Spreading Your Words - Business Solutions for Equine Practitioners | EquiManagement

Spreading Your Words

Communicate better with your clients and potential clients through blogs and electronic newsletters, thanks to these tips.
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Credit: Courtesy Werner Equine

Credit: Courtesy Werner Equine

Picture this: There has been a confirmed case of West Nile virus in your practice area and you want to encourage all of your clients to have you vaccinate their horses.

When you share this information with your client during a farm visit or phone call, the next thing she will likely do is spend hours on the Internet searching for details about the disease, its symptoms, its treatment, vaccinations and other preventative measures. She also will post it on her Facebook, Twitter or any other social media she is actively engaged in.

Save your clients time and make yourself the source of their information (saving yourself some time, as well, if you don’t have to counteract misinformation). Consider a communications strategy that includes a blog or electronic newsletter (e-newsletter).

Blogs and e-newsletters can feature your expertise as well as make it easier for clients to find answers to common horse health questions. Links to additional sources or articles can be included to point your clients to information that you think is reliable and want to recommend.

“A great client experience includes great communications,” said Ellen Williams, Regional Development Director for Constant Contact (an email marketing company). “The happy client will be loyal and bring repeat business as well as referral business.”

Credit: Photos.com Horse owners trust their veterinarians, and digital information from this trusted source is valued.

Credit: Photos.com Horse owners trust their veterinarians, and digital information from this trusted source is valued.

Blogging Basics

Whether or not you have a website, you can have a blog.

“Basically a blog is a lot like an online journal or diary,” said Marshall Brain in the article “How Stuff Works: Blogging Basics” (http://computer.howstuffworks.com/internet/social-networking/information/blog.htm). “The author can talk about anything and everything. Many blogs are full of interesting links that the author has found.”

The term “blog” is derived from the contraction of “weblog.” Blogs often contain short stories or snippets of information. Most are interactive, allowing visitors to leave comments and messages after reading the entries posted by the blog’s author. However, you do not have to allow comments on your blog if you don’t want to.

Blogs are typically a single page of entries, but may also include older, archived entries. The posts are public so that anyone in the world has access to the information. Entries are organized so that the newest posts are the first ones offered to readers on the web page.

Posts are short and to the point. “Shoot for 300-600 words,” said Chris Tieri, President and Creative Director of Smith & Jones Idea Agency. “The content should be easily digestible and address the audience’s curiosity without a huge time commitment for them to read it.”

Establishing a blog can be as simple as working with a webmaster if your clinic already has a website. “The webmaster can easily install a blog application so that it resides on your website, and you maintain ownership of the content,” Williams explained.

Blogs can also be hosted on a number of sites for free. “You can start on a free site like Blogger or Wordpress, and they have great resources to walk you through getting one set up,” Tieri suggested.

Before accepting the terms and conditions of a free blog, read the fine print and determine if the author or the host site owns the content once it has been published as this might affect how and where you can repost information.

Regardless of where the blog is hosted, a commitment to regular postings is critical. Plan to post at least once a week, although posting more often is strongly encouraged.

“With a blog, the more you update posts, the better,” said Lori Ely, e-Marketing Advisor at Informz.

The greater frequency helps with SEO (search engine optimization). According to Wikipedia.com, SEO improves the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine’s “natural” or unpaid (“organic”) search results.

Blogs are brief and the headlines should be, as well. “It’s more important to be clear with your headlines than clever,” Tieri added. “Clear, succinct headlines not only give the reader a quick understanding of the post, but are also good for SEO.”

Countless resources, including helpful tips, can be found online. Sites such as Copyblogger.com offer a free e-newsletter that has daily suggestions on developing a blog and identifying content your clients really want.

Let’s go back to our example and assume you have a blog already on your website. You would include a blog posting that says West Nile virus has been diagnosed in your area. Then you would either give your own information about West Nile virus and how you recommend clients protect their horses, or link them to other resources. Don’t forget to have a call to action. For example: “Contact our office at 555-555-5555 to make sure your horses are up-to-date on their West Nile virus vaccinations.”

Or you can link to information on West Nile virus provided by the AAEP.

But don’t stop there. Make sure you repeat the information every few days and keep your customers apprised of what is going on in your area. These blog posts don’t have to be long; a few sentences will suffice if that is all the information you have to pass along. At least once a week try to include a call to action or an “action” tip that helps them better protect their horses. “Mosquitoes don’t fly well in breezes, so use fans to keep air circulating in barns and stalls.” Or “Search out and empty any standing water to reduce mosquito breeding areas.”

E-Newsletter Essentials

When newsletters are delivered electronically, they should be easy for readers to skim and quickly identify the topics they are most interested in reading. There are two basic types of e-newsletters: Those that contain complete articles and those that give a headline and a sentence or two and link back to the practice’s website.

“In e-newsletters, where you are typically communicating several articles, it is best to include a 2-3 sentence teaser and then link to a landing page or better yet, your blog, where they can view the full versions,” Ely said.

It is also important to remember that not all readers will use a computer or laptop to read an email or e-newsletter. The 2012 Association Email Marketing Benchmark Report conducted by Informz found that the mobile readership of email had nearly tripled since 2009. So make sure your website or blog service is easily viewed on a smartphone or tablet.

Starting an E-Newsletter

Frequency varies depending on your audience. “When just starting out, a good starting point is once a month,” Ely said.

Online services like Constant Contact have pre-designed templates and access to how-to-guides for a flat monthly rate. “Constant Contact offers a free 60-day trial and a coach to get businesses and non-profits started,” Williams said.

The templates are customizable and allow for color changes and the inclusion of images. Users do not need a high level of technical experience to use the software. The variety of templates available and subscription fees vary from one service provider company to the next.

Another easy-to-use database and email/newsletter service is Mail Chimp (MailChimp.com). Like Constant Contact it has templates that make creating your first (or 50th) newsletter very simple. Service is free until you reach a larger number of people. If you have a small list, you might never have to pay.

Hiring a marketing or creative agency is an alternative to using an online service. Agencies tailor the newsletter layout specifically to your business needs and establish the necessary computer programming code to distribute the newsletter electronically.

“A newsletter could be $3,000-$4,500 for an initial shell and another $1,000-$2,000 to code and send,” Tieri estimated. “Subsequent newsletters would likely cost less.”

For an additional fee, the agency can write the articles or provide content to fill the newsletter. “For businesses just getting started, it is so important that the content reflects their voice, so it is worthwhile to do a few themselves to create an identity in their content before outsourcing,” Williams suggested.

Content is key to the success of your newsletter. It must be relevant, timely and show that you know what your customers are interested in, thus you understand your customers.

Design Considerations

Whether creating an e-newsletter on your own or working with a professional, there are a few key elements that should be included in every issue of the publication.

The newsletter should always include your logo and contact information. Your contact information, including a physical mailing address, is required by the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, which established the United States’ first national standards for the distribution of commercial e-mails. The e-newsletter should also include an “opt-out” or “unsubscribe” clause, which is also a requirement of the CAN-SPAM law.

Sharing buttons for Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, etc. will allow your readers to share the information they find valuable with friends, family and other horse owners. The word-of-mouth advertising might even bring you new clients.

Just because you have an email address for a client doesn’t mean you can legally send emails to that person. Make sure your website has a Terms of Use and Privacy Policy that says what you will and won’t do with email addresses, and have the people who sign up for your newsletters agree to those terms. This protects you and your customers.

Return on Investment

An e-newsletter requires time and money. Regularly review analytics (metrics) to determine the newsletter’s value.

For example, if you include an article with a link to your blog about West Nile virus being in your area, you can look at your analytics and see how many people clicked on that link from your newsletter to view your blog. That is an important metric.

There are some basics you need to understand about analytics. First, the term “views” is pretty irrelevant. On a website that means how many times people had the opportunity to see that page when it was loaded on their computer. We won’t go into all the details here, but understand that for a website, you want to know the unique visitors. Similarly, if you have a blog, you want to know the “unique” people who saw that blog.

Similarly, when you are sending emails or e-newsletters, you often will see the “open rate” listed. This is often a low representation of how many people actually read what was in the email of the newsletter. If someone reads the newsletter information in their “reading pane” on their email and doesn’t click to open it in a new window, it doesn’t count as an open. Click-through rate, or how many times that link was clicked on to take the person to the blog or website, is much more important.

Pay attention to the articles that received the highest click rates. These indicate the type of information your clients are most interested in receiving.

Equally important is the delivery rate or the percentage of emails that were reported as undeliverable. The unsubscribe rate will reveal the percentage of recipients who unsubscribe from a particular mailing list. Both of these are important because they tell you your email list isn’t very up-to-date (and you need to make it so), and that you aren’t giving the recipient something they want or that you have abused the email list you have and they don’t think you have permission to email them.

E-Newsletters: Tips for Getting Started

Before investing time and resources to create and maintain an e-newsletter, ask your clients how they prefer to receive information. Request that your clients complete a short survey, either verbally, via pen and paper or online using a free survey site such as survey program like Zoomerang.com or SurveyMonkey.com.

Based on the feedback, develop a plan that will provide the information they want in the format they are most comfortable using.

Take it One Step at a Time

Based on feedback from the survey decide which project (blog or newsletter) will be your priority. Determine how often you want to enter blog postings or how frequently a newsletter will be distributed, then stick to the schedule.

Be Consistent

“In either the case of blogs or e-newsletters, it is important that your tone and voice be consistent and match your brand, but also that the frequency is consistent as well,” Tieri said.

Provide Relevant Content

“Focus on relevancy,” Ely recommended. “If you provide relevant, valuable content, people will view you as a trusted source for content and will engage with your emails and blogs and share them virally.”

Keep the Content Short

“Get to the point and deliver great, interesting communications,” Williams concluded. “No matter how many people are clamoring for your information, they will get the most benefit from receiving it in small pieces.”

Take-Home Message

It is recommended that you have a website as a “home base” for your digital communications efforts. Then survey your clients and find out how they want you to send them additional information and communications. Blogs and e-newsletters are common tools to help advance your relationship with your clients and reach out to potential new clients. But before you decide to take on a blog or e-newsletter, understand that you need a plan and you need to dedicate time and resources so that your outreach is professional and reflects well on your practice.