Be Savvy on the Internet

How to increase contact with your customers easily and cost effectively.
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In this column in the last issue of EquiManagement, we discussed the importance of marketing your practice during a struggling economy. Although it may be tempting to cut your budgets, focus instead on the proper expenditure of funds. Assessing your marketing programs to ensure a return on your investment and increasing contact with your existing customers are the keys to success.

The Internet is potentially one of your most cost-effective marketing tools. While you may be cutting back in other areas of your budget, leave room in your financials for your website, e-newsletters and other e-marketing tactics.

With ever-evolving technology, the Internet overwhelms many veterinarians, who are left puzzled as to how to use this invaluable tool effectively. The best advice for the current economic climate? Be up to date, but keep it simple.

Does Your Website Represent Your Practice?

Hopefully your practice has a website. If not, include this critical marketing tool in your strategy as soon as possible.

The look and feel of your website should represent the mission of your practice. If you provide state-of-the-art services and care, your site should convey these qualities. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see veterinary sites that look homemade even as they offer MRIs, platelet-rich plasma (PRP) regenerative therapy and stem cell therapy.

To make the most of your marketing dollars, your site should be more than a billboard in space; it should serve as a resource for your customers. Educational articles and/or videos, FAQs, information about common procedures and wellness programs will encourage your clients to visit again and again.

It is also critical that visitors to your site can easily find the information they are looking for. Take a good look at the names of the pages on your site, as well as the navigation. Better yet, have someone not familiar with your practice review the site. Is it easy to find what you are looking for? Does the site proceed in a logical, intuitive fashion? Ease of navigation is the hallmark of a professionally conceived site.

And whether your site is eight or 80 pages, make sure it is always up to date. There’s nothing worse than visiting a website and discovering it hasn’t been updated in six months or even six years! Outdated is not the message you want to send. (See sidebar for additional updating tips.)

Use All Opportunities

Once you have a quality website, you are poised to take advantage of other Internet opportunities. For example, many sponsorships include website links and website ads, and print publications often offer free website links for their advertisers. These free or inexpensive tools can augment the rest of your marketing strategy and drive more traffic to your site. (You can assess the effectiveness of these opportunities by using GoogleAnalytics, as explained in the last issue.)

Of course, it is important to capitalize on the additional visitors to your site. Create a data collection form that captures names, email addresses and location. Combine this contact information with your existing customer base to create a quality database of email addresses that you can use for the distribution of e-newsletters, targeted email ad campaigns, as well as to send appointment and follow-up reminders. Your database can even be used to distribute emergency information, if necessary.

The Appeal of Facebook

The ease of communicating on the Internet has spawned an entire new platform for marketing—social networking sites. Facebook and Twitter are currently two of the most popular social media marketing programs. These tools allow users to keep in touch with their friends, family and business associates in a very informal and instant fashion.

The use of Facebook and Twitter for equine veterinarians is in the pioneer stage. The number-one key to successfully using these tools is the desire to constantly update the content. It is also critical to master the fun, informal nature of the medium. And while you might think that your customers are not really Facebook people, don’t forget that more than 250 million people are active on the site, and the fastest growing demographic is the 35-and-older crowd. For the innovative veterinarian, social networking will certainly be part of the future.

Uncertain economic times can result in fear-based decision-making. However, the prudent veterinarian considers facts and statistics in the intuitive process of creating a marketing plan. By constantly assessing the effectiveness of your marketing, targeting your existing customers and utilizing the Internet, you can create a plan that makes sense and improves your bottom line.

SIDEBAR

Updating your Website

Keeping your website up to date ranks among the most important marketing tasks. But how many times do you visit sites that are in desperate need of maintenance? Worse yet, is your practice’s site seriously outdated?

For many veterinarians maintaining their website is as difficult as having it created. So what are some options?

In-House Expert

Depending on the size of your practice, having a full or part-time IT staffer may be the most cost-effective and convenient solution. Not only can an IT person update the site with simple changes, he can design new pages, update your shopping cart and more. For most in-house IT staff, maintaining websites is just one item in their job description, which might also include the maintenance of servers and computers, installing new software programs, etc.

Outsource

For many practices, outsourcing website maintenance is the ideal solution. This allows you to pay only for the work that needs to be done, whether purchased hourly or as part of a monthly or yearly package.
Determine your needs on a monthly, weekly and yearly basis–as well as your budget–before you select a webmaster. Are you going to need quick turnaround time for your updates? Or will you schedule them weeks in advance?

Do It Yourself

The number-one reason to maintain your own website is cost. However, practices that rely on this method often have the most seriously outdated sites. There’s just never enough time to get it done. This is coupled with an intimidation factor that often dissuades even the most motivated veterinarian or staffer from beginning the maintenance process.

However, if you choose to go this route, there are many ways to make the process less daunting. The very best option is to have your site designed in a Content Management System (CMS) format. With CMS, your site is created in a way that allows for easy and instant updating of text, photos and even the creation of new pages. A good CMS tool is nearly as easy as using Word or email, yet can help you create sophisticated sites that look extraordinary. And perhaps best of all, your web designer can lock the overall structure and navigation so that anyone doing updates cannot inadvertently make changes to these essential elements.

A second alternative is to use software such as Adobe Contribute. Contribute works with sites created in Dreamweaver, a common web design program. With a little instruction and practice, Contribute will allow you to edit text, photos and create templated pages. No knowledge of code is necessary, although it is possible to alter structural code, which if done incorrectly may require a professional to repair the damage.

The third solution is using Word-Press. This software is often used for blogs, but also can be used to update other simple pages, such as news, calendars, etc. The pages of your site that you want to update need to be built in Word-Press, so this is part of the design process.
To determine the best solution for your needs, talk to a professional. From there you can develop a web maintenance program that fits your budget and keeps your site in optimal shape.

Christine DeHerrera is the founder and president of The ESP Group, an advertising, public relations and marketing agency that specializes in equestrian businesses, including veterinary practices. Visit www.theespgroup.com or send an email to equestriansports@earthlink.net.