As you develop your practice and your career, it is very likely that you or one of your associates will learn new skills that your practice did not previously offer. Perhaps your young associate has become certified in integrative therapies such as acupuncture or equine chiropractic, or you have attended rigorous training in ultrasonographic diagnosis of musculoskeletal injuries. How do you best inform your clients—and potentially other horse owners— that you have new capabilities?
In our fast-changing society, there are many channels through which information flows. Each individual has preferences about which channel or channels work best. While it is a gross generalization, more older people than young prefer the written word in a printed form. Most young adults prefer electronic communication, and the form they prefer changes rapidly (email is out; Twitter is in).
Middle-aged folks are often still heavily invested in the archivable safety of email. Text messaging is ubiquitous. Podcasts are very popular with young people, especially those who are auditory learners. Videos are the preferred media type for visual learners. Information is also readily passed visually through posters and banners. Social media is a huge presence. As of the second quarter of 2016, Facebook had 1.71 billion monthly active users, many of them over 50. More than 100 million people use Instagram every month.
The platforms might change, but the digital information age is here to stay.
Telling your clients—and other horse owners who could potentially be your clients— about your new services is a type of marketing. Marketing should not be undertaken with a scattershot approach. The best results follow a prepared marketing plan that takes into account all the channels that might be needed to reach potential customers.
In the daily grind of a competitive equine veterinary business, it can be hard to take the time to examine the big picture, especially those parts that aren’t directly related to your daily operations. But you need to periodically think about your practice—whether there are some innovative new services you can add, and whether you’re utilizing your capabilities, your staff and your market niche as effectively as possible. One of the benefits of creating a marketing plan is that it will require you to think deeply about your company as you launch a new service.
A marketing plan is a comprehensive blueprint that outlines a company’s advertising and marketing efforts for the coming year or for a particular project. It describes the business activities that are involved in accomplishing specific marketing objectives within a set timeframe. It doesn’t have to be a long document, but it needs to be carefully thought out.
Seek input from all those who will be involved in implementing the plan. Developing the plan is the “heavy lifting” of marketing. While its execution can be demanding, deciding what to do and how to do it is marketing's greatest challenge.
Is the Service a Fit?
First, make sure that the new service that you want to promote is in alignment with your practice’s values, as well as its mission and vision statements. Your mission statement highlights what your practice is about: what you do and don’t do, and what your ultimate goals are. It encompasses your practice’s identity. Your company’s identity provides the environment in which your marketing plan must flourish, so the two must be consistent.
For example, if your practice has been limited to Thoroughbred racehorses and you have invested in new ultrasound equipment and training, that is one specific target audience that is already familiar with you. Your marketing will be focused on expanding your business with existing clients for lameness exams.
If you also want to expand your new expertise into providing services to non-Thoroughbred performance horse owners in your area, you must address the disconnect between those two segments by shifting how your practice is seen in the public eye. This effort will be “front and center” in your marketing plan, and it might include rewriting your mission and vision statements, updating your logo and rebranding your practice.
Planning the Route
Creating a marketing plan is like planning a cross-country trip. You decide the destination, then plan the route that will take you there and the places at which you’ll stop to sight-see or stay overnight. Notice that deciding on the destination is necessary before beginning to plan your trip; without knowing that, you are unable to begin. The same is true of a marketing plan. You must know the result for which you are aiming and have a measurable way to determine whether you reached your goal.
With a practice expanding from racetrack to sporthorse clients, that measure could be a goal to add 100 lameness clients to the practice by the end of the first year. To measure this, a designation of client type would need to be added in the client screen of the practice’s management software and marked as each client is added to the roster. Or you might have to come up with some other way to track these new lameness clients.
There are strong benefits to having a marketing plan. First, the plan gives your employees something to rally behind. People want to feel they are part of a team engaged in a well-defined challenge. You also want them to feel confident that their leader, the one who is sailing the ship, has a port of destination in mind.
If you want your team members to feel committed to your practice, it’s important to share with them your vision of where the company is headed. People don’t always understand financial projections, but they can get excited about a well-written and well-thought-out marketing plan. Use your marketing plan to generate some excitement for the adventure to come; your practice staff will appreciate being involved.
Without a plan, it is common for marketing efforts to be uncoordinated and ineffective. Random decisions often are made on your way out the door (“Sure, Martha; put an ad in Steed magazine. Got to go! See you later!”). Unfortunately those decisions rarely bear much fruit.
Writing a marketing plan forces you to think about the financial aspects of your new direction, and in essence, budget for them. This discipline is essential for an effective campaign. You need to have an annual budget for marketing and branding, because it is an important cost of doing business. In addition, there should be a defined percentage of your gross revenue allocated to annual marketing. Fortune 500 companies spend 1-2% of their gross revenues on marketing!
Professional service firms such as large accounting firms grossing $50-$100 million annually often spend 5% of revenue. Smaller businesses often start at an even higher percentage to earn market share.
Veterinary practices typically and traditionally have minimal budgets for marketing, with average expenditures of only 0.6% of gross revenue reported in 2005 by Marsha Heinke.1 If your practice is seeking to build a client base for new services that are being introduced, a robust initial spend will ensure that the launch of the new profit center is successful.
Where to Market
Your marketing dollars need to be spent in different channels in order to reach as many potential users of the new service as possible. Some ways you might allocate your marketing spend could be:
• print advertising in a regional annual equine resource handbook;
• sponsorship of a jump at a horse show or placement of a banner at a local competition;
• boosting a Facebook post with a set dollar amount;
• sending a Constant Contact e-mail blast about your new service to a list you purchase;
• “tweeting” about the new service daily for a few weeks if you have a good Twitter following;
• posting several short videos on YouTube or your website demonstrating your new service and explaining its benefits;
• hosting a client seminar or dinner that introduces the doctors who will perform the new service and having them give a presentation about it; and/or
• producing an informational flyer for distribution to clients at your front desk, at industry meetings and events, and through your ambulatory veterinarians.
What Your Marketing Plan Should Contain
Your marketing plan should begin with a clear description of the current state of the marketplace, utilizing whatever data you have or can find with research. You might want to include:
• your current services or profit centers;
• the dollar size of each of your different markets (i.e., racehorses, sporthorses);
• the geographic area your practice serves;
• a description of your marketing audience in terms of population, demographics, income levels and so on;
• a description of the competitors that exist in this marketplace; and/or
• an opinion of how strongly your services historically have been demanded.
Next, you should consider the threats and opportunities that exist in your current marketplace and describe them fully. You will want to include answers to the following questions:
• What trends in the marketplace are against you?
• Are there competitive trends that are ominous?
• Are your current services expected to continue to succeed in the market as it now exists?
• What marketplace trends favor you?
• Are there competitive trends working to your benefit?
• Are the demographics of your market in your favor or against you?
Finally, you will state the marketing objective(s) you want to achieve over the course of the plan. Each of your marketing objectives should include both a narrative description of what you intend to accomplish, along with numbers to give you a concrete goal for which to aim. You should aim for a low but reasonable figure, projecting what you’ll be able to accomplish with your new marketing campaign. Set modest goals to start until you get a feel for the client response.
Your objective(s) should be simple, measurable, ambitious and achievable. Each marketing objective should have several specific goals and tactics for achieving those goals. The key task is to take each objective and lay out the steps you intend to take to reach it. Focus on the “action steps,” including “who,” “what” and “when” for all the marketing tasks for the year ahead. As you describe the implementation of your plan, include how you intend to track your progress.
When your plan is complete, share the written document with your staff, and refer back to your plan often to be sure that you are meeting your objectives. If the results are not what you hoped, don’t abandon the plan. Instead, critically evaluate where changes are needed, and then make them.
If you have a new service to offer your existing clients, or one that you think would attract new customers from outside your normal client base, you need to plan your marketing in order to succeed. Your new service won’t sell itself. A strong marketing plan will help you achieve your goals.