There’s been a lot of interesting discussions happening on the web lately, from how to explain this “new media stuff” to wondering what comes next, to predictions of what will work and what won’t.  Seth Godin has a great post talking about gimmicks today, and how what seems like a gimmick might eventually become routine.

How would new media play in more traditional business models without just being a Gimmick?

If you are a doctor or lawyer, do you need a new media strategy?  Should you have one? 

When I turn on the tv and see a local urologist trying to drum up business in a really lame commercial, it does catch my attention, but I am also not overly impressed by his professional demeanor, and look at this commercial as a desperate move, not an innovative one.  Likewise, when I see commercials for personal injury law firms, this inspires thoughts of churning case loads and taking advantage of the misfortunes of others, and I say this as a lawyer, and as one who worked for a small personal injury firm during law school.  These commercials and ads don’t impress me, they turn me off.

What could a doctor or lawyer do to help their business get greater exposure to people who might need their services, yet not make us think less of them in the process?  How could social media help them?

This is the classic internet conundrum of Global versus Local. 

People tend not to look for their doctors online, unless they need special services, or have just moved to the area.  You may find out what doctors are in your area through an online directory, but the personal experience of friends is likely to be a better quality filter.  And while there are attempts at diagnosis from afar, most people would like to see their doctor in person, not over ichat.

Likewise, most people I know shopping for an attorney look either in the yellow pages or they ask a friend for a referral.  They may check an internet directory like Martindale ,  but they want the service delivered locally in most cases.  While I can give friends advice online as a lawyer, I can’t represent them, because each lawyer has to have passed the bar exam in that particular state in order to practice legally, making law something that needs a local presence.

Law, medicine, and things like plumbers and contractors are services that have an inherent local component- they are not things that can be delivered as efficiently over the internet.  I can’t get my dishwasher fixed online, but I can find someone to help diagnose the problem and see if I need to call a local plumber or a repairman.

The internet reaches a global audience and is great at connecting people at long distances more efficiently. My podcast on learning and learning disabilities , for example, had downloads from 26 countries last month.  However, the internet isn’t always great at connecting people in a local area, because not everyone hangs out in the same internet neighborhood as they do in real life.  Having someone in Pakistan look at your web page may not help your local plumbing business at all.  So what’s a small business to do?

Here are some suggestions that might help a professional business online:

*Offer a weekly/monthly web chat, through services like Go To Meeting, Webex, Talk Shoe, Blog Talk Radio, or other services where clients could call in and ask a doctor/lawyer/plumber/mechanic questions.  Set aside an hour to do this, and field questions.  It will be a service to existing patients/clients to ask you small questions that don’t seem worthy of a whole appointment, and could help build your practice at the same time.  It’s different and remarkable.  This is the new media strategy version of Car Talk, The Chef’s Table, Pediacast,  and other radio shows and podcasts that give general advice to everyone in an entertaining manner, while sharing knowledge, with the side effect of building business at the same time.  It let’s people get a sense of you long before they step in the door, creating loyalty and trust long before they ever meet you.

*Offer a short series of podcasts for customer education. What would happen if you offerred a few short (no longer than 10 min) podcasts talking about common problems?  What if you offered patient education online?  What if you could take birthing classes via podcast/videopodcast? This would serve the needs of busy patients, as well as cut down on some of the phone calls for the small questions that chew time in your daily life.
*Offer online versions of common documents and forms.  What if you could learn about nutrition, new lines of treatment, what to expect after having surgery, etc.  and made all of that material available on your website?  What if all your insurance forms and new client information sheets were available in PDF and could be filled out before someone showed up in the office?    This could save time and aggravation on both sides of the transaction.  And if clients forget something, they can look it up on your website.

Instead of having to factor in the first 20 minutes of waiting time for new patients to be the form-filling time, and then taking up the time of a second person to transfer that information into your office computer, you could offer secure online forms, and patients could fill these out in advance, putting the information directly into your database.  You might have to confirm all the information is accurate at the office, but much of the grunt work will be done for you by the patient, saving you time and money. Likewise, it will save the patient time waiting in your office, making everyone but the waiting room magazine people happier.
*Offer online scheduling.  How cool would it be if you could schedule your doctor’s appointment, oil change, or dentist appointment online, like scheduling an appointment with a genius at the Apple Store?  It would save many businesses additional overhead for front office staff and let these people do other work other than just making appointments.  It would be more convenient for customers.  While you will need to have people to answer the phone for people who don’t take advantage of this service, think how much work it might save you.

What do you think?

These are just a few ideas of how taking advantage of the web might really grow your local business, cut your overhead, and satisfy real client needs simultaneously.  For those who think these ideas are crazy, remember that no one ever thought we would all make our vacation plans ourselves using the internet, but services like Travelocity have largely eviscerated the travel agent business.  We’re becoming a self-serve world, so why not make that leap sooner than later?

Not every attorney wants to share his ideas in a podcast, nor does every doctor want to give advice once a week for free.  Yet for some, these methods could streamline their practice, making it more user friendly for clients and for the staff.  I am interested to see what you think.  Are there other things businesses can do with new media to build value?  What would you do to make your business more accessible locally, while maintaining professional values?