dental referral program

How to Create the Ultimate Dental Practice Referral Program

A dental practice referral program is one of the best ways to grow. Research from the AMA shows referred clients are more loyal, generate more practice revenue, and have a higher lifetime value than non-referred patients. They tend to be happier and easier to book too.

On this page, we’ll break down everything you need to know about creating an effective patient referral program for your dental office. Use it to start one from scratch or improve your existing one.

Step 1: Check Your Local Guidelines

Make sure incentives are approved before setting up a dental practice referral program

Before you start building your patient referral program, familiarize yourself with any regional guidelines that will impact your campaigning. The California Dental Association (CDA), for example, does not allow dentists to reward patients for referrals. “Under the California Business and Professions Code Section 650, dentists cannot offer or accept anything of value as compensation or inducement for the referral of a patient.”

That doesn’t mean you can’t run a program and attract new patients!!! The list of ideas in the next section includes potential incentives that may be acceptable regardless of incentivization guidelines.

Step 2: Identify Your Audience

Determine your referral sources

Your happy and loyal patients are a great source for referrals, so it’s no surprise most dental practices start there. If you’re new to managing referral programs and want to test things out before going all-in, consider selecting a small group of happy patients to do a test run with.

You may also want to explore other patient referral sources, such as specialists you refer to, general practitioners, pediatricians, and neighboring businesses in the health or beauty sector.

Your messaging and any incentives you offer will need to be tailored to the audience you select, so focus on just one group to start. You can layer in additional referral groups once your first group is up and running.

Step 3: Choose Your Channels

Email marketing delivers $44 for each $1 spent

Spreading the word about your patient referral program is key, but that doesn’t mean you need to use every channel available to you. Doing so can spread you too thin and some channels may not be effective for your practice anyway. A few channels to consider are outlined below.


Your website is the best place to start promoting your referral program. Create a dedicated webpage for each audience you’re trying to reach with your referral campaigns and outline how the program works. You’ll link back to this page when you promote across other channels, so make it shine.


Email marketing is a powerhouse, delivering an average of $44 for each $1 you spend according to Campaign Monitor research. Emails also have a 70 percent higher response rate than postcards per Dental Economics, making them one of the most effective mediums.

Consider sending regular emails encouraging people to take part in your referral program; perhaps every four or six months. You’ll also want to make mention of it in your recurring newsletters.

Pro-Tip: Practice-Web’s email service (pwNewsletter) makes it easy to send customized e-newsletters and promotional emails to all your patients at once. If you aren’t already using it, check it out here.

Text Message

People prefer text messages over all other forms of communication nowadays. Texts have a 209 percent higher response rate than calls too per Text Request. That said, it’s important to be mindful of how many marketing-related text messages you send, so be sure to time your rollout for a period in which you won’t be sending other marketing messages.

Pro Tip: Practice-Web’s texting service (pwConnect) can send out automated reminders, on-demand texts, and mass marketing texts. If you aren’t already using it for your reminders, check it out here.

Social Media

If you have an active audience on social media, it can also help you spread the word. Conversely, you can tie your social media growth plan into your referral plan by creating a post and asking people to tag a referral in the comments for an opportunity to win a prize.

Don’t worry about covering all social media channels—just post to the ones your patient demographic actually uses. Facebook is generally a safe bet. You may also want to experiment with options like Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

Referral Cards

Tuck a referral card in each tote patients take with them after recall. Make sure your team explains to the patient that they should write their name on it, give it to a friend, and have the friend return it to the practice when they come in for their first visit.  

In-Office Signage

Pop a few signs up throughout the office, such as at the checkout desk, in the lobby, and in operatories.

Step 4: Create Goals for Your Dental Referral Program

Smart Goal: specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and timebound.

Your goal may be to get as many patient referrals as possible, but it’s important to create a fixed goal to increase the likelihood you’ll meet it. The SMART Goal framework can be beneficial here. That means making sure your goal is specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and timebound.


Ensure your goal leaves nothing to question and has no open variables.


Include the exact number of new patients you want your referral program to generate.


Outline how you plan to meet your goal. You may refine this in later steps as you outline how your referral program will work and which channels you intend to use.


What’s realistic for a 2,500-patient practice in a metropolitan area is not going to be realistic for a 1,000-patient practice in a rural area. While you want your goal to be something to aspire to, don’t set it too high or your team will lose heart and give up.

Sample Goal: “Attract 20 new referral patients this month through a dedicated email campaign and in-office marketing.”

Step 5: Determine Incentives for Patient Referrals

83% of satisfied patients are willing to refer

First and foremost, it’s important to note that you don’t necessarily need to pair your referral program with an incentive. More than 80 percent of satisfied clients are willing to give a referral per Texas Tech surveys. However, just 29 percent actually do. The gap, researchers say, can often be closed simply by asking and educating your referral source as to who you can help and what you’re looking for in a referral. For example, you might say, “We’re looking for more great people like you who want to maintain a healthier smile.”

Non-Incentive Patient Referral Programs

If you’re practicing in an area that frowns on referral incentives, consider making a donation to a charity for each referral received. Select a single charity or allow your referral source to choose from a list of charities.

Many dentists also create in-office smile restoration charities. For example, you might say each referral adds $25 to the in-office smile restoration bank and match it with $25 on your end. With permission from your treatment recipients, you can share stories and before and after photos to highlight the work you and your referrers are supporting. Rest assured, this heartwarming touch will inspire more referrals. Just be sure to run your program plans by a professional who understands your local guidelines and is well-versed in HIPAA before kicking it off.

Incentivized Patient Referral Programs

While an incentive can boost the number of referrals you receive, research shows the value of the reward doesn’t have much of an impact. With that in mind, you can use the following ideas on their own or as inspiration to create something unique. Include just the referrer or both the referrer and new patient.

  • An account credit
  • Free treatment, such as whitening
  • Movie tickets
  • A gift card to a retailer or restaurant
  • An electric toothbrush
  • Entries into a drawing for a large prize or several prizes

Step 6: Establish a Tracking System

If you’re using Practice-Web, you already have a built-in referral tracking system. Watch the video below to learn how to use it if you’re unfamiliar.

Step 7: Design Your Materials

brand your patient referral program materials for greater recognition

If you don’t have an artist on your team, consider using a tool like Canva that offers free customizable templates. Make sure the materials you create use your practice branding, such as colors and fonts, and use the same elements across all marketing materials you design. This will help patients distinguish them at a glance and can help build instant recognition as you use them over time.

You might also want to consider creating some thank you cards at this stage and picking up some stamps to go with them. It’ll come in handy when you hit step ten!

Step 8: Prep Your Team

Deliver Great Service and Care to Maximize New Patient Referrals

Although your practice no doubt strives to provide great service all the time, it’s important to revisit your policies and procedures before kicking off your referral campaign. That way, you can be sure your patients will have the kind of experience they can rave about.

You’ll also want to brief everyone on your new program so they can share the details with patients and make sure each person knows what follow-up tasks they’ll be responsible for.

Step 9: Implement Your Dental Referral Program

The bulk of the work is behind you now! Pat yourself on the back and start sharing your referral program with the world.

Step 10: Acknowledge Referrals

Handwrite Thank You Notes for Maximum Impact

Manners guru Emily Post says there’s still value in a handwritten note and psychologists seem to agree. Not only is writing a heartfelt thank you one of the least awkward things you can do but it also enhances well-being for both the sender and recipient. Research suggests that most people underestimate how much enjoyment is actually felt when receiving a handwritten note, so get your pen (and those pre-made cards from step seven) ready. Fill a card out when your new patient is in the office and have it in the mailbox the next day. Be mindful of HIPAA though—there’s no need to say the name of the patient who visited the office.

Step 11: Evaluate and Adjust

As you run your referral program and check your stats, you’re likely to see some trends emerging. For example, maybe you find your social media campaigns are not as effective as your email campaigns or vice versa. Pivot and focus your resources on what’s working best and don’t be afraid to experiment with new ideas.

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