Recruit new clients and grow your practice with a well-planned campaign to educate the public about the pet care and services you offer.
You may use social media to market your practice, but could you be doing more? When our practice built a new 14,000-square-foot state-of-the art facility, we decided to supplement our social media efforts with public relations strategies. But it took careful planning—while we were proud of our new hospital and services, we didn’t want the community to perceive us as bragging about ourselves.
Up to that point, 90 percent of our clientele had come from word-of-mouth referrals. The only advertising we’d done was in the phone directory and a minimal amount online through Yelp. To diversify our efforts, we turned to a small local PR firm. The principal of the company, Shelly Gordon, was honest with us about the pros and cons of PR as a marketing tool. On the plus side, PR can increase visibility as well as credibility because when a third party (the media) attests to the positive aspects of a company, people find it more believable than when a business toots its own horn. But PR also demands consistent and persistent effort, which is why it made more sense for us to hire an outside firm rather than rely on our staff to generate coverage.
The firm developed a news release to highlight technological innovations, such as our blood bank and stem cell treatments, along with other features of the hospital, and sent the release to a local and regional media list. Then a separate advisory about our pre-grand opening went out to regional media calendars so editors and producers could note our event when making assignments to reporters and camera crews.
Persistent follow-up with the media produced coverage on two television stations (the local FOX and ABC affiliates) and in local newspapers. The largest regional newspaper in our area, the San Jose Mercury News, also featured our hospital after we spent months building a relationship with the paper’s pet columnist. Not only did our PR campaign bring reporters and TV cameras to our hospital, it brought in new clients as well. In the last seven months, we’ve seen an average increase of 300 to 350 new patients a month. The hospital has grown overall by 20 percent.
So what happened once the hoopla surrounding our hospital’s unveiling was over? We chose to focus on educating the public about pet care. We worked with our PR firm to provide local newspapers and magazines with pet health columns written by our veterinarians and technicians and to convince the San Francisco Chronicle to include our veterinarians among the experts who answer reader questions in their weekly “Ask the Vet” column.
While these pet health columns appear in traditional media outlets like newspapers, they’ve had an impact on our social media marketing as well. After convincing one of our community papers to run a pet question-and-answer column, we asked our Facebook fans to suggest names for it. That generated a host of titles, one of which, “Pet Pointers,” was selected by the editor and his staff. The column now appears two to three times a month in both the print and online versions of the paper.
To our clientele, the line separating printed newspapers and virtual ones is starting to blur, with each generating more interest in our services. Readers see one of our pet health columns in their local paper, and that draws them to our Facebook page where they comment on it, which then gets other people who are fans to read the column in the online version of the paper. This overlap not only enhances our brand on the Web, it also builds goodwill with our clientele and with the newspaper staff.
Our team members, too, have rallied around our PR efforts. While initially hesitant, they’ve enthusiastically embraced this promotional strategy, and a number of them are now offering to write articles. Surprisingly, this interest in creating stories about our services has led several of our veterinarians and technicians to write scripts for videos as part of a client education program. Those videos now appear on our website (adobe-animal.com), YouTube, and on the digital screen in our lobby. Plus, links to the videos are embedded in our pet columns. Again, that creates a win-win circle in which the articles drive more people to our website, our Facebook page, and our clinic.
If you want to develop a PR campaign for your veterinary practice, think through the educational message you want to send to the community. Start with one or two activities rather than trying to do too much at once. In our case, we focused on Facebook updates rather than asking our staff members to create blogs because posting daily would have put too much stress on their schedules.
Dedicating the time and energy you need for a successful PR campaign can be a challenge. However, in our experience the effort has proven worthwhile. We’ve seen the rewards of higher visibility for our practice, increasing numbers of new clients, and a healthier bottom line.
Summer Holmstrand-Irmiter, MBA, is practice manager at Adobe Animal Hospital in Los Altos, Calif.