Approach social media strategically to benefit veterinary practice goals

October 1, 2011
Rachael Zimlich, BSN, RN
Rachael Zimlich, BSN, RN

Freelance writer Rachael Zimlich worked as a reporter for dvm360 magazine before returning to school to become a registered nurse. She now works at The Cleveland Clinic.

Halifax, Canada - Two to four hours per week on a social networking site can have a positive impact on your business, according to a new study by Dr. Michael Warren, a practicing veterinarian and owner of DVMelite, a web development company for veterinary practices.

HALIFAX, CANADA — Two to four hours per week on a social networking site can have a positive impact on your business, according to a new study by Dr. Michael Warren, a practicing veterinarian and owner of DVMelite, a web development company for veterinary practices.

The study gauged the social media practices of 44 veterinary practices that are leading the way. Most of the practices surveyed are companion-animal practices that have been using social media for six months or less. But the feedback those practices gave in regard to the return on their investment speaks volumes, Warren says.

"The most interesting comment from the practices was to encourage their colleagues to just get started," he says. "That's what I saw with practices with an initial roadblock—get started. Once they do, it snowballs, and they find their voice."

The practices surveyed report greater client engagement, more client referrals and higher search-engine rankings as some of the benefits of using social media.

Social media offers veterinary practices a free marketing tool that costs nothing but time. Almost half of the survey participants reported spending two to six hours per week on social media. Warren concludes that, considering the return-on-investment, that is about right, and any further time spent would have diminishing returns.

More than 34 percent of the practices put a staff member in charge of the practice's social media program, with practice owners and associate veterinarians next in line. Practice managers were the least active, according to the survey results.

"Often the veterinarians do not have the personal interest to engage in social media, while staff members are already active participants on these platforms, personally," Warren notes in the survey. Staff members who take the role seriously find it empowering, he adds. "Their pride in having a voice in representing their clinic will result in a creative online presence benefitting all."

A good way to measure the productivity of a social media program is to calculate the time spent by a designated staff member in charge of the program. Practices should use some type of intake form to track how new clients come to the clinic, and compare the value of those new clients to the cost of the staffers' time.

"We can start to measure if we get two new clients a month from social media, then we can develop a more coherent strategy to how much we should invest," Warren says.

Facebook is the most popular platform to use when embarking on a social media program, because people are familiar and comfortable with it. In fact, 75 percent of survey respondents reported using Facebook, Warren says. Another 50 percent maintain Twitter accounts, while 40 percent use YouTube. Blogging is underused, Warren says, but could generate a lot of traffic to a practice's website by using key search-engine words that pet owners in the area are looking for.

But it's easy to make mistakes when embarking on a social media program, and Warren says he sees a lot of practices fall into the same problems. One of the biggest errors, in his experience, is seeing practices set up Facebook accounts as profiles rather than pages. Profiles, according to Facebook's terms of use, are meant for personal use only. Businesses and organizations should utilize pages instead.

"There's no way to migrate followers and efforts over to a business page (from a personal profile)," Warren says, and practices end up having to start over. "There are very likely thousands of practices right now using Facebook as a profile."

Another critical area is that while practices are good at generating and posting content, they aren't always successful in seeding that information.

"Without making connections with other people and businesses, content doesn't get an audience," Warren says. Practices that "tweet" something on Twitter will not have their content go far with only a few followers to see it. By engaging other businesses and organizations in the community, the content can be re-tweeted to a much larger audience.

"If you don't make the effort to start following other people, you'll be tweeting and have 60 tweets and nine followers and not get any utility from what you're doing," he cautions.

Survey respondents also shared advice to colleagues who are ready to engage in a social media program. They suggest asking questions that will elicit responses to launch further engagement. Talk to clients about using social media and ask to post their pet's picture on the clinic's page. But don't overuse social media as a marketing tool, suggest the respondents. Be social and share information that will make interacting with the practice an enjoyable experience for clients and potential clients.

Contests are a great way to engage followers, Warren says. Photo contests are a very popular way to capture an audience.

"Everybody wants to see pictures of their own pets and tell everybody about it," he says. "A contest is very effective in terms of spreading the word."

Commenting on updates from other businesses and organizations can help lead new followers to your page, but Warren says practices should not be too concerned with engaging each client follower on a personal level. It can be overwhelming and counterproductive, he says.

Many practices are hesitant to engage in social media for fear they will be inundated with questions.

"Practitioners who aren't on social media worry about opening themselves up to the world and being asked questions," he says. "To think of ourselves as being open to everyone asking us questions online overwhelms us."

But Warren says practices should be up front in terms of medical advice and treat requests the same as they would if someone called the reception desk—tell them to book an appointment to be seen by a veterinarian.