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Online networking-it works

Article

Build relationships to build your veterinary practice through the new social media.

Have you plugged into the Web lately? It's bursting with blogs and twittering with tweets by the millisecond. And as the social networking movement prompts more people to use the Internet to connect, savvy businesses are following suit. Facebook, Twitter, and other sites are the newest vehicles used to market businesses and stay in touch with clients.

Shiloh Veterinary Hospital is a great example of a practice engaging clients—and potential clients—through social networking. To start, the practice's two locations share an awesome Web site at myshilohvet.com with several short, informative videos. The videos are hosted on YouTube but play right on the hospital's site. One shows the practice's history, while another offers a quick tour of each facility. Others showcase practice doctors discussing pet ear infections and puppy training. What a great way to establish a feeling of familiarity in the minds of potential clients.

In addition to the videos, the site provides a link to Twitter, where you can choose to "follow" Shiloh (twitter.com/shilohvet). Followers receive short messages, or tweets, from the hospital about all the wonderful things going on there. In fact, during a spring snowstorm when the practice had to close for the day, the staff tweeted that information to followers. The last time I looked, the practice had 327 followers. Imagine that! At least 327 people want to follow the hospital's every move—now those are bonded clients.

CONNECT WITH YOUR CLIENTS

Social networking is a great way to keep in touch with clients and update them on what's new. You could post about pet dental health month, a new product, or services you provide. For instance, if you decided to open an online store on your Web site, you could tweet about it to your followers or post it on your Facebook page for your fans to see. These are inexpensive ways to market your practice and keep your followers and fans in the know.

I know of one practice that started a "treasure hunt" using Twitter. The practice gave clues to its followers about where to find things around the city, many of which involved animal-related services and facilities. For example, one clue led participants to the local zoo, where they had to find another clue at the monkey exhibit. The winner received a laptop. You can bet it caused a buzz in that community.

UNDERSTAND HOW IT WORKS

If you haven't already joined the social networking revolution, there's no better time than now. It's free, and the rewards can be great. But before you take the plunge, you should take a little time to understand how this new way of connecting works on an emotional level. Your communication style and messages need to be effective and not turn off your fans and followers.

My first recommendation is to create a personal account on one or two of these social networks to see how they work firsthand. When I joined Facebook, I was pleased to see how user-friendly and ubiquitous the site is. It's easy to get started. When I entered my basic information—age, high school, and college—Facebook came up with the names of two roommates from college I hadn't spoken to since graduation! I followed instructions to "friend" them, and we now post messages on each other's virtual walls to keep in touch.

So get on, set up an account, and see how the social networking world operates. You'll then be ready to set up an account for your business. You might also want to inquire within your practice to see who's most familiar with social networking sites and might want to help you or head up this project. People love to connect, and you'll be amazed at how many people will ask to be your fans or followers.

KEEP IT ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS, NOT SALES

As with all social endeavors, online networking comes with its own rules of etiquette. You have to be careful how you "market" yourself and your practice online. Social media is best used to build relationships, not close sales. Coming across as too pushy can be a turn-off. Effective communication involves telling followers, "This is what we're up to" or "Thought you might like to know more about this subject." Keep posts conversational and friendly, just as you do in person.

Practices can also use social networks to keep friends and followers up to date about what's going on in the animal health world at large. Think back to the pet food recall of 2007. Wouldn't it have been nice to have a way to immediately inform your clients about the recall and instruct them what to do? Practices have also used Facebook or Twitter to inform clients about what to do with pets in case of severe weather as well as to share news about new employees and babies born to team members.

When you hire a new doctor, you could post information about where he or she graduated from and what pets the doctor owns. You might even set up a blog so that new doctors can introduce themselves and field questions from fans and followers.

Naturally, you need to be careful about what you post. You never want to violate client or employee confidentiality. I suggest you include a policy in your manual about what employees may and may not do on social networking sites with regards to the practice. (For a sample policy, check out dvm360.com/socialpolicy.) Even a personal blog by one of your employees can compromise your business if that person shares confidential or damaging information.

STAY ON TOPIC

The other key to maintaining an effective social network for your practice is to stay on topic. It's very easy to lose sight of the central reasons people have joined your circle of friends: They want to keep up with the practice, learn more about what you do, and stay up to date on veterinary medicine and animal health.

One way you could fulfill all of these needs would be to post a write-up of the most challenging case of the week (again, be careful about confidentiality), a new service you're offering (acupuncture, luxury boarding, and so on), or the new digital radiography machine you just purchased. Many practices have written about heroic pets, such as a dog that warned its master about a fire or an intruder. Another practice asked one of its doctors to write about what she learned and did at CVC Kansas City. And still another veterinarian posted daily tweets about her conference experience while she was in attendance.

Whatever you choose to share with your readers, keep it friendly and professional. Remember why others have signed up to be your followers or join your network. First and foremost, it's because they love their pets.

MAKE IT FUN AND INTERESTING

Your Twitter or Facebook account is not like an ad you'd place in the Yellow Pages or a hospital brochure you'd mail to a client. It's an interactive experience, so make it fun. How about an ugliest dog or cat competition? Your Twitter followers and Facebook fans could submit pictures of their pets or tweet to you on the subject, then vote on the ugliest pet. The winner would receive a complimentary makeover with your groomer. Naturally, you'd post before and after pictures on your Facebook page.

Or, with a client's permission, you could follow a medical case that has broad interest and appeal—a patient undergoing acupuncture or chemotherapy, for example. The idea is to not only make it interesting but to drive people back to your Twitter feed or Facebook page to see the case evolve and to find whatever else your practice has going on. Keep your posts fresh and involving, and you'll gain a loyal following. And to build momentum, print "Join us on Facebook" or "Follow us on Twitter" on your client receipts or reminder cards. Place a link on your Web site. You'll see just how fast people sign up.

KEEP PACE WITH FUTURE CLIENTS

So why should you do all this? Well, think about all those twentysomethings and younger. How do they communicate and keep in touch? Yep, you guessed it—social networks. If you want to incorporate this generation into your practice, you need to go where they are and speak their language. With a little time invested, you'll soon be bonding clients through your online forms of interaction, education, and entertainment. The results could be significant, and best of all, it's all free!

Mark Opperman, CVPM, is Veterinary Economics' Hospital Management Editor and owner of VMC Inc., a veterinary consulting firm based in Evergreen, Colo. Catch him at CVC Kansas City August 28 and 29. Topics include difficult clients and co-workers, succession planning, manager mistakes, and controlling staff and inventory costs. Visit thecvc.com for more information, or search Facebook for CVC.

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