Are Dental Patient Referral Contests Legal?
We’re going to shift gears here for a bit and talk about dental patient referrals - as opposed to professional referral networking or relationship marketing.
With social media at the forefront of our day to day dental practice communications, we see LOTS of practices diving head first into potentially dangerous waters by running dental patient “referral contests.”
Never mind the ethics; we’ll just examine the legality.
Typically the pitch goes something like this:
“Thank you for your referrals! To say thank you, we are running a contest for patients that refer family and friends to ABC Dental Excellence! “
“For each new patient you refer to us at ABC Dental Excellence, you BOTH will receive one entry into our ABC Dental Excellence Referral Contest for a chance to win a new iPad Mini [insert your choice of prize here].”
Take a look at how this dental practice in Boston runs a wicked awesome referral contest for their patients…
But is it LEGAL?
Now don’t get us wrong here, we’re dentists not attorneys - but with the popularity of dental patient referral contests on Facebook and other social media outlets, we thought a little law review was in order.
And let’s not just pigeon-hole referral contests either, review contests seem to be all the rage as well.
Check out this video we found on YouTube that touches on the subject - albeit talking about Michigan specifically, laws vary from state to state.
Navigating the Legalese of a Dental Patient Referral Contest on Social Media
For some background nomenclature, we’re quoting Kerry O’Shea Gorgone here - a lawyer & professional marketer.
“First, although people often call their giveaway a “contest” or “sweepstakes,” each word actually means something slightly different, from a legal standpoint."
“In a contest, the winner is chosen based on merit (e.g. most creative haiku).“
“In a sweepstakes, by contrast, the winner is selected at random. This type of promotion is often called a “giveaway.”
“Both of these can be effective ways to promote your business (or a client’s business), so long as you avoid lotteries.”
“A lottery involves paying for a chance to win. If you charge a fee for people to participate in your promotion, your “giveaway” just turned into an illegal lottery.”
You can check out this post & her website for some additional insights on the legality of running social media contests. That content was actually the inspiration for this post on dental patient referral contests.
4 Tips for Keeping Your Dental Patient Referral Contest on Social Media Legal
1. Consult an attorney: When in doubt, ask a lawyer. Sure you’ll have to pay for it but it’s better than paying a fine to a state dental board, the FTC, or worse.
If you’re running a dental practice you most likely have an attorney. Whether it’s an old college chum on constant (if not compensated) retainer, a professional referral networking partner, or a high-priced firm you employ to CYA on potential malpractice issues, ask them what is legal and what is not when it comes to your dental patient referral contest.
Kind of goes without saying, but you’ll want to consult that attorney BEFORE launching into a social media fueled sharing frenzy about your patient referral contest.
2. Run contests, not giveaways or lotteries: Select the winner of your dental patient referral contest based on talent, creativity, humor or some other factor that removes your promotion from the “giveaway” categorization.
You don’t want to get caught in a lookalike Medicaid pay to play kickback dental patient generation scheme!
3. The art of a disclaimer: Be sure to include specific statements intended to specify or delimit the scope of rights and obligations that may be exercised and enforced by parties in a legally recognized relationship…i.e. a dental patient referral contest.
More attorneyspeak, but seasoned marketing professionals (often times NOT the ones running most dental patient referral contests…) also understand the necessary language to include as disclaimers in order to protect your contest, dental practice culpability and that of its entrants.
Use terms such as “Void Where Prohibited” and “No Purchase Necessary” to add some more CYA layers of protection.
Don’t know which disclaimers to use? See tip #1.
4. Encourage disclosure: Maybe this has more to do with a sharing, liking, commenting, or guessing type contest more than a dental patient referral contest…BUT, save yourself the potential danger by requiring contest (or giveaway) entrants to mention that the posts they create, the comments they make, or the content they share is part of a promotion, and that they’re posting for a chance to win.
Ignorance is Bliss…But it’s Not a Legal Argument for Your Patient Referral Contest
“Everyone else is doing it” and “I know you are but what am I” never worked when you were a kid - so don’t try to pull those weak excuses out in defense of your dental-centric social media contest.
You’re better than that.
We’ll leave you with another quote from the inspiring attorney turned marketer…
“Stay resolute, even in the face of seemingly everyone else doing things wrong.”
“When the law comes to town, your nose will be clean, and you’ll have built trust with your audience in the meantime."