There’s a revolution going on in social media. It’s generating millions of likes, creating hundreds of new trending hashtags and spreading through influencers all over the world. And the unlikely leaders of this social media storm? Plastic surgeons.
To understand why, we have to go back to the beginning—and meet the man who gave the public image of plastic surgery a much-needed facelift.
When Dr. Christopher Khorsandi started his Las Vegas plastic surgery practice back in 2012, he knew he wanted to do things differently.
Normally, new medical practices generate business through referrals and traditional media. Billboards, print ads, TV ads, and a network of cross-specialty relationships are the tried and true methods to building a practice. But they also present difficulties.
“Part of the reason it’s so expensive to start a practice is that the price of traditional media is so prohibitive,” explains Dr. K. “Billboards and ads in traditional print magazines both cost several thousand dollars, and there’s no way to track ROI.”
Rather than pay through the nose to follow the traditional path, Dr. Khorsandi saw another opportunity.
“Around that time I saw a change in the nature of marketing, and I realized social media was a way to reach my target demographic without spending too much.”
So he set to work. He created a Pinterest account, a Twitter profile, and a Facebook page for his practice, and he set to work posting. For the next 4 years, he tried different content formats, posts, and platforms. The results were dismal.
“We got a little response, but almost none of it was engaged users looking for plastic surgery,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many messages I got from women telling me they’d show me their boobs if I did their breast augmentation for free.”
Still, Khorsandi knew he was onto something. And in 2016, things started to change.
It was around this time that Instagram started to really take off. Khorsandi saw an opportunity.
Starting in early 2016, he began developing an Instagram profile. Calling himself Doc Vegas, he began cultivating a following by adopting a more modern, informal, and meme-focused content strategy.
“When we first started on social media we would post stock images and really corny jokes that wouldn’t offend anyone,” he explains. “But by the time I moved to Instagram I knew that wasn’t working. So we started to get a little edgier with the content.”
Finally, he started to see traction. With virtually no other doctors on the platform, @DocVegas had grown from 0 to 20,000 followers within a year.
Around this time, Dr. K got a DM from a Bay Area-based social marketer.
“I used to get DMs all the time from people wanting to do my marketing. But something told me this one was different.”
Cal Marshall, a.k.a. Cal Caliente, came from a background of music marketing. His sensibilities came from the world of hip-hop. But now, the duo wanted to apply that aesthetic to marketing plastic surgery.
Working together, they started to produce 1-minute edutainment videos that showcased plastic surgery procedures in full detail. With an MTV-flavored editing style, they brought the camera into the operating room, documenting lip filler procedures, breast augmentations, fat transfer, and all manner of other common plastic surgeries, up close and personal.
The results were explosive. Suddenly, Dr. Khorsandi was seeing hundreds of thousands of impressions on his videos and tens of thousands of new followers. Marshall and Khorsandi had finally cracked the code, and suddenly everyone from wealthy millennials to world-famous influencers were signing up as clients.
Khorsandi had made plastic surgery go viral. Unfortunately, though, some in his field weren’t so thrilled.
Shortly after achieving internet fame, Khorsandi was invited to a panel meeting of his professional society, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS).
“To be honest, I kinda got shanghaied.”
The subject of the meeting was “Hot Topics in Plastic Surgery.” Among them was the use of social media – and the committee was strongly against the trend.
“One member’s topic was social media. She had a practice on the Upper East Side in New York, and she did an office poll showing my posts to her patients and asking them if they approved,” he explains. “Obviously, they didn’t. But hopefully I don’t have to explain the methodological problems of a study with such a narrow sample group.”
Instead of taking it lying down, Khorsandi argued back.
“I was a little defiant, to be honest, and I showed the room a couple of posts I’d done with 300,000 impressions, 50,000 likes, and 2,000 comments,” he says. “And I said, ‘I think the public is saying something different than what you’re saying. And if we bury our heads in the sand, we’re going to lose out to people who are more creative, more innovative, and willing to connect with the public on a level they can understand.”
To his surprise, the room agreed. 70-year-old plastic surgeons spoke out saying they were behind Dr. Khorsandi.
That committee meeting generated serious discussions within the field of plastic surgery. And afterwards, everything started to change.
“After that committee meeting, I started getting a lot more interest from the medical industry,” Khorsandi explains. “Every day I’d get more physicians, nurse practitioners, and medical professionals following me, liking, commenting on my posts.”
The committee meeting was a sea change in the field. Afterwards, plastic surgeons started jumping on the social media bandwagon, emulating Khorsandi’s pop culture-focused, meme-heavy brand of marketing.
Los Angeles’s Dr. Charles Galanis, San Francisco's Dr. David Sieber, and New York’s Dr. Kevin Tehrani are all bona fide social media influencers who’ve acquired tens of thousands of followers using a similar blend of edutainment videos, before and after shots, and of course, memes. The Doc Vegas Instagram page literally changed the face of marketing in plastic surgery – and now, the trend is spreading even beyond the aesthetics field.
“We’re seeing this in the whole fee-for-service medical world,” explains Dr. K. “Huge numbers of dentists are jumping into this for things like veneers and cosmetic procedures. Even the periphery of the aesthetics industry—our capital good providers, like breast implant suppliers and the like—are jumping in. I could even see this spreading into the Pharma industry, although there’s heavier regulation there.”
For Khorsandi, the implication is clear. This isn’t a trend—it’s a revolution.
Across the board, traditional media is suffering. NFL viewership is declining. The Academy Awards, which are historically the most-watched event after the superbowl, have suffered dramatic drops in viewership. Eyeballs are moving to the online world, and for the most part, that means social media.
“I mean, look at it this way: all these traditional media channels are floundering. But recently I looked at a report from McDonald’s where they had a really strong quarter, and you could tell they were hard pressed to nail down the reason,” explains Dr. K. “They attributed to their new buttermilk chicken product,” he says, laughing. “But they have one of the best social media accounts of all the Fortune 500 companies.”
For his part, Khorsandi only sees this trend growing: “This tech is changing society much more rapidly that most people realize, maybe more than at any other point since the printing press,” he says.
In the past five years, social media has revolutionized industry after industry. Plastic surgery is a prime example, as today’s plastic surgeons are achieving new levels of growth and success by turning themselves into full-blown social media influencers. But it’ll be far from the last.
We’re spending a larger and larger percentage of our lives in chats, social media feeds, and digital landscapes of our own creation. As our attention shifts to screens, it’s only natural that our lifestyles and purchasing habits follow suit.
“I think about Black Mirror and it makes me wonder if all this is for better or for worse,” says Dr. K. “But sitting at this nexus of social change, being able to produce it, play with it, almost direct it—it’s very stimulating to watch the changes occur.”
Where those changes lead is anyone’s guess. But the changes will come. And it’s up to us to be ready for them.