5 reasons why social media is beneficial for your practice


If you're not tweeting, blogging and visiting Facebook, you're missing out on many opportunties to communicate with clients and educate the public.

This whole social media thing can be intimidating and confusing, not to mention time-consuming! So, what's a veterinary practice to do?

That's not an easy question to answer, especially since most of what's written about blogging, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and other social media is directed at large companies that have tangible products to sell worldwide. Veterinary practices, on the other hand, sell intangible services that require a close veterinarian-client-patient relationship. Nevertheless, you shouldn't ignore these sites. Your clients and potential clients are using them, so you should be, too.

We are all pioneers when it comes to social media. We're still learning what these sites have to offer businesses. Even sophisticated, global companies that have whole departments dedicated to social-media exploration haven't yet discovered how to make social media reliably, commercially viable to their businesses.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not an expert on social media. I am on my own journey to discover what social media has to offer in the hope that what I learn will apply to veterinary practices and will save you the trouble of re-creating the wheel. Here are five things I've learned so far that may be helpful to you:

1. Social media keeps your practice relevant.

Like many people, visiting Facebook is part of my day. I usually start my visit by scrolling down the news feed on my home page to see what people are talking about. I'm constantly amazed how many people post pictures, videos and comments about their pets. My guess is that you'll be amazed, too, once you try it. And, once you familiarize yourself with a few of the social media sites, you'll quickly see how easy and cost-effective it is to position yourself as a pet expert while raising awareness about your practice.

For instance, a short while back, I learned through social media that it was Take Your Pet to Work Day. If I was in veterinary practice and had a social media account or blog, I would have immediately posted tips to help pet owners better manage their pets' experience in the workplace, from the car ride to how to ensure a comfortable day for their pets in a strange place to how to introduce their pets to colleagues. Clients would have noticed this timely advice. If they liked it, they could have passed along the tips to other pet owners.

Why not make a habit of visiting social media sites, such as Facebook or Twitter, or just Googling for pet-related news every day? When you see something like the Take Your Pet to Work Day announcement, you can jump on it by providing useful information and tips on your practice's website and social media pages. This is a great way to get pet owners talking about you, and elevate awareness about your practice.

2. Social media provides valuable insight to clients.

If you want to know what's on pet owners' minds, just read their tweets or Facebook updates. You can even make it a staff assignment. Ask your team members to visit a social media site and read pet owner comments. Then at the next staff meeting, everyone should share at least one insight they gained about pet owners and how they behave outside of the practice. Where are pet owners taking their pets (e.g., on their boats or motorcycles)? Which dog parks do they favor? What questions and advice do they ask and give to one another? What recommendations do they make for pet foods, toys and more?

Does this sound frivolous? It's not. Think of it as market research. It will help you and the veterinary team get to know your current and potential clients better. You'll also be sensitizing yourself to the reality of pet owners' lives. Staff members may be amazed to learn how much pets are valued as members of the family and how much misinformation pet owners share about diets and healthcare on social media sites.

Next, brainstorm with your team on ways to use these insights to improve client service. For example, based on what you learned about clients' busy lives, how could you help them remember their appointments or give their pets medications? How could you use what you learned online to correct common misinformation? Finally, based on what you learned, what new, fun ways can you think of to strengthen your bond with pet owners?

3. Social media empowers employees and connects you to clients.

There has been a lot of dialogue lately about shutting down employees' use of social media. But according to new research published in Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, and Transform Your Business (Harvard Business School Press, 2010), that's the wrong approach. Think about it: You'd never tell staff members that they couldn't talk to clients if they ran into them in the grocery store or at a restaurant. Social media is another common meeting place. It's how millions of people — your employees and clients — communicate today. So rather than ban participation, why not encourage it?

The authors of the book, Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler, give an example of how a Best Buy employee solved a customer complaint. The employee effectively turned around a negative review on Twitter with beneficial results to the company. The authors say that the way to encourage this kind of positive, constructive engagement is to offer employees guidelines about conduct and interactions on social media, especially when it comes to responding to clients' problems.

Empowering employees in this way is risky. A way to safely apply this idea to veterinary practice would be to ask employees to let the practice manager or owner know when they hear things?— good or bad — on social media sites. That way, the manager or owner could respond in a timely and appropriate fashion, and employees would have a risk-free way to help the practice maintain its good reputation.

4. Every veterinary practice should have a blog.

For most people, including me, the hardest part about blogging is fitting it into your schedule. It's a little like e-mail in the beginning. E-mail used to be something that was hard to find time to check. Today, practices across the country receive their lab reports, inventory order confirmations and client questions via e-mail. Many practices are beginning to use it to send client reminders. E-mail is now an indispensible practice tool.

I think blogs will soon become as important as e-mail and as ubiquitous as websites are now. Blogs may even supplant websites in veterinary practices because they are so easy-to-use, effective and inexpensive. Another advantage blogs have over websites is that they are easy to change and update. No programmers required!

Your blog should match or be very similar to your practice's websites, and they should be linked. The websites then becomes your evergreen content, while your blog becomes your newspaper and is always changing.

As for blog content, use your blog to note changes in the practice such as new personnel, new equipment or capabilities (e.g., feline exam room, lasers) or new services (e.g., breed-specific wellness plans). Post announcements for your open house or encourage participation in a community pet walk or some other pet-related event. Also consider posting weekly features showcasing an adoptable pet or telling a heart-warming patient story to educate pet owners on what your hospital can do for pets with similar conditions. Finally, don't forget to think about fun things to post on your blog, such as contests or pet trivia. It's a way of letting pet owners know that you understand what they like because you're just like them.

The idea behind blogging is to engage pet owners in fresh ways and give them a chance to get to know you by telling them something useful, novel or fun. The hope is that they'll like your blog postings so much that they'll pass them on and get your hospital's name out to an ever-growing circle of pet owners.

5. Make social networking happen with a plan.

My plan is to spend about 30 minutes a day on social media, which won't be hard since I already visit Facebook and LinkedIn regularly. This time, however, I won't just be a visitor. My plan is to regularly post messages on my new blog. To control my time, I will write several blog posts at once but release them one at a time on a regular schedule. I also plan to link all of my social media sites together to maximize their impact. Then, when I work on one site, I can link the content to all.

Why bother? Because this is the way the world is moving, and I don't want to be left behind. Soon, having a business presence on social media sites will be an expected contact point for all businesses, much as websites and phone numbers are today. Also, why not pursue an exceptionally easy, effective and inexpensive way to communicate with clients, build brand awareness, and — I hope — attract new clients to my business?

So what's your plan?

Karyn Gavzer, MBA, CVPM, is a veterinary business consultant and nationally known writer and speaker. She says her job is to help practices "go and grow" with training, marketing and new ideas. She is an adjunct instructor for AAHA and a founding member of VetPartners.

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