It's unfortunate for the field of reproductive medicine when our top search results for marketing include, "Many Fertility Clinics Use Questionable Marketing Techniques Online", a Jezebel reiteration of a Huffington Post article from three years ago. I would normally argue that we should avoid questionable marketing techniques by using only real patient testimonials and images. But authentic content does not fully address the issue of transparency in fertility marketing . The fundamental problem is that fertility clinics serve two different populations who sometimes overlap and who are sometimes at odds. Until we equally recognize both groups and the value of their experiences, I'm afraid we'll continue to have more problems.
Flowers over figures
Both articles are sensational summaries of a report called Selling Art: An Empirical Assessment of Advertising on Fertility Clinics' Websites by Jim Hawkins, of the University of Houston Law Center. The report suggests that the content on fertility centers' websites may be misleading--using pictures of smiling babies and the words, "miracle" and "dream". The report offers criticism that these images and words may influence a prospective patient's decision instead of focusing on the Society for Advanced Reproductive Technology's (SART) published data on success rates. Such advertising may suggest that a pregnancy after IVF treatment is a certainty, when we know that in some cases, it's not even likely.
It does seem that people sometimes feel misled. In a small survey I finished in April of 2015, patients told me that confusion about success rates was one of their greatest pain-points in selecting their fertility clinic. We also read in negative fertility doctor reviews that people sometimes feel rushed into IVF treatment. I recently spoke to a couple at Resolve's Night of Hope who felt the same way. It is certainly the case that some people feel that IVF is being sold to them.
So why do I also find it encouraging that highly authoritative links to this report ranked so highly in the search results for "fertility marketing"? For the same reason I am building a company that will also rank among those results. I believe in a marketing strategy built on support and transparency. The report suggests that fertility clinic marketing should be more thoroughly regulated because of these questionable marketing tactics. My largest problem with that notion is that it shares a faulty belief with the lousy marketers that implement those tactics: obscurity works. Indeed, not being fully transparent may work in the short term. Some people clearly feel that they were persuaded with unrealistic expectations to pay for expensive IVF cycles. This strategy may have been tenable twenty years ago. Today's data, however, proves that people increasingly make decisions based on what they read in online reviews from their peers.
You can run but you can't hide
Fertility centers need to properly manage new patient expectations or their online ratings will suffer. Social proof in the form of online reviews should be the cornerstone of every good fertility clinic's marketing efforts. If any prospective patients or patient advocates read this post, I implore you to check the reviews of a provider before you decide on them. Investigate both the fertility practice and the reproductive endocrinologist (RE) on Yelp, Health Grades, Vitals, ZocDoc, RateMDs, Google reviews, or whichever of those are the most used in your area. Don't look at the star rating alone, but pay attention to the comments. If there are enough reviews, you will be able to get an idea of the culture of the practice or physician you are considering.
I don't know if fertility practices should be required to post their success rates, but I certainly think that they should post them. Patients are looking for that information and if they don't find it from you, it will be from a site like fertilitysuccessrates.com or from one of your competitors. Clinics should be transparent with success rate info and create content explaining the complex data to patients.