Nearly a decade ago, amid the Great Recession, Michael LaFerla, DDS, MS, decided to run the first television commercial for his orthodontic practice in Joplin, Mo. At the time, competition between orthodontists and dentists was heating up for teeth alignment treatments like Invisalign and other clear aligners, so he wanted to show potential patients the benefits of seeking out a specialist.

“We had a lot of people going to the general dentist not knowing the difference between a dentist and orthodontist,” he says.

His wife, Bre, used to work as a local television news anchor, so she would write the commercial scripts and help the practice with access to stations to get them on the air.

“I’ll be honest—that made things very easy for me,” LaFerla says. “She knew how to write a commercial, edit a commercial, do everything.”

For several years, LaFerla Ortho would usually run commercials a couple of times a year—through September and October, and then again in the spring—to educate people about the need for orthodontists and generally promote awareness of the practice.

In what LaFerla describes as a “small to medium”-sized market in Joplin and the surrounding areas, each commercial had a budget of about $8,000 to $10,000. LaFerla Ortho has produced around six commercials over the years. Each was usually written within a day, and would take a couple of hours of production time, plus editing. The target demographic was usually women ages 20 to 50, often with a focus on cable viewers.

Most of the commercials focused on being informative, LaFerla says. They’re usually simple, consisting mostly of shots from around the office, but some involved cast members.

One 30-second commercial from 2010 posted to the practice’s Facebook page shows shots of patients and staff, LaFerla talking to a mom and her kids, and before-and-after photos of teeth, all set to upbeat whistling music and narration that encourages kids to come in for an evaluation for National Children’s Dental Health Month.

For several years, LaFerla says, there was a noticeable response from would-be patients, even if it was hard to quantify exactly how many new patients the practice got as a result of the TV spots.

“I’d say you always have, immediately, phone calls for evaluations,” says LaFerla, who opened his private practice in 1999. “The hardest part was trying to figure out how many were shoppers.”

It wasn’t surprising if 30 to 40 new patients came in the door as a result of seeing a commercial, he says, but not 100% of those would start treatment with him. Usually, his practice—comprised of eight treatment chairs, two evaluation chairs, two records chairs, and a consultation chair—was still more likely to get a new patient via a referral from a current patient.

And nowadays, it’s hard to say if TV commercials are worth it, LaFerla says.

“I don’t think we’ve done a commercial in 3 years probably,” he says. Part of that is because of the expense, and part of it is because of changing consumer habits. “If I watch something I recorded, I skip the commercials. With the technology getting better and better, you can skip forward. We just started realizing, this might not be the most effective way.”

The return on a commercial probably varies depending on the market each orthodontist is in. LaFerla recalls a friend in California telling him the cost to make a commercial there was “astronomical.”

“If you’re in a big market, you’re probably going to spend a lot more, but are you going to earn that back?” he says.

Now, his practice focuses more on promoting itself through social media.

“Recently, we’ve been doing more Facebook ads,” LaFerla says. “That’s been a really good way. And a lot less expensive.”

On its Facebook page, the practice touts Invisalign, posts photos of its staff volunteering with community organizations in Joplin, shares staff member bios, promotes free evaluations, and targets busy moms with posts about how to fit an appointment in between everything else.

He still prefers to get referrals through dentists, but he realizes that “things have changed” since he entered the field about 20 years ago.

“The competition from general dentists doing orthodontics has increased a lot,” he continues. “When I started, they didn’t have things like Invisalign, Six Month Smiles. The problem is, in my opinion, even though they have access, they don’t necessarily have expertise.”

LaFerla Ortho has also done radio ads in the past, but like with television, LaFerla says sometimes it’s hard to tell how well they perform. Still, he doesn’t rule out doing commercials again in the future.

“I think if we were in a position that we didn’t have the numbers coming in the door, we’d consider it at least,” he says.

He also gets his practice’s name out to the community by participating in events with nonprofits like the Boys & Girls Club. As the market for orthodontists has changed and referral patterns shifted, he says, business has gotten harder. That forces doctors to get a little bit more creative with self-promotion. OP

A.J. Zak is a freelance writer for Orthodontic Products. She can be reached at [email protected].