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Social revolution: How Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube can help your veterinary practice
Don't underestimate the power of a post, a tweet, or a video upload. Social networking can help you.
The world's aflutter with social networking. Oprah, Larry King, and Ashton Kutcher all Twitter. President Barack Obama used Facebook to help get elected, while Senator John McCain ignored it and lost. MySpace and YouTube have spawned numerous record contracts and movie deals. Although social networks may not make you president or a Hollywood star, they do offer innovative ways for veterinarians to stay connected with staff and clients.
GET FACE TO FACE—VIRTUALLY
By now you're no doubt familiar with Facebook even if you don't participate. This behemoth of a social networking site has more than 350 million users worldwide, nearly 105 million of whom are in the United States. Facebook isn't just for kids anymore, either. The popular Web site reports that its fastest-growing demographic is women over age 55 and that there are more Facebook users ages 26 to 44 than 18 to 25 today. Those numbers represent real, pet-loving people in your community. It's time to "friend" your clients on Facebook!
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Facebook is designed more for individuals than businesses, but there are workarounds. To begin, create a page for your veterinary practice, including a fan page. This allows users to become "fans" of your business. It takes only a few minutes, and it's free. Fan pages allow an unlimited number of fans, while a normal Facebook profile is limited to 5,000 friends. Fan pages are visible to anyone and are indexed by search engines to make it easier for people to find your page through Google, Yahoo, and so on. When users become fans, their Facebook profiles display a message ("Mary Smith has become a fan of Seaside Animal Care," for example) and a link viewable by all of their friends—viral marketing in action.
When you upload photos, videos, and other information to your fan page, you send updates to your fans. We've recently used our hospital's Facebook page to ask for help with wildfire evacuations near Myrtle Beach and to alert clients about food recalls and other breaking news. (Check it out in the screenshot on the left.) The ways you can use your Facebook page are limitless, and the options expand almost every day.
Another way to use Facebook is to create a "group." This is a private page, and you control who can access it. At Seaside Animal Care, we set up a hospital staff group for our employees to use to post information about charity projects and gatherings, as well as their general musings. It's important that you establish written rules for these interactions, even though they're supposedly private. Your staff should understand that anything they post on a Web site, regardless of privacy settings or where the site is hosted, should be considered public information and treated accordingly. This means no posting of client or patient names, no last names of staff, and nothing disparaging about co-workers. My simplified version of the ground rules is this: "Never post anything you wouldn't want your parents or your boss to see, because they will."
Don't be afraid to use Facebook for your veterinary practice, but use your common sense. Think of the 31 million people over age 26 using Facebook to connect with friends, learn about organizations, and, perhaps, see what's new with their veterinarian. When deciding what to include on your practice's Facebook page, ask yourself how the information will promote your business or profession before publishing it.
IT'S A TREAT TO TWEET
Few things in recent times have received as much hype as Twitter. The day after Oprah famously sent her first "tweet" on the site, more than 1 million users signed up. Twitter is a simple application that allows users to send short (140-character) updates to "followers" on their cell phones or computers. If all this talk of tweets and twittering has you wanting to fly away, be patient. The program isn't difficult to use, and the benefits to your practice may outweigh the trouble of learning to negotiate yet another social network.
Americans now send and receive more text messages than voice calls, so it's worth giving Twitter a chance. Twitter is the easiest and fastest way to contact large groups of people simultaneously. Simply type a message on your cell phone or computer and hit "send." When last year's pet food recall was announced, I tweeted within minutes and reached thousands of people as the message was retweeted or forwarded. Try doing that making phone calls.
To contact my staff quickly, we established a private Twitter account for our hospital. Twitter allows you to control who follows your tweets, allowing businesses to create private groups. In addition to breaking news, we tweet birthdays, illnesses, and links to information we find interesting. I can reach all of my staff in an instant.
Twittering doesn't end with a 140-character message either. Thousands of applications allow you to send links to news and upload photos and videos, and innovators come up with new uses weekly. Keep watching and listening. We don't yet know where this bird is flying, but the ride sure is interesting.
SPEND TIME WITH THE TUBE
You may think that video-sharing Web sites like YouTube are only for posting silly home videos. Not true. The site is another form of social media that your business should take advantage of. YouTube allows you to post videos online with either limited or unlimited access. Even better, YouTube lets you link or embed these videos on your Web site or Facebook and Twitter pages. Post a video tour of your hospital, cool veterinary stuff, or your team acting goofy—use your imagination.
WE'RE ONLINE. NOW WHAT?
If you find you have an affinity for social networking, there are plenty of applications to take your geekdom to the next level. Programs such as TweetDeck and Seesmic Desktop allow you to monitor and update your sites easily. Or use 12seconds, a site that lets you share 12-second videos on Twitter, Facebook, and Web sites. Twitpic, yfrog, and TwitVid are simple programs that enable you to share pictures and videos. The list of cool tools and applications grows each day. Sites such as AllThingsDigital, CNET.com, DownloadSquad.com, Geek.com, Lifehacker.com, Mashable.com,NYT Bits blog, ReadWriteWeb.com, and Wired.com are just a few of the Web sites you can check out to keep current with Web 2.0 and beyond.
Social media is evolving at warp speed as virtual communication experiences become more sophisticated and innovators create the latest "killer apps." Electronic communication and social networks are now part of today's business toolkit. Can you afford to ignore any tools that will help your practice grow? There's never been a better time to get in on the ground floor of a marketing revolution. Your peeps are waiting for your tweets.
Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Dr. Ernest Ward Jr. owns Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N.C. You can find him online at Twitter as @drernieward, or visit his Web site, DrErnieWard.com.