Referral Contests Dos and Don’ts

Spread the word!

Have your practice’s production numbers begun to stagnate, or are they simply not where they should be? Creating or updating a referral strategy could be key to achieving the boost needed. The referral strategy is a time-tested method that offers consistent returns. Once your strategy is running smoothly, a referral contest can be a great way to push things even further.

Referral contests use valuable or desirable prizes that motivate patients to start spreading the word about your practice. Not only can these contests increase production dollars, but they can also be genuinely gratifying due to the value provided to patients. Common prizes include big-ticket items like TVs or grills, but we’ve also seen clever plays like enrollment in VIP programs which include things like a reserved parking spot and big discounts on future treatments. A $400, name-brand smart TV could make someone’s month, especially right now. Say that winner brought in only 4 new patients, each averaging $653 in annual value for your practice. That’s just over a $2,200 return on investment for doing relatively little. Run this contest monthly and that’s $26,500 average total patient value per year.

A Common Misconception

Many practice owners are put off by referral contests due to some perceived legal constraints, such as that relating to the Stark Law. While it’s always best to address such concerns with a legal professional, marketing expert Anne-Aymone Ferreira offers many researched insights in her piece for DentistryIQ:

“The Stark Law physician self-referral is the practice of a physician referring a patient to a medical facility in which he has a financial interest, be it ownership, investment, or a structured compensation arrangement. Stark law governs physician self-referral for Medicare and Medicaid patients. The law is named for U.S. Congressman Pete Stark, who sponsored the initial bill. 

Critics of the practice allege an inherent conflict of interest, given the physician’s position to benefit from the referral. They suggest that such arrangements may encourage overuse of services, therefore driving up health care costs. They also believe that it might create a captive referral system, which limits competition by other providers. How does the Stark law apply to dentists who reward their patients for referrals? It doesn’t.”

The concern over the Stark Law stems from regulations about how practices may benefit from Medicare and Medicaid referrals to external entities to which they may have some form of personal or financial relationship, hence the risk of this “captive referral system.” However, since these referral contests do not concern referrals to other entities, nor do they even require purchase on the part of the entrant, this law ostensibly does not apply.

Promoting Your Contest

The more visibility for your contest the better, and there are plenty of low- or no-cost means for promotion. Promote the contest across your social media channels and encourage staff members to share with their own followings. Also, send an email reminder to your database with your practice software or email marketing platform. In both cases, be sure to clearly state the rules, prize and timeframe. Remember to note that participants do not have to be patients themselves. This expands the possible pool of participants and increases the potential reach of the contest. It can be very effective having office staff personally mention the contest to patients as they check out, and it’s a good idea to print simple cards with the contest information on them to boost memorability. Remember: people need to be told 10 times before they even realize what you are asking, let alone act upon it.

Referral contests offer patients a great value and experience while deepening their relationship with your practice and helping you reach your goals.

To learn more about getting the most out of your marketing, get a free, no-obligation assessment of your current marketing strategy and finish 2020 strong. Email our CEO now at to get scheduled.


Big Buzz is an agency delivering focused marketing efforts for dentists and dental teams nationwide. CEO Wendy O’Donovan Phillips is the author of KABOOM!: The Method Used By Top Dentists for Explosive Marketing Results, has been published in The American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry magazine and has been quoted in Forbes, The Washington Post, ABC News and Chicago Tribune. The American Dental Association hired Phillips as an expert consultant in marketing. She regularly lectures for dental organizations and associations in front of audiences ranging from 25 to 5,000 attendees. Agency awards and accolades include recognition for excellence by the American Marketing Association, Best Advertising Agency and Best Web Developer in Denver by Expertise, and Top Advertising and Marketing Agency by Clutch. 

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