The top three things people fear most are public speaking, death, and the dentist's office.

OK, I admit that I made up the last one. I know that people definitely fear speaking in front of an audience and that the thought of death keeps some awake at night; however, I'm not as certain about the dentist's office.

Though it's true that not everyone hates the dentist, I'd bet that if you polled 100 people, going to the dentist would not be on anyone's top 1,000 list of favorite activities.

So if most people don't like going to the dentist, how can dentists at least make the visits less intimidating? First, they could make the mundane remarkable, as Amber Naslund shows us. Or maybe they could ensure people that they'll meet their future spouse there (Watch 30 Rock's "Future Husband" clip.)

Although both options—the serious (Naslund's post) and the silly (the 30 Rock clip)—would certainly make your dentist visit more entertaining, I'd like to focus on email marketing.

According to the Direct Marketing Association, email marketing returned $43.62 for every dollar spent on it in 2009 and is expected to return $42.08 for every dollar spent on it in 2010. (Also, I work at Blue Sky Factory, an email-service provider, and that's where my expertise lies.)

Foothill Dental Understands Email Marketing

My dentist is Dr. Matt Stohl of Foothill Dental. As an email-marketing nut, instead of critiquing how he administers Novocain or how the hygienist flosses my teeth... I think about how the staff communicates with customers.

My dentist gets it. He understands the power of communication. He's not "doing social media" in the way we think of it. Foothill Dental does not have a Twitter account or Facebook fan page. (Could you see yourself being a fan of your dentist?) Foothill Dental doesn't blog or answer questions on LinkedIn. It doesn't use Gowalla or Foursquare. Foothill Dental leverages the awesome power of email marketing.

Here's how Foothill does it.

  • Ask. It's simple yet often forgotten. When I made my initial appointment, Foothill asked for my email address.
  • What's in it for me? Some people (like my mom) are still hesitant to give out their email address. If you are going to take the time to ask customers for their personal information, tell them what's in it for them. The receptionist at Stohl's office told me that the staff would use my email address to remind me of appointments. Simple, yet powerful.
  • Follow-through. Too often, marketers set expectations yet either don't follow through or stray from the promise. Sure enough, though, two days before my scheduled appointment, the below email landed in my inbox. The from name—Foothill Dental—was appropriate. I may have ignored the message had it come from Dr. Matt Stohl. Although the subject line could have been a bit more personalized, overall it worked. I opened the email.

  • Simple, clean design. Look at the email from Foothill Dental again. Really stare at it. It's easy on the eyes: a picture of two adorable children (both with great teeth, of course) and a very straightforward design, message, and call to action. Remember, it's an appointment reminder. With a quick glance, I knew exactly when my appointment was.
  • Clear, actionable call to action. It's obvious what they want me to do: confirm my appointment. They put those words in bold and green, and even included a Confirm Now button. I like that it's green (for consistency). The button is visible as a text link with images off. They even call that out in the copy.
  • Personalization. I'm not a huge fan of personalization, as I've written and spoken about in the past. I think it's fake and contrived looking. However, in the above example, I like the signature from Stohl. He's doesn't overdo it, and it still feels natural; that is, I know that Stohl didn't really sign the email, but...
  • Integration. I wish all emails were as usable and well integrated as this one. I can easily add the appointment to my calendar, map the location with Google, view my account online, and even refer a friend. Finally (I know this from asking the receptionist), when I confirm my appointment it updates Foothill's system. If I do not confirm via email, a staffer will call me the day before. Cool, right?

    What Else Foothill Dental Does Well

    I am critical of all emails I read. So the fact that I give Foothill Dental rave reviews says a lot—about Foothill. Are there areas where the staff can improve? Of course. Would it be worth their time? I'm not sure. A few thoughts...

    • Facebook, blog, Twitter: It's no secret social media is hot. Moreover, email plus social media is really where it's at. Foothill could start a blog, create a Facebook page, and even manage a Twitter account. However, I'm not sold on whether this would move the needle for Foothill. It may be worth exploring, but I don't see people getting fired up about the dentist (the way I do).
    • Additional emails: Besides my appointment-reminder emails, Foothill has also sent me a brief survey (which I completed) and a Happy Birthday email. Foothill should expand on those emails. What about a monthly newsletter with "Tips and Tricks" or periodic reminders about good dental hygiene? I realize the latter suggestions often depend on resources, but I think they would be a nice addition.

    A Few Other Reasons Foothill Dental Rocks

    First, and maybe most important, the entire staff at Foothill Dental is kind, thoughtful, and helpful, and they make me feel like I'm the most-important patient—every time I interact with them.

    Second, they give control back to me, the patient. On my last visit, one of the dental hygienists asked me how I would like to be alerted about upcoming appointments. I mentioned to her that I loved the email reminder. She told me that they could also call (old school) or text (new school)—whichever medium was most convenient for me.

    Yes, for me. They are doing their best to minimize the chance that I will miss my appointment.

    * * *

    If I could give out stars to Stohl and his staff, they would receive 4.5 out of 5. What else would you suggest for Stohl and his crew to make up those extra .5 points? Let me know in the comments below, and I'll be sure to share them during my next dental cleaning.

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    image of DJ Waldow

    DJ Waldow is an email marketing consultant, writer, blogger, speaker, founder and CEO of Waldow Social, and co-author of The Rebel's Guide to Email Marketing.

    Twitter: @djwaldow

    LinkedIn: DJ Waldow