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How social media can promote your practice (Sponsored by Nestlé Purina)


Don't have change-o-phobia when it comes to social media. Think of this new communication tool as a new drug or treatment.

When Dr. Jennifer L. Casey Hodge asked a new client how she heard about The Cat Clinic of Cary, the pet owner replied, "I'm Willie's friend on Facebook." As CEO or "cat executive officer" of the Cary, N.C., veterinary hospital, Willie reached 5,000 Facebook friends in three years, ranging from clients to cat lovers in countries as far away as Taiwan and France. With social media savvy beyond his 5 years of age, Willie has graduated to a business page, so he can move beyond Facebook's limit of 5,000 friends on personal pages (www.facebook.com/FriendWillieHodge).

Found in a dumpster as a kitten, Willie had a severe eye infection that required removal of his right eye. Willie took up residence at The Cat Clinic of Cary and now posts his adventures daily on Facebook (see photos). He dressed up as Santa to visit residents at a local assisted-living facility. Willie posted holiday safety tips for feline family members.

Willie took up residence at The Cat Clinic of Cary (in N.C.) and now posts his adventures daily on Facebook. Willie reached 5,000 Facebook friends in three years.

"Create a character and personalize it for the people you're posting to," advises Dr. Hodge. "If you're going to do social media, it has to be personalized. You won't grab their interest on heartworm disease alone. Think about your social media strategy and develop a niche for yourself." She credits Willie's conversational approach for his 5,000 friends, compared with the clinic's 420 Facebook fans.

Word-of-mouth referrals have long been the No. 1 source of new clients for veterinary hospitals. With social media, word of mouth becomes world of mouth. Yellow pages advertising is expensive and a dying medium. Social media is free and gets immediate results.

Don't have change-o-phobia when it comes to social media. Think of this new communication tool as a new drug or treatment. Put simply, social media is about communicating with existing and prospective clients. Social media is more touch than tech. It's word-of-mouth marketing on steroids! Woody Allen said, "90% of success is just showing up," so show up on social media. The best way to learn is to jump in and do it.

Getting started

Today, 77% of veterinary practices have websites and 43% are on Facebook.1 "Don't be afraid of social media," advises Christine Raehn, operations manager and technician at Bakerstown Animal Hospital in Bakerstown, Pa. "If you're not using social media, pet owners will find a practice that is."

Current top dog in social media, Facebook has 800 million users with half logging on daily. The average Facebook user has 130 friends and is connected to 80 community pages, groups, and events.2 Each day, an average of 250 million photos are uploaded. Within 20 minutes, your hospital can have a Facebook page. Go to www.facebook.com to create a business account. Choose a classification such as "local business or place."A business page allows you to have administrator rights. You must have an individual account to create a business page, which is separate from your personal page. With a business page, people will "Like" you rather than becoming your "Friend." Every time pet owners "Like" your business page, all of their friends see that they like your veterinary hospital. This is word-of-mouth marketing at its best. Once people click "Like," a popup window says, "Help your friends discover great places to visit by writing a recommendation for Your Animal Clinic." The user sees buttons for "write a recommendation" or "no thanks."

Upload your practice logo for your profile photo. On your "Info" page, list your address, driving directions, hours, phone number, website, likes, and interests. In "wall settings," allow others to post to your wall to help build a community. Use Twitter and YouTube applications to have your Facebook posts automatically crosspost to your Twitter and YouTube accounts. (Those social media components are discussed below.)

Having a business page, which is free, allows you to review analytics to shape posts to your audience. Brenda Tassava, CVPM, hospital administrator at Broad Ripple Animal Clinic & Wellness Center in Indianapolis, found 78% of its Facebook fans are women and 32% are between the ages of 35 and 44. Broad Ripple Animal Clinic's Facebook posts have included an ugly holiday sweater contest and patient of the day.

Facebook also offers paid advertising. Social ads promote traffic to your Facebook page. As an advertiser, you are able to control your spending by setting a daily or lifetime budget. When you run your ad, you will only be charged for the number of clicks you receive (cost per click) or the number of impressions of your ad that are displayed (cost per thousand impressions). Bakerstown Animal Hospital's first Facebook ad generated 84 new Likes within two weeks and cost $74. "If one 'Like' turns into an office visit, I've made my money back," Raehn says.

Results were even more impressive for Dr. Enrique Borrego, owner of Animal General Hospital in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Spending $27,000 in yellow pages ads over 18 months did not net any new clients.3 He had veterinary-technician-turned-marketing-consultant Rich Urban develop a strategy using YouTube, Facebook, and e-mail marketing. Combining $3,600 in Google and Facebook ads over 18 months brought in 250 new clients and $75,000 in revenue.

"Yellow pages ads are static. Facebook and Google are interactive. People demand interaction, so we've built ourselves to be an online resource for our clients," says Dr. Borrego. "Great information coupled with great care — that's why people keep coming back. That's the social part of social marketing."

After getting active on Facebook, join the social media conversation on YouTube. Surprisingly, the No. 2 search engine in the world did not exist six years ago. Now 48 hours of video are uploaded every minuteand 3 billion videos are viewed in a day.4 More videos are uploaded to YouTube in one month than the three major U.S. television networks created in 60 years. YouTube's demographic is broad: 18- to 54-year-olds.

What is everyone watching? Animal videos rank among the highest viewed, including "Surprised Kitty" ( www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Bmhjf0rKe8) with nearly 58 million views. Almost 81,000 people have watched Dr. Steven D. Garner, DABVP, of Safari Animal Care Centers in League City, Texas, surgically remove adult heartworms (www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOLzFsNOJ-4).

Set up a YouTube account and also create your practice's YouTube channel. Users can subscribe to your videos and be notified by e-mail whenever you post new content. Your channel also appears on subscribers' YouTube homepage. "Think of YouTube as the place on the Internet where you store all your videos," says Tassava, author of Social Media for Veterinary Professionals. 5 "Then link to specific videos through your practice's website, blog, Facebook page, and Twitter posts. This bolsters your clicks and search engine power. The more links you create on the Internet, the more likely search engines like Google will find your site, so others can find it too. By including video in your social media strategy, you'll be appealing to a much broader audience and connecting in a more emotional way."

When posting videos, Raehn includes the practice's name in the file name for search optimization. "Bakerstown Animal Hospital Canine Wellness Exam" leads you to the right video while branding the business.

Next, you're ready to join the more than 300 million people on Twitter.6 Users send and read text-based posts of up to 140 characters, known as "tweets." Tweets are public and available to anyone interested in them. Tweets can include photos and links to websites. Twitter users subscribe to your messages by following your account. Followers receive every one of your messages in their timeline, a feed of all the accounts they have subscribed to.

Create a username that's simple and branded to your business. Purina is @purina_USA, while PurinaCare Pet Health Insurance is @purinacare. I'm @wendysmyers. Then add your location, website, and tagline. Upload your practice logo to represent your business or choose a snapshot if the tweets will be from an individual such as a veterinarian. Start following other people, including animal hospitals, veterinary consultants, and clients. When you see a tweet by another user that you want to share, click "retweet" below it to forward it to your followers instantly.

You can put the # symbol (called a hashtag) in front of words in tweets to categorize them for others. For example, "Protect #pets from holiday hazards. #Emergency pet care tips at www.yourwebsite.com. " Think of hashtags as the theme of your tweet. Users can then click on a hashtag to see other similarly themed tweets and find yours in the search.

Now that you're a social media maven, use online tools to make managing posts easy. Each Monday morning, Raehn spends 15 minutes scheduling posts for the week on www.hootsuite.com, a free social media dashboard that lets you connect to multiple social networks from one website. Schedule updates to Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks, track campaign results, and get industry trends. Constant Contact's free NutshellMail (www.nutshellmail.com) takes copies of all your latest updates in your social networking accounts and places them in a snapshot e-mail. The NutshellMail update is then sent to your primary e-mail account at the times and on the days of the week that you schedule.

What to post

Social media is simply conversations with clients. As a veterinary consultant, I advise hospitals to post a combination of silly and serious topics. Feeling silly? Watch my 4-month-old kitten, Caymus, play fetch (www.youtube.com/watch?v=BS3u1_xYTfE). Are you in the mood for serious, practical advice? Check out 102 helpful videos from Purina's Project Pet Slim Down (www.youtube.com/user/ThePurinaNetwork?feature=watch).

"The mantra I follow is that I don't want a Facebook page that sells, sells, sells," says Raehn. "Every third or fourth post, I will list a service that Bakerstown Animal Hospital offers. I try to post information that helps make life easier for pet owners."

Where can you get ideas? Like, follow, and subscribe to other veterinary hospitals, animal health companies, rescue groups, shelters, and veterinary associations. Raehn's go-to sources include Purina, ASPCA, and IDEXX's Real-Time Care (@Real_TimeCare). Following my advice for combining silly and serious, Raehn tweeted links to tick-borne disease maps for the practice's ZIP code on Twitter and then on Facebook posted photos of clinic cat, Mamma Kitty, in various Halloween costumes and asked fans to vote. The ladybug outfit won.

When creating social media content, think of your practice website as "home base." Tweets and posts should drive people to your website, where they can learn more about services and access information such as a library of articles, videos, and client handouts. Make a list of at least 12 topics to post throughout the year on social media sites. Having a plan will give you the momentum to get started.

When getting started, post once a week. Once you're ready to take the training wheels off, post twice a week. As your confidence increases so can your frequency of posts. Dr. Hodge posts to Willie's Facebook page daily. Every two days, Raehn posts to Facebook but tweets less on Twitter. "Don't make it too hard," she advises. "You don't have to post daily."

Now that you have the technical how-tos, what content should you share? Encourage interaction. Remember, you're having conversations with clients. Post questions, photos, and videos. Encourage people to share posts with their friends. Here are favorite ideas to get you started.

Favorite Facebook ideas

Post photos of patients. Capture snapshots of puppies, kittens, and new patients. Ask clients, "Can we post your pet's picture on our Facebook page to welcome him as a new patient? We'll send you an e-mail so you can 'Like' us on Facebook and let your friends see your new pet."

Have a photo contest. For an ugly dog photo competition, the winner gets a makeover from your groomer.Ask people to vote for their favorite to encourage interaction. Invite clients to post photos of pets' birthdays, holiday celebrations, and Halloween costumes. Contact vendors about prizes you can award to winners.

Feature your staff. Post action photos of patient care, procedures, and your staff's expertise. Include images of team members' pets and their areas of medical interest.

Invite interaction. Pose questions such as "What was the name of your first pet?" "How did you choose your pet's name?" and "What is your pet's best trick?"

Discuss common conditions. Share information on ear infections, puppy training tips, and consequences of obesity and dental disease.

Post facts about pets. A cat has 37 muscles in each ear. Guinness World Records reports Creme Puff is the oldest cat ever, living 38 years in Austin, Texas. A cat can jump seven times as high as it is tall. A group of kittens is called a "kindle." Cats have 24 whiskers, 12 per side.

Showcase your services. Post about pet dental health month, weight loss programs, and emergency care. Share obesity resources such as Purina's websites at www.projectpetslimdown.com

and www.facebook.com/FightingPetObesity. Clients can get tips, reminders, tracking tools, and coupons. At Colonial Animal Clinic in Flatwoods, Ky., office manager Reva Ford posted, "Guess what breeds are in Sadie's family tree" along with the dog's photo on the hospital's Facebook page (www.facebook.com/pages/Colonial-Animal-Clinic/28632061925). The discussion promoted the clinic's genetic testing services.

Describe a challenging case of the week. Discuss your diagnosis, treatment, and successful outcome. Be sure to get the client's permission so you avoid confidentiality conflicts. Always share stories with happy endings!

Celebrate extraordinary pets. At Animal Hospital Specialty Center in Highlands Ranch, Colo., we post stories about brave patients. Dr. Tanya Strickland, an emergency veterinarian, shared the story of Dante, a New Year's Eve patient. The 3-day-old chinchilla suffered a broken leg during birth and the leg had to be amputated. The story had a happy ending, and Dante will have many more New Year's Eves to come. Besides showcasing our compassion and emergency services, the posting let pet owners know that we treat exotic species.

Share your knowledge. If you just attended a CE event, post a summary of the new information you learned.

Offer preventive care tips. Give advice on caring for older dogs, signs of arthritis, and how nutrition impacts health and longevity.

Showcase your facility. Share photos of your equipment and explain how it works. Show your boarding suites and describe the pampering pets get while staying with you. Invite people to drop in for a personal tour.

Feature pets available for adoption. Partner with local shelters or feature strays you've rescued. Once adopted, share stories of their new families!

Promote Facebook check-ins. In the Facebook Places feature on mobile devices, clients can tap "check in," so their friends see they're at your animal hospital. Clients can write an optional description of what they're doing at the place where they're checking in. See Facebook's help page on location services for instructions.

Favorite YouTube ideas

Keep YouTube videos short, targeting 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Longer videos are okay, but short clips will generate the most traffic. Use a smart phone with video capabilities or get an inexpensive digital video camera.

Share behind-the-scenes videos. Grab the camera when you are performing your next C-section or interesting surgery. Show snippets of behind-the-scenes activities such as performing dental cleanings, conducting preanesthetic testing, and taking x-rays.

Teach with instructional videos. Show clients how to brush pets' teeth, clean ears, give pills, and trim nails.

Shoot close-ups when it's gross. Share videos of what ear mites and intestinal parasites look like through the microscope.

Promote what's new. If you have digital dental x-ray, show how it works. Bakerstown Animal Hospital shared a video of postsurgical laser therapy on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QZu6I9dMt4). When you add new doctors or team

members, welcome them.

Favorite Twitter ideas

On Twitter, tweak your tweets to include key words, calls to action, photos, and links. Incorporate hashtags so more folks find similarly themed tweets. Here are a few sample tweets:

  • Give your pet its monthly #heartworm preventive. Get a monthly e-mail or text reminder at www.remindmypet.com.

  • A skunk with #rabies was reported this week in our county. Be sure your pets are vaccinated. Call 555-555-5555 to schedule your pet's exam.

  • Happy #woofwednesday! Teach your dog new tricks with treats. Your Vet Clinic has Meaty d'lites, under 10 calories each. www.yourwebsite.com.

  • #Toxoplasmosis is a #zoonotic disease that cats can get and give to people. Get tips at www.yourwebsite.com.

Promote your social media activities

Your goal is to create and establish a community, so let clients know where they can find you on social media sites. Also make sure your staff knows what's going on. They should "Like" your business page and check in often, so they can be in the know. You could print postings and hang them on an employee bulletin board as well. Here is a checklist of how to promote your social media involvement:

Send clients an e-mail campaign with links for them to "Like" or follow you. You can send mass e-mails through your practicemanagement software or services such as Vetstreet. Curious about how many of your clients are on Facebook? Download clients' e-mail addresses from your practicemanagement software and import them into to Facebook. Facebook then tells you how many of your clients are Facebook users and lets you invite them to connect with your page.

Add Facebook and Twitter logos to your business cards, website, client handouts, and anything you print. You can download logos from their respective websites. At Animal Hospital Specialty Center, we put "Like us on Facebook" double-sided window decals on our front door and two exam hallway doors. The stickers cost less than $5 on eBay.

Have a counter sign on the reception desk. Display a sign that says "Like us on Facebook" and "Follow us on Twitter."

Put footers on invoices, reminder cards, and e-mails. Rotate messages each month, promoting Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter at different times so your communication is fresh.

Have links on your website home page. Social media sites provide buttons, links, and technical how-to instructions.

Send post-visit surveys. After clients come to Bakerstown Animal Hospital, they receive an e-mail survey asking for feedback on their service experience. The e-mail includes links to the practice's social media connections.

Ask clients to write tail-wagging reviews. When a client experiences great service, ask her to share it on your pages of Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Yahoo!, and online review sites. Get e-mails when negative reviews about your hospital show up online from services such as Google Alerts (www.google.com/alerts).

Final words of advice

Social media comes with a few cautions. Never violate client or employee confidentiality. Get written permission from clients to post information. A simple statement will suffice: "I grant Your Veterinary Hospital permission to post my pet's picture, story, and medical information on social media." Have the client sign and date the document. Use the term "social media" rather than listing specific sites so you have flexibility about where to post. "Most pet owners are thrilled to give us permission to post their pets' photos," Raehn says.

Include a social media policy in your employee manual. Download an example from Veterinary Economics at www.dvm360.com/socialpolicy. Clearly state what employees may and may not do on social networking sites when discussing or representing your practice.

Have a liability statement on your practice website: "The opinions and information expressed on this website should not constitute the basis for medical care or nutritional advice. Always consult your veterinarian about your pet's specific issues before implementing a new diet or medical care." Social media generates excitement among staff as well as clients. Employees will love getting involved and contributing content. Clients will enjoy richer relationships with both the hospital and team members.

"Our main goal for social media is to drive pet owners into the practice," says Dr. Hodge. "Facebook helps us keep our clinic in front of clients. Fans believe in what we do, from providing quality veterinary care to supporting rescue groups. It's amazing to have a group of people who love the same thing you do."

By Wendy S. Myers

Communication Solutions for Veterinarians

Denver, Colorado


1. National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues, Brakke Consulting, Bayer Animal Health. 2011 Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study.

2. Facebook statistics. Available at: http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics. Accessed December 28, 2011.

3. Napoletano E. Virtual people, real dollars. Entrepreneur Oct. 2011;22. Available at: www.entrepreneur.com/article/220354.

4. YouTube statistics. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/t/press_statistics. Accessed December 27, 2011.

5. Tassava B. Put your veterinary practice on YouTube. Here's why—and how. Firstline August 20, 2010. Available at: http://veterinaryteam.dvm360.com/firstline/Veterinary+managers/Put-your-veterinarypractice-on-YouTube-Heres-whym/ArticleStandard/Article/detail/684005. Accessed December 22, 2011.

6. Wikipedia contributors. Twitter. Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twitter. Accessed December 28, 2011.

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