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Marketing 101: How to Market Your Independent Pharmacy

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If you consider yourself a health care professional first, marketer second, tune in! Expert Ginny Langbehn joins Drug Topics® to answer pharmacists' most common questions.

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Ginny Langbehn is Marketing & Corporate Communications Director at American Associated Pharmacies, or AAP, one of the nation’s largest cooperatives for independent pharmacies. She has been with the company since 2020 and is responsible for leading all marketing and communications initiatives for AAP and its subsidiary, API Warehouse.

Ms. Langbehn has more than 25 years of experience in brand positioning, strategic planning, media relations and multi-channel marketing. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Advertising from the University of Alabama and prior to joining AAP, Ginny served as senior director and head of marketing for Alabama’s #1 paid tourist attraction, and its international STEM education program, Space Camp.

Drug Topics®: Thank you so much for joining us. I wanted to start with an introduction. Can you tell the viewers who you are and what is AAP?

Ginny Langbehn: Well, I'm glad to be here with you today. My name is Ginny Langbehn. I am marketing and corporate communications director at American Associated Pharmacies (AAP). We're one of the nation's largest cooperatives for independent pharmacies, and I've been with a company since 2020. I'm responsible for leading all marketing and communication initiatives for AAP and its subsidiary, API warehouse.

Drug Topics®: Great, let's just jump into this. I know that marketing is so important for independent pharmacies. Could you give us a little background on why that is?

Langbehn: Well, there's so much noise in the world today, especially in the in the digital ecosystem. Everything competes for our time and attention. Customers want great service, personal connections, and convenience, but the messaging that they see out in the world… [there’s] lots of noise, lots of competing messaging. When marketing is done right, it really allows pharmacies to establish a consistent reputation and a brand in their community. It also allows the business to maintain visibility and presence in their relationships with their customers.

As you know, a critical component of independent pharmacy industry is that personal touch that the customer doesn’t necessarily get with the big chains. There are some pretty simple things that you can put into place to cultivate that voice and stay in touch with your customers without imposing on them. Essentially, marketing just provides the channels to get the resources and information to existing and potential customers, and that can ultimately translate into revenue.

Drug Topics®: Marketing can be expensive, and it can take a lot of time out of a pharmacist’s already very busy day. Can you share an example of how a pharmacist can get a return on that marketing investment that they're going to make?

Langbehn: I think one of the neat things about marketing is there are many ways to assess the effectiveness of marketing efforts; these options have expanded significantly over recent years with the migration to digital consumption of news, health information, marketing and advertising messages, [and] all of the above.

You can specifically mess it measure clicks, views, shares, et cetera, and you can really see what types of content that your audience is engaging with and what is resonating for them. And then you can build on that to produce more of what is working and follow it through and track it to the conversion of a new customer. The creation of technology-based metrics tools that are built into most marketing platforms now really makes measuring things like that very easy. Whether you're doing your own marketing, or working with a third party company for it, you will likely find tools integrated all over the place to help gauge the effectiveness of each campaign.

Word to the wise, if you're paying for marketing services, you always want to make sure that they can and will provide campaign analytics for you, because if they can't measure it and report it, the job just isn't complete.

Drug Topics®: That's a really, really good point. And I think that dovetails nicely into my next question. I want to talk about platforms: there are so many out there, from websites to social media—all of which have their own reporting tools—but where should pharmacists start? If they're looking to make their first foray into marketing, what's the best way to go about that?

Langbehn: I think first and foremost, have a website. This is your front door to the entire world. Keep it clean and simple. This doesn't have to cost any money, actually. There are free builder tools out there, like GoDaddy or Wix; MailChimp has an option. Most have easy to use templates you can build from. It's a pretty painless experience. As you're building your content, they kind of walk you through the process. Like I said, many free options out there for that.

Hosting your website, which is basically another way to say renting your little corner of the internet, is just a nominal monthly expense, many times anywhere from $2 or $3 a month to $10 or $15 a month.

When you're building your website, there are some must-have elements. I believe you should welcome your visitors to your site. Many people go to the internet to find more information, whether they're looking for your store hours or information about your business as a whole. Welcome them. Maybe [share] a brief sentence or 2 about how long you've served your community, [or] what sets you apart from other pharmacies. I would include a clear photo of your building, perhaps a photo of your lead pharmacist; people want to do business with people, not brands. The more that you can personalize your kind of the look and feel of the website to be specific to yourself, I think that that really helps.

Next, [share a] prominent, clear call-to-action. What do you want them to do on your website? Do you want them to provide you their email address and contact information so you can stay in touch with them? You could integrate an automated text message platform and have them sign up for text messages…or create a forum for them to submit on your website. Just keep it simple, that's the rule of that. Do you want them to transfer their prescriptions? Give them a clear and easy way to do that. Define your objective on your website—what do you want them to do?—build something simple for them to give that to you.

In addition to a website, I think a really easy low hanging fruit thing is cultivate online reviews as much as you can. How many of us read the reviews on Amazon before you buy something, or for a restaurant before you go? It’s super important in this day and age. Ask your satisfied customers to review you. Maybe print out postcards with instructions on where and how to do it, make it easy for them. You can target Google reviews, or things like Yelp or Angie's List and just ask people to give you a good review. You'd be amazed at how many people were willing to do that and help. Also consider joining your local Better Business Bureau; customers like to feel confident in who they're doing business with, and positive feedback from others really goes a long way in helping that.

Drug Topics®:I feel like people are so willing to give a good review when they get good service. That's a really great point to bring up.

Langbehn: And then finally, social media, the behemoth. We know there are lots of options out there with that. Those are my big 3.

Drug Topics®: I think that was really comprehensive. I do want to talk a little bit more about social media. Are there guidelines for choosing the right platform? What do you think about the newer social media sites like, for example, TikTok, vs Facebook? Everybody knows Facebook, lots of people know Twitter, but TikTok is something new and different. How would you go about choosing a platform for a pharmacy?

Langbehn: That's a really great question, because social media is changing all the time, with new things coming online and trends in the market. It really depends on your audience as a pharmacy. Who is your customer? Are you located in a rural community with an older population, maybe [with] limited internet access, or are you right in the middle of a college town?

Broadly speaking, I would recommend most pharmacies set up at least a Facebook page; most people engage in some capacity with Facebook. Twitter, and Instagram [are] probably a secondary priority, but again, it depends on your audience. Regarding TikTok—you know, Instagram and TikTok may be where you need to be if your customers are younger college students. But TikTok is probably not a great choice if your markets older than say, 35. I suggest if you're going to use something like TikTok, because of the nature of the platform, I would keep the messaging light and somewhat superficial. It's probably not the platform to be disseminating serious or complicated health news, or things of that nature.

The best thing about social media is, no matter which platform you choose, it's a great way to add personality to your brand and connect with your audience in a more conversational way. It's ideal for communicating special events you may be having at your store, or promotions happening at your pharmacy. And if you're using Facebook and Twitter, those are good ways to disseminate news and other health resource information in a timely manner.

I say all that [but for] social media, I've got one word of caution: Social media is just that—it's social. Your audience will want to talk to you. Be very careful not to provide any diagnostic health care, or individualized responses about a specific health matter, or questions about medications. You cannot provide medical care over social media; that must be kept inside your pharmacy in order to not run afoul of patient protection guidelines. Keep it a little lighter, more informational, but not specific to a patient on social.

Drug Topics®: That's a really good point. It's so easy…to devolve into that familiarity with someone.

With all that said, we've covered the platforms, the website, social media… How pharmacists go about creating a marketing plan for their store?

Langbehn: Developing your marketing messaging and making that consistent is really of utmost importance; I think that's the number 1 thing to remember. All of your messaging, everywhere it appears—whether it's on a postcard, on social media, or in the newspaper—it all comes together to create your pharmacy’s brand or unique voice in your community. What sets you apart from your competitors? Keep that message front and center and weave it in some way into everything that you are communicating. This reinforcement creates a clear and consistent drumbeat for your audience.

We've all seen examples out there of disparate marketing messaging from a company. It's hard to really know what they're trying to be or what they're trying to say—it just doesn't work. A good a basic tip to remember is to use the same image across multiple platforms to help drive recognition for your business. If you put a photo or slogan on a billboard for a campaign, use that same photo on your social media and your website as well. It helps translate across the platforms and build recognition.

Best practice tips for building a marketing plan? I think you need to identify your objective before you start. You need to know what you're working toward, specifically, what do you want to accomplish in a year? It needs to be broken down into a smaller chunk than just “increasing revenue”—because everyone wants that, right? How do you want to increase revenue? Do you want to get more customers in your store? Do you want to promote a higher spend for your existing customers, increase prescriptions filled, or perhaps develop more point of care services or frontline retail to diversify and increase your revenue? All of these are completely valid goals, but each one of them really requires a different type of marketing approach.

Work backwards from there and review and assess your progress toward the goal on a monthly or quarterly basis. Don't wait until the end of the year to pass or fail.

Drug Topics®: Yeah, that’s going to be a big undertaking if you wait until that 12-month span has passed; I feel like quarterly or monthly is a much more bite sized, achievable objective.

Langbehn: You have no room to pivot if you wait until the end of the year. Of something's not working, and you know it on a quarterly basis, then you’re able to change.

That brings me to the second thing: Delegate responsibility for this very clearly in your pharmacy. Whether you use a family member for this, an employee, or even a third-party marketing business that help you, it must be consistent. One-off, inconsistent, random marketing efforts are rarely productive, and they end up being a waste of money. Build these responsibilities into daily or weekly workflow, so that someone is always paying attention to it. And, choose the right person for this. I know that might sound funny, but if you're an owner or pharmacist, and you don't even have your own personal Facebook page, are you really the right one to be handling your social media campaigns? Probably not. Choose someone with an existing interest or ability to go to engage in the channels, even if that's not you. I also recommend starting small. Pharmacists are pharmacists, they're not marketing people. Start small with something simple, measurable…to get started. Once you get comfortable with how the campaigns flow and you begin to see the type of things that can be measured, grow it from there. Ideally, work up to having 2 or 3 channels activated in one campaign. Data show it takes an average of 5 to 7 touchpoints before someone is moved to action. So, talk to [your customers] on social media, send them a postcard in the mail, buy a billboard in your area. Everything really layers together to create higher visibility for your pharmacy.

Drug Topics®: That's a really interesting data point, that it takes 5 to 7 touchpoints to get somebody to convert into taking an action. It can seem like that's a lot, but when you phrase it that way—that it can be such small building blocks—it really is achievable. It's not out of the realm of something that an independent pharmacist could do.

What's the difference between digital marketing and traditional marketing and is one better than the other?

Langbehn: I think each option has its benefits and its drawbacks. The benefit of digital marketing is the relative ease of execution and the lower expense to do a simple campaign, and the availability of those assessment tools I mentioned earlier to evaluate the return on investment. Drawbacks would include a saturated digital environment with lots of other clutter that's competing for your viewers’ attention, as well as possibly less online presence and activity of some populations—particularly older customers.

Traditional media provides the opportunity to reach more of those more traditional customers where they are consuming their information, whether that's something through the mail, the newspaper, or even local TV newscasts. The drawback to those types of options is cost. Typically, they’re more expensive, and there’s more difficulty in being able to target specific people, and then measure the effectiveness of that campaign.

There’s a statistic that I heard recently that really informed a lot for me, [from] a recent survey from Hamacher Resource Group resource group. It shows that the top 2 ways customers learn about a new pharmacy or pharmacy service is, number 1 from a friend or family member, and number 2, if the pharmacy is nearby either their home or their workplace. Those 2 categories made up 70% of pharmacy shopper responses. If I were a pharmacy with a limited marketing budget—which is probably most—that statistic, that little study, indicated 2 things I should probably be doing: 1, set of a patient loyalty program and actively solicit referrals from your satisfied customers. Maybe at the same time you're asking them to review you online, ask them to tell their friends or family [about your store.] Set up a loyalty program; reward them with store discounts, gift cards, or things of that nature for sending in their friends and family.

And number 2, focus on proximity marketing. That's a hyperlocal marketing strategy. It's basically targeting potential customers near your physical location, whether you're near a residential area or business district. People shop pharmacies for convenience. For this type of geotargeted marketing, you could use digital advertising, you could use direct mail, you could use billboards, or any combination of those, depending on your budget. Deciding which one to use really goes back to your main objective and understanding your typical customer. You just need to speak to them where they are.

Drug Topics®: How can pharmacists carve time out of their day to utilize these marketing platforms?

Langbehn: As I mentioned earlier, it doesn't have to be the pharmacist. [When] choosing the right person, what's going to work for one business may not work for another. But like Nike says, “Just do it.” Marketing is an essential business function, especially in our world of nearly constant stimuli. It doesn't have to be you as the owner-pharmacist, but you must identify someone responsible for this, whether it's in house, on staff, or with a marketing agency. It doesn't even have to be a large amount of time—whether it’s a little bit daily or a little bit weekly, the key to marketing isn't being constant, it's being consistent.

Drug Topics®: I want to pivot a little bit and I want to ask, how has the pandemic changed marketing strategies for the independent pharmacy?

Langbehn: That's an interesting question. I think broadly speaking, COVID-19 really has significantly changed patient and customer expectations and how they're doing business with all people, right? This in turn impacts operations and service offerings from the pharmacies. To be successful in this environment… I think the pandemic has taught us all that it requires adaptability and flexibility to respond to these market forces.

As your pharmacy adds these service options—for instance, curbside pickup delivery, automated refill options, whether that's on your website or via phone—you need to communicate that clearly. People are spending more time at home, or in more limited environments, rather than having broad mobility, attending large events, or even going to large workplaces. So, we may want to consider hyperlocal targeting to reach them where they are. Maybe maybe we're doing direct mail to their homes at this point rather than [making] a different choice. Ultimately, people want to feel safe [when] doing business with you, and they want it to be convenient and easy to do so. Perhaps now more so than ever, clearly communicate your expanded service offerings to adapt to this elevated level of expectation.

Drug Topics®: Outside of paid marketing and advertising, are there any free or low-cost tactics that these pharmacies can use to market their businesses?

Langbehn: Absolutely. This is my favorite part; when you can do it on a budget that's great, but when you can do it for free, that's fantastic.

As I mentioned earlier, cultivate those online reviews from your satisfied customers. That's easy to do, [it’s] low-hanging fruit, completely free, [and] is highly visible to others searching for pharmacy services.

Something that requires a little more labor, I recommend e-newsletters. Pack it with industry news. We you know inbox is inundated all day long with news from the industry; what would your patients be interested in reading? Recirculate some of that content that you're getting in your inbox. Pack it with industry news, maybe [some] health tips—again, generically speaking, not diagnostic to any particular patient. [Sharing an] employee spotlight for your pharmacy works really well to help them get to know you. Perhaps [include] some content answering some of the top questions you get in your pharmacy. There are email services—MailChimp is one that offers this—that will let you send up to 2000 emails for free. That's a lot of people. It's a great way to stay in front of your audience regularly for little to no cost.

Drug Topics®: I never thought of an email newsletter from a pharmacy. I think that's a great idea.

Langbehn: Yep, it just keeps that drumbeat, keeps that relationship.

Another example: If you've expanded your COVI-19 testing or vaccinations in your store, recognize that many people now need these things in place for travel. So, reach out to nontraditional people; reach out to local travel agents [and] let them know you're offering rapid tests with documentation, or contact local churches who may have mission trips planned. At a minimum, put that message on a sign in front of your store if you can. Think about nontraditional avenues outside of health care that may be in need of your services.

More on that point, join community organizations like your chamber of commerce or local business association, get involved with a Kiwanis group, fraternal organization, or other civic association to expand your network and really cultivate that positive word of mouth.

Drug Topics®: I think those are all really great tips. I love free marketing; I think it's fantastic and I think people can get so creative when they have the opportunity to say, I'm just going to try something. Your point about reaching out to travel agents to market your travel vaccines—I think that's fantastic.

With that in mind, what are some final last tips or best practices that you have that our viewers should keep in mind when moving forward on their marketing journey?

Langbehn: We've covered a lot of ground today. I think the only other thing I would really add here is, don't be afraid of marketing. Make it an integrated and intentional part of your business plan and experiment. Like I mentioned, there are cheap to free options where you can dive into marketing a little bit more until you're more comfortable with it, and it can help you get started on that. But, don't be afraid to get started; you really need to be doing it.

I'll share one of my favorite quotes, it’s from Stuart Britt. He's a renowned American psychologist and professor of marketing. I love this quote; it says, “Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you're doing, but nobody else does.” I love that.

Drug Topics®: I think that is a great note to end things on. I think that's a perfect summary. You can't have an independent pharmacy today without marketing. I'm really I'm just thrilled you were able to join us and have this conversation, and I think these are some really great takeaways for our viewers. Thank you so much.

Langbehn:Thanks for having me.

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