With in-person events neither safe nor permitted, two practices - one on the East coast, the other on the West coast - were not going to let COVID-19 limit their community engagement. Between the two practices, almost 600 people took on the challenge either alone or as teams to walk, hike, run, and even kayak 19 kilometers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our practices in a multitude of ways: the delivery of services via telehealth, designing new clinic layouts, scheduling, helping fearful patients, managing loans and grants, furloughs, lay-offs, illness, childcare, and burnout. And yet, for the long-term recovery and success of our practices, marketing must continue. However, like every other element of our practices, our approach to marketing must evolve to meet the needs of the communities we serve.
Typically, private practices have a multi-faceted marketing approach. More often, this includes direct marketing to referral sources, a robust website, social media content, signage, advertising, events, and word of mouth initiatives. Due to the impact of COVID-19, many of the traditional approaches used to seek new patients were suddenly impossible. Either they were not allowed or would be insensitive to the needs of our communities. The realization that our practices will not survive without new patients has forced practices to truly review the effectiveness and return on investment of their marketing efforts.
Our industry understands that ongoing community engagement – even throughout a pandemic – is vital. It ensures that our patients, referral sources, and community partners trust that our practices would continue to provide resources and encourage movement. With social distancing guidelines due to COVID-19 in effect, there was an explosion of online exercise videos, blog posts, ZOOM classes, Facebook Live events – all to stay engaged with the community.
With this in mind, Performance Physical Therapy in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Peak Sports and Spine in Washington each decided to organize a virtual event. Both practices advertised and organized a 19K, where participants could enter individually or as teams. They could choose to complete the distance by walking, running, swimming, kayaking, or even dancing – any way to get them moving. Registrations were at a low cost, sponsorships were available, and social media engagement was encouraged. Together, the practices raised $14,500 to support respective local beneficiaries – The Rhode Island Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund, International Community Health Services, and Hopelink. All organizations worked to provide goods and services to those who were struggled due to COVID-19.
Most striking was the diversity of engagement opportunities these events provided for each practice. Referral sources, staff, former patients, insurance companies, local businesses, schools, and athletic teams all volunteered to participate.
A virtual event can help rebuild and strengthen a team that has been dulled by the enormity of COVID-19. Whether having staff participate individually, or as teams of coworkers, or with friends and family, coming together to share the experience can build your team’s culture, whether it be through in-person activities or social media. “Our team worked so hard to transition to telehealth, then to reopen the clinics within the same month. Exhausted and tired, our virtual 19K gave people a purpose and reason to get out and move with their friends and family on Memorial Day weekend,” says Michelle Collie of Performance Physical Therapy. “The photos of smiles and celebrations of various accomplishments were uplifting and rewarding for everyone, and it brought our team closer together.”
Online engagement with our communities has become exponentially important during the pandemic. Ali Schoos of Peak Sports and Spine Physical Therapy says that “sending e-newsletters and posting on social media with the goal of driving people to seek our services seemed insensitive during the pandemic, yet we still needed to stay engaged. Our virtual 19K over the July 4th weekend coincided with the Black Lives Matter movement. As COVID-19 took a backseat in the news and on our minds, I made the decision to make our event about more than just the pandemic and its negative health consequences. It became about our community and recognizing that there is inequality in access to safe spaces, sporting equipment, recreational areas, fitness, and health care. We renamed it the Peak Virtual 19K for Unity to recognize the impact of COVID-19 and the need to get our community united in our response to health disparities.”
For both Collie and Schoos, the virtual 19K provided an opportunity to reach out to community partners, gyms, physicians, insurance companies, local nonprofits, and referral systems to bring everyone together for the good of their respective communities. Between them, 75 sponsors donated, participated, and shared details of the event in their communities. The event has resulted in stronger community relationships as measured by requests to provide content for local sports stores, podcasts with local experts in health and fitness fields, a virtual presentation on ergonomics for people who are now working from home, and an increase in new patients.
These virtual events allowed both practices to engage with their communities in two important ways: providing an event to boost mental and emotional morale and helping people to understand further the importance of physical therapy in the health and wellness of their community. It also provided an opportunity to provide valuable associated content, like choosing the right running shoe, dynamic warm-ups, and stretching for success. Participants printed out bibs to wear and were encouraged to take photos and post them on social media with designated hashtags for the events. “on all of our social media platforms, we saw a 200% increase in engagement the week before and the weekend of our event.” Collie says.
The work involved in organizing a virtual 19K paid off for both practices! Not only was money raised for community-driven causes, but there was also overwhelming social media engagement that led to an increase in new patients. But most importantly, the long-term goal of spreading the message that physical therapists are the leaders in musculoskeletal health, fitness, prevention, and wellbeing will serve us well for the future.