regulations around health funds and feel comfortable in having these discussions with patients by understanding your patients and asking understanding questions,” Hall recommends.

She also advises having a process in place to help team members maximise this time of year and always have the right range and product on show. 

“The most important aspect to communication is understanding the lifestyle needs of your patients and ensuring that you and the team are asking the right questions. Your clients don’t know what they don’t know. They rely on you, the vision care expert, to explain what they need and why. Practices that do this well achieve between 20-25% second pair percentage all year round. It also helps a patient identify why they need to come in and use their health fund,” Hall says.

Optometrist and practice owner Ms Emma Slinger acquired Eyecare Plus Karalee, in a rural residential suburb of Ipswich, nine years ago and earlier this year, acquired an existing practice a 30-minutes away, re-branding it Eyecare Plus Acacia Ridge. 

She is directly involved in practice marketing.

“I have a marketing assistant, who I bounce ideas off, but her main role is to essentially work with Eyecare Plus’ marketing team to organise campaigns,” Slinger says.

While her marketing approach at Karalee is fine-tuned, Acacia Ridge is a work-in-progress, as the practice had no computerised records when Slinger took over in April 2022. It’s only 47sqm, has had two previous owners in the past 50 years, and several patients are aged in their 70s and 80s.

“Nothing had been done to the practice. It was dying out basically – it wasn’t getting enough new patients to survive,” Slinger says.

“It was a very old practice that only had paper records. You could call it a ‘patient database’ of sorts, but not one that was easily usable in terms of marketing, because I couldn’t even send a bulk letter out to patients.”

Slinger immediately invested in installing computers and upgrading ophthalmic equipment and started the time-consuming process of digitising existing patient records. She is essentially starting from scratch in terms of communications to patients, including referrals, appointment reminders, and marketing messages.

The previous practice owners’ recalls were still done in a binder book.

“We went through the strenuous task of sorting patient files into those that are too old and need shredding, and then files within the last seven years we needed to keep. We then separated those into two batches. One is patients that hadn’t been in the last three or four years; we’ve put those aside, stored in alphabetical order, ready to use when they come back. And then the rest we made a database by manually creating a spreadsheet of their names and addresses.” 

“Unfortunately, the previous owners didn’t record who was a health fund member and who wasn’t, and which health fund they’re with. That’s an important part because otherwise you come to the end of the year, and you can’t pick those people out.” 

Meanwhile, operating for nearly a decade in Karalee has honed Slinger’s end-of-year marketing tactics, including targeting messages to specific demographics.

“We send targeted marketing collateral to health fund patients at our Karalee practice, particularly between October and December. I think you’ve got to be more specific with your message. If you’re trying to target everyone, you’re going to get no one,” Slinger says.

“We start planning our ‘use it or lose it’ optical benefits marketing in August, ready to be launched at the start of October. We start off with a direct mail out to patients with a strictly time limited voucher for glasses.”

Practices are encouraged to carefully consider how they use vouchers over the end of year period.

Slinger has learnt from past experience that patient incentives need to have an expiry date.

“A few years ago, we would send out a voucher that was valid until the end of December. But we’d get patients that weren’t necessarily responding to the voucher, they were just due to come in in December anyway and already had the voucher, so we were giving almost unnecessary discounts away,” she explains. 

“We decided that the only discount we would give is at the start of our campaign. That meant that patients who came in on 31 December weren’t getting a discount. They paid full price, but they were responding to our second messages. Basically, we do an email and SMS campaigns, which get increasingly more urgent in messaging. The last one goes out two weeks before the end of December.”

Patients are required to make a minimum purchase of $300 in order to redeem the voucher, and it can’t be used with other deals or offers.

Slinger is also testing the waters of a marketing campaign geared towards summer holidays.

“We have dabbled in that, but haven’t found it as effective. Every year we’ve been tweaking this process and it’s getting better, so we’re focusing on getting that right.”

She doesn’t run a back-to-school campaign – but does promote it on social media.

“Parents don’t seem to respond to the back-to-school messaging. We might send an email, but there’s no sales campaign attached to it. We find the first three weeks of February, when kids are going back to school, are quiet. I don’t know if it’s because parents are transitioning into school or it’s all too much to get back into school,” Slinger says.

“We have social media accounts for both practices – although Acacia Ridge doesn’t have anyone following it yet. We use a combination of material Eyecare Plus supplies, as they have quarterly marketing campaigns and back-to-school is usually one of those – we will use those social media tiles. We also do a lot of window displays as part of our marketing,” Slinger says.

Creating a sense of urgency

For practice owners like Slinger, Eyecare Plus marketing manager Ms Isobel Bishop and marketing coordinator Ms Kimberly Paas create and coordinate a range of different marketing activities, in addition to the Eyecare Plus national campaigns.

“We generally try to provide end-to-end marketing support for our members. We work closely with them to ensure each practice’s marketing plan targets their specific patient demographic. That’s the benefit of being independent; we can help them individually on a local level,” Bishop says.

Bishop and Paas highlight that both the end-of-year ‘use it or lose it’ and back-to-school campaigns are time sensitive, and therefore approach them with that in mind.

“With the local ‘use it or lose it’ campaigns, our goal is to create a sense of urgency within the message of the campaign. That rolls out into the New Year as well, while everyone is on holidays and school holidays. We tap into that sense of needing to take action and then seamlessly flow into the back-to-school campaign,” Paas says.

“We’re definitely looking to create a sense of urgency for patients around the importance of their eye health – it’s not something to put off, particularly for young children and helping them with their education and returning to school. It’s also important we use key facts and statistics to help push that messaging,” Bishop explains.

In the first quarter of the year, Eyecare Plus national office provides a back-to-school campaign for practices that see many paediatric patients and there’s also a standard New Year campaign practices can implement – or both.

“We provide the messaging and digital assets and point-of-sale material for a quarterly campaign. Members can also request additional customised material that, for example, highlights key stats relevant to their patient base, or if they’re focusing on myopia in their patient demographic we can do that as well.”

Incentives like a time-sensitive voucher can help to create a sense of urgency, and maximise sales early on, before the busy retail rush in December, Bishop and Paas say.

Eyecare Plus’ end-of-year marketing campaign.

“Our advice is to make sure that you have not just one or two marketing campaigns locked away in your calendar, but really try to prepare a year-long marketing strategy. An organised quarterly campaign will allow for a steady stream of patients rather than trying to deal with the rush of ‘use it or lose it,’ Bishop says. 

“If you have marketing strategies in place year-round, then you’ll tend to see a more steady stream. What type of local quarterly campaign is very specific to individual practices. Some members focus on myopia or dry eye because that’s most relevant to their patient demographic. Otherwise, you can do something as simple as general eye health awareness. Nationally, we focused on specialty lenses in our last quarter.”

Bishop says practices can work with suppliers to create in-store sale events but that alone won’t sustain a practice year-round.

“You need to have some sort of backbone to your marketing strategy throughout each quarter and on top of that, include additional once-off in-store special sale events sales,” she says. 

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Back to school and beyond: Building an effective optometry marketing strategy