In the past, veterinary practice promotion meant handing out business cards. If you were trying to extend your reach you might send out a newsletter, advertise in the Yellow Pages, arrange a client education seminar or, in recent years, develop a web page.
These methods of advertising could be effective but suffered numerous drawbacks. For one, you had no control over whom you were contacting. An ad in the Yellow Pages could be read by anyone who had a horse even though your practice was limited to lameness. Newsletters have become increasingly expensive with rising postage and printing costs. Most importantly, they employed a one-way, passive form of communication. You were able reach out to current and prospective clients but they could not respond to you.
Fortunately, there are new ways to communicate with your target individuals and groups. You can do it economically and you can engage in true two-way conversations. “Social networking” is a catchphrase that describes the social interactions of people with common interests via the Internet. People are using services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to catch up with high school friends, drop a quick note to colleagues and learn how to play guitar. These are just some of the examples of social media and the various online platforms available for communication with as few or as many people as you wish.
Lessons from Business
In the world of business, social networking has dramatically changed marketing. Until social networking took hold, businesses would tell us to buy the flavor of the month and our only recourse was to either buy it or not. Now the consumer has newfound power because online communities enable anyone to say anything they like about a product to a receptive audience. Smart companies have embraced social media so they can be included in these conversations with clients. They are using these platforms to inform clients and seek their feedback about new products and services. As a result, consumers have become collaborators with companies.
There was a recent study by Chadwick Martin Bailey and iModerate Research Technologies demonstrating that consumers have a huge impact on online brands. They found that consumers are 67 percent more likely to buy from the brands they follow on Twitter, and 51 percent more likely to buy from a brand they follow on Facebook. This gives new meaning to the saying that “if you read it on the Internet it must be true.” What does this mean for veterinary practices? Plenty.
The foundations of most successful veterinary practices are the solid relationships they have with their clients. Pleasure and show horse owners have a tremendous amount of loyalty to their veterinarians. These relationships foster word-of-mouth marketing that sends new clients to a practice. In essence, you develop a reputation that attracts and maintains your clientele. Imagine if you could leverage your reputation through each point of contact you have online.
For example, when someone becomes a fan of your practice’s Facebook page, everyone who is a Facebook friend of the fan will be notified of this new relationship. Odds are that your new fan has his or her own network of horse people. The interested horse person will see the notification and then link to your Facebook site, hopefully becoming a fan as well.
A similar process happens with Twitter. I can send out a tweet, which is a 140-character message, to my followers. If one or some of them like it they can forward it, called “retweeting” in the language of Web 2.0, to their followers. Again, interested people will link to my account and can choose to follow me.
The Chadwick Martin study confirms that followers are 79 percent more likely to recommend their Twitter follows to a friend, and 60 percent more likely to do the same on Facebook. Finally, consider what happens after you post a video on bandaging a hoof to YouTube. More and more horse people are using the Internet to find out information about their horses. It takes one Google search on “bandaging a hoof” for someone to find your video. A connection has been made. A new relationship has been formed.
Spreading the Word
All of these interactions have several common features: immediacy, versatility, the potential for value-added services and the ability to link back to your web page. At the time of this writing there is a strangles outbreak in our practice area. We have been able to use our social networks to send information as soon as we have it. The benefit has been that we have been able to diffuse the rampant online chatter, concerns and rumors about it. Our clients are better informed as well, and we have been able to get more horses vaccinated in a timely matter than we would have even a year ago. This is a great example of how versatile our client communication has become.
We could be discussing strangles, a herpes outbreak or introducing a new service. Previously, we would have sent out a flier, posted notices in barns or called barn owners or trainers to talk about these outbreaks or new services at considerable labor and financial expense and much slower dissemination of information.
Beware the risk of swamping followers or fans with “spam”-type communications. If all you do is talk about your practice and services, people will start to turn you off. It becomes the equivalent of a stream of junk mail flyers landing in your mailbox. People will only want to subscribe to you if you give them value—i.e., information they would not have gotten otherwise. You can discuss current health issues or forward images and stories from your website. One successful method for our practice has been to post a case on Facebook and ask fans to spot the lesion.
Finally, all of the social media platforms used by your practice must link back to your web page. This destination is the hub of all of your communications and the reservoir or archive of all of your information. Any current or prospective client should be able to find the answers to questions about your practice on this site.
Social networking for equine veterinarians is not without its pitfalls. For example, how do you monitor confidentiality? How much should you worry about staff members using Facebook and Twitter at work? How do you respond to negative reviews online? How do you create a social networking campaign? How do you keep up with the ever-changing technology? All these questions need to be thought through before you jump into the social networking universe.
Getting your feet wet in this new online world can be an intimidating prospect. We hope over the next few issues to deal with specific areas of social networking and how you can use these new tools to engage your clients in conversations to create loyalty, increase practice growth and ultimately deliver optimal health care.
Mike Pownall, DVM, and his wife, Melissa McKee, DVM, own McKee-Pownall Equine Services. It is composed of five equine practices in the Toronto area. His focus with veterinary medicine is lameness, pre-purchase examinations and podiatry, since prior to becoming a veterinarian he was a farrier. Outside of veterinary medicine his passion is equine practice management. He blogs on the subject at www.mikepownall.blogspot.com.