Social media is here to stay. While the “it” channel may change daily, the overall concept has moved beyond a mere trend and into the mainstream. And while it might have started out as an interpersonal medium, businesses quickly latched on to its power for creating, maintaining and strengthening customer relationships. Still, many veterinary practices have yet to jump on board. And some that have might not be following the best practices that will yield top results.
To help you get a solid start in social media—or double-check what you’re already doing—we rounded up 10 tips for success from team members at two veterinary practices that are doing it right: Mike Pownall, DVM, of McKee-Pownall Equine Services in Campbellville, Ontario, Canada; and Julie May, DVM, and Jenna Jackson, clinic assistant, both with Genesee Valley Equine Clinic in Scottsville, New York.
1. Get permission.
The concepts of confidentiality and privacy are extremely important to remember for both legal and ethical reasons when you’re participating in social networks. Make sure your team knows they need permission from clients before posting messages, photos or videos of or about clients or their horses.
“Horse people have an uncanny ability to recognize a horse even if it is a photo showing a picture of a hoof or an eye,” said Pownall. “When we are at an appointment and see something we would like to photograph or video, we get the client or trainer to sign a release form.”
2. Create a calendar.
“Nothing is harder than trying to think of things to post when you have nothing planned,” said Pownall. “We create a three-month calendar of what we would like to post on a monthly, weekly and daily basis.”
He and May agreed that creating a theme for each month can help you generate ideas. For instance, said Pownall, you might focus on equine dentistry one month. Throughout the month, you could highlight interesting case studies, share photos of conditions such as parrot mouth or sharp cheek teeth, offer tips on dental care and even ask clients to share their relevant experiences.
Another way to spark ideas and organize your “social calendar” is to assign a different type of message to each day of the week. Here’s an example from Pownall:
Monday: Humorous photo or video
Tuesday: Case study
Wednesday: Healthcare quiz
Thursday: “Throw back” with a nostalgic photo or story
Friday: Answers to Wednesday’s quiz.
To make it easy for you and your staff to keep up with your planned posts, use a scheduling tool, said May. “I love that Facebook allows you to make a post and schedule it to go out on whatever day and time you choose. I can sit and put in a few posts at one time,” she added. (Services such as Hootsuite.com and TweetDeck.com allow you to pre-post content on multiple channels.)
3. Encourage interaction.
It’s called social media for a reason—it’s all about connecting with people and developing relationships. So make sure your posts encourage dialogue.
“Try to incorporate short, easy-to-read posts that generate responses from fellow Facebookers,” said Jackson. “Occasionally we post two-part posts—for example, a picture with a caption asking readers for their ‘diagnosis,’ and the next day, we post the answer.”
You can also ask open-ended questions that encourage people to share their opinions and personal experiences. Or initiate a discussion on items you re-post. And, of course, ask followers to contribute their own photos or stories—to which your team should, in turn, respond.
4. Be responsive.
Speaking of replies, realize that people today—especially those who regularly use social networks—tend to expect prompt feedback. “Try to respond within 24 hours so that readers don’t forget about the questions they asked,” said Jackson.
Added May, “If you post a question, make sure to follow up with the answer the following day.”
Of course, you also want to quickly thank anyone who makes positive comments about your practice or your team. (See sidebar below for tips on handling negative comments.)
If the idea of replying promptly to an ongoing stream of social media comments sounds overwhelming, relax. Spending five to 10 minutes, three or four times per day, to check in and post replies is often all you need to stay on top of conversations.
5. Mix it up.
To keep your followers engaged and coming back for more, give them a variety of content.
“Posts that tend to get the most ‘likes’ are often those of a personal nature, such as staff bios, pet pictures and current events that vets and staff participate in,” said Jackson. “Break up serious educational and current event posts with just-for-fun photos or facts.”
Added May, “If we have a vet scheduled at an event like the Genesee Valley Hunt Horse Trials or the Stuart Horse Trials, we ask that they post a picture of where they are and what is going on. We also like to acknowledge when a staff member has a birthday.”
Here are a few other ideas for types of messages to roll into your mix:
• Equine healthcare tips, especially those related to any of your practice’s specialties
• Practice news and events
• Information on your products, services and special offers
• Equine health news and alerts
• Success stories
• Events that your practice is sponsoring or supporting, or in which it is participating
• Fun or cute photos (As May said, “Everyone loves foal pictures. They are our most looked-at and liked posts.”)
• Videos—how-tos, humor, shows, etc.
• Re-posts from people or groups you follow (check EquiManagement.com)
6. Be yourself.
If you’re not used to social media, then writing messages might feel awkward. Pretend that you’re talking to your clients face to face. Keep it professional, but let your personality come through. You want your followers to feel like they’re getting to know you and your team. They’ll be more comfortable with you and more likely to interact with your social sites.
7. Focus your efforts.
Trying to keep up with every new social channel that pops up can be overwhelming. So don’t. It’s actually best to start with just one platform—and for most veterinary practices, Facebook is a solid choice. By focusing your efforts, you’ll make the most efficient use of your team’s time and energy. Plus you’ll get plenty of social practice, making it easier to expand your efforts to other networks if and when you choose to do so.
8. Make it a team effort.
For most practices—or most companies, for that matter—managing the social media effort isn’t a one-person gig. Not only is it a large workload for a single employee to tackle, but involving multiple members of your team and their individual personalities will help create a unique voice for your practice.
Nonetheless, it’s a good idea to create a set of written guidelines for employees to follow when representing your practice on social sites. (To view some examples, visit weblogs.about.com and search “Directory of Employee Blogging” and “Social Media Policies.” On the results page, you need to skip the top listings and go down to the articles.)
9. Spread the word.
The saying, “If you build it, they will come” simply doesn’t apply to social media. You have to let people know you’re there.
Add a Facebook “Like us” link to your website (or links to Twitter, YouTube or whatever channels you’re using). Include it in your email signature block. And don’t forget print materials; add your social handles or URLs to direct mail, ads and in-practice displays.
How will you know whether your social media efforts are a success? Start by identifying the metrics you want to monitor—such as number of followers, shares or follower comments. Measure over time and use the results to help refine your ongoing social plans.
“All of the social media platforms give analytical reports that tell the popularity or activity of a post,” said Pownall. “Facebook has a feature called Insights that can tell you how many people viewed, liked or shared a post.
By monitoring the different type of posts you create, you can have a good idea what your fans like. If you see that photos of interesting cases are popular, then you can do more of them by replacing less-popular post types.”
Following these 10 tried-and-true tips
can give you a solid foundation for your
social media efforts. For more insights,
tips on using various social site tools and
to stay on top of what’s new, check out
But realize that even if you just stick with the basics, your practice can still reap the main benefit of getting social: building stronger, more personal relationships with your clients.
Managing the Negative
For many companies, the biggest fear about participating in social media is the possibility of negative comments from disgruntled clients. Here’s the reality: Even if you don’t actively participate in social networks, clients that do might be sharing their opinions—good and bad—on their own social pages. While you can’t stop this potential “bad press,” you can make an effort to manage it. Here are a few tips:
• Do Google searches or use a service such as Google Alerts (google.com/alerts) to “listen in” on what people are saying in the social sphere about your practice and members of your team.
• If you spot a negative post (on your site or elsewhere), reach out to the commenter publicly to let him or her know you hear the concern and want to help. Then offer to discuss the issue with the person privately, thus taking the conversation off-line.
• Use complaints and criticism to improve your practice. Discuss them in morning huddles and work as a team to find ways of avoiding the problem in the future and using it as a springboard to provide better customer service.