After POCA's first Membership Drive back in May, I realized something important: when it came to signing up new patient/community members for POCA, WCA was remarkably similar to another common citizen of the Pacific Northwest — a slug. Especially if you factored in our size relative to other clinics, and the number of people on our email list, WCA was like the giant slug of POCA Membership drives. Sure, we signed up a patient here and there, but we weren't making what you could call a real effort.
This time around, though, things were different. The three WCA clinics signed up almost 50 new POCA patient/community members for the October Membership drive! But you know what else? October was a record busy month for WCA — and that never happens. Especially around Halloween, our fall numbers are reliably disappointing — but not this year. In fact, the last weekend in October was our busiest week except for the week of May Day (when we treated 380+ people for free, so that doesn't really count). So here are some thoughts from a former slug about why participating in the POCA Membership Drive is a great idea for POCA clinics.
1) It's beautiful to feel like you're part of something bigger than yourself — and it's good for everybody. The state of conventional healthcare is extremely depressing. Many patients come to our clinics as an oasis, a sanctuary, a place to feel human again even in the midst of pain and illness and interactions with dehumanizing systems. But our clinics, individually, are small. Individually, we can only treat so many people. Many patients get that our clinics are small businesses with all the usual vulnerabilities, and they just cross their fingers and hope we stay open. I've had patients tell me that they're relieved that we're still here after 11 years, that we didn't give up. In this tough environment, it's like a tonic to see us trying to build up community acupuncture, to connect existing clinics and to make more of them. All of us who work in community clinics are continually inspired by our patients' resilience, heartfulness and generosity. POCA Membership Drives are a way of reciprocating, of saying, we're in it for the long haul and we're in it together. Even better than having little sanctuaries? Reaching out beyond them.
2) It's all about the mojo. How does a clinic build momentum? That's what everybody wants to know. New acupunks ask, what's the right square footage, what's the right kind of signage, what kind of chairs should I get? But the really important thing to ask is, what's the right spirit? In the beginning I was as nervous as anybody else about asking patients to do anything other than show up, get poked, and pay what they can. It's scary: we all know how many acupuncturists fail in business, and we're just grateful when the phone rings, we don't want to push our luck. But fear is a contraction, and the only spirit that really works for community acupuncture clinics is one of expansion. What really makes a clinic grow is not fear that we won't be able to keep the lights on, but a burning desire to treat more people. POCA Membership Drives are an embodiment of that desire: make the co-op stronger, give out more micro loans, help open more clinics and TREAT MORE PEOPLE! When you're putting energy into a POCA Membership Drive, you're being expansive. That's why I think WCA was so busy this past October — we were really trying to be expansive.
3) You build tighter bonds with people who get what you're doing and why you're doing it. Skip and I have written about this in various places in the forums before: there's this confounding thing that happens when your clinic is having a growth spurt, whether it's the growth immediately after you open or when you're making a leap to higher numbers of visits. You seem to (briefly) attract some of the wrong people, people who want things that you don't have to give, people who want you to be really different than you are. People get mad at you for weird reasons, like not billing insurance or having the wrong kind of fleece blankets or, my personal favorite, not being professional enough. They get mad at front deskers and acupunks and even the clinic plants, if they're in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the past we've written that there's not much you can do about this phenomenon except sit tight and wait it out until your clinic goes back to attracting the usual 99% of people who are happy to be there and easy to work with. But the fact is, now that we have POCA, there IS something you can do to make it easier to weather these inevitable hiccups.
By asking people to join POCA as patient/community members, you're giving them a way to understand what your business is really about, and to make a commitment to that. POCA clinics couldn't survive if we attracted customers who only cared about what's in it for themselves. We need people to transcend their self-interest in various ways: to be gracious when somebody's snoring, to be understanding when somebody's walker is clattering over the floor, to be patient when their acupunk needs to give somebody else a little extra time because they can't get comfortable in their chair that day. We couldn't stay open if all of our patients got cranky with us for not providing perfect, spa-like service in an exquisitely controlled environment. We're trying to do something very different, something much more inclusive, and we need a patient base of people who get that. When you ask your patient members to join POCA, you're asking them to transcend their self-interest. Even if they don't say yes to the co-op, it's good for your clinic that you asked.
4) Capitalists pay marketing consultants gazillions of dollars to create sophisticated “advocacy campaigns” for them — but POCA clinics get to participate for free. And also for better reasons. Check out this post from a marketing expert that none of us could ever afford.
“Creating an advocacy program is one of the most impactful things a brand can do to start building meaningful relationships with their most dedicated fans, engage their most loyal customers, and empower organic word of mouth both online and offline.
In working with clients from various industries and various sizes, the number one reason for the long-term success of the program we’ve identified was defining the clear objective from the outset. Sounds simple, right? But a lot of marketers confuse exposure with advocacy.
Short-term Buzz: If your objective is to get a whole lot of people talking about your product launch or latest initiative, then look to ‘celebrity’ endorsements or influencer coverage that would engineer online conversations to get your message across. This will work to get the word out quickly, but will also die back as quickly once your initial push is over. There is a plethora of services that will allow you to ‘rent’ those relationships for a short period of time. These short-term endorsement program have a place in the marketing toolbox as long as marketers are clear exactly what they are getting and ROI these programs are driving.
Long term Love: Creating a sustainable network of advocates – customers who support your brand and will talk about it to their friends – will take more effort to build, but will guarantee long-term commitment from your fans. These program can empower super-fans or even your employees or partners to talk on your brands’ behalf as ambassadors. They are the ones who will go that extra mile to get the word out about the great work your company is doing.”
Doesn't this seem like an even BETTER idea if word of mouth marketing is the only kind of marketing that you — like WCA — can afford?
How exactly did WCA shift from being sluglike to rocking the Membership Drive? It required an initial investment of planning and time, but it was really pretty easy. Two of our punks, John Vella and Lindsey Dority, have been working on integrating POCA volunteers into WCA's operations. As part of that, Lindsey made banners for each of the three clinics that said, “Join POCA!” She made sure that fliers were available at the front desk of all the clinics. John and Lindsey had meetings with WCA's fabulous reception team, and that was where our collective efforts really took off. When I was at work, I heard receptionists explaining POCA to every single new patient, and encouraging returning patients to join. Last Sunday I dropped in at our Lents clinic to see that it was packed with snoozing people, packed like I'd never seen it — and in the lobby, a POCA volunteer was sitting in front of the POCA map with a laptop and a sign that said, “Do you have a birthday this month?” — ready to sign up new members. I don't think the full chairs in the back and the volunteer in the front represented a coincidence. I think that was the energy of the Membership Drive in action.
So thank you to the hardworking team of volunteers, receptionists and punks who made this Membership Drive a success not just at WCA but all across POCA!