Veterinary professionals: Make friends and influence tweeters
Why is social media like Facebook and Twitter so important? Discover your role and find answers to your top questions with this Q&A session with forward-thinking veterinary professionals using social media.
Recently I dined with three veterinary professionals who've had tremendous success using social media to promote their practices. And I'm talking about the kind of success that makes accountants smile. For example, wiping $20,000 in advertising expenses off the books and replacing it with free, effective social media marketing; increasing the advertising reach to potential clients by three and a half times; and being singled out by Philadelphia's Direct Marketing Association as having the best social media campaign over seasoned companies throughout the busy Northeast. A novice at social media myself, I stopped the conversation to make sure I was hearing right: "You believe a social media marketing plan for all practices is essential?"
The three enthusiastically replied yes. Brenda Tassava, CVPM, CVJ, author of Social Media for Veterinary Professionals (Lulu, 2011); Phillip Barnes, marketing director of NorthStar VETS in Robbinsville, N.J.; and Brie Messier, MBA, who served as an administrator of NorthStar VETS for seven years, shared their advice, including why social media is important for team members—and what practices need to do now to stay in the game.
Social media is a surround-sound of noise that's zeroing in on you with louder and louder resonance. The radio announcer says, "And don't forget to visit us on Facebook." The TV anchor says, "For more on this topic and others like it, go to our blog." An email in your inbox says, "Follow us on Twitter to learn how to win a new iPad." Let's look at how these three veterinary social media experts view the importance of social media—and your role.
Q: Why are companies pursuing social media so aggressively?
"They're growing their businesses," Tassava says. "They're trying to increase their bottom line." Brie adds that social media is a more intimate way of reaching customers—an approach that allows you to craft a personal image for clients.
Barnes agrees. "Social media is an extended friendship. It's advice and commentary that's already had the stamp of approval by your friends," he says. "Reaching new clients by way of their existing connections is an excellent way to get people to pay attention and listen to your message more intently."
The key, Tassava says, is to make your social media plan organic. "It must foment out of your practice culture—be an extension of that culture," she says. "It's the virtual personification of your practice."
These experts agree that a successful approach to social media for veterinary practices is more than a pitch. It creates a dialogue between the practice and its clients.
Q: "What will happen if we don't get on board?"
"I believe practices will fade out of our awareness," Tassava says. "The Web is everything. It's our go-to source for all information. A social media presence keeps our businesses alive online and drives them to the top of information searches. There are simply too many companies working too hard to make sure they're at the top of that list. Smaller practices must leverage the ability they have using free social media."
Barnes agrees. "The way people shop has fundamentally changed, and it's never going to go back to the way it was before," he says. "If you're thinking that your new clients will be searching for you in the Yellow Pages next year, you're dreaming. They'll be looking online, and the practices closest to the top of the list will be the ones whose phones are ringing loudest."
From a business standpoint, Tassava says, you can't pretend that social media doesn't exist. "That would be like pretending the phone doesn't exist," she says. "It's the way the world communicates. That's how many of your current clients and many more of your new clients will communicate in the future."
Team members share an important role in developing a strong social media platform, Barnes says, because they spend the most time with clients. As a result, they may develop closer relationships with clients.
"Not only do those relationships allow team members to keep up on what's most important to clients, but the quality of the team member and client relationship can make or break a practice's success," he says.
Q: What are the first steps to launch a social media program?
"Know your message, decide on a voice for your practice, and figure out who's going to do the work to set up accounts and remain active and consistent in posting," Messier says.
The voice is critical, Tassava says, because it can't sound canned. It has to be alive. "Some practices choose a hospital mascot as an image and a voice," Tassava says. "The practice as seen through Carlos the cat, for example. It brings humor, personality, and specificity to the content."
Barnes says it's also important to plan. He encourages you to think of social media as part of a larger marketing campaign. "You don't want to throw spaghetti at a wall and hope a strand or two sticks," he says. "Go at it as one piece of a larger puzzle."
Q: How can practices with Facebook and Twitter accounts take it to the next level?
"Reflect on the honesty of your online presence. Is it content for content's sake or is it living and breathing?" Tassava asks. "Buy a digital camera. Buy a bunch. Get the whole team involved in chronicling and sharing your practice's life. Make sure what you're doing is an interactive dialogue, not a 30-second spot for your latest promotion."
Messier suggests using cliffhangers to pull in clients. She recommends creating stories that draw in readers and keep followers interested. "Also make sure you're cross-referencing material in other posts to keep the dialogue alive," she says.
Finally, remember that a team approach is key. Just as you've been trained to interact with clients at your hospital, you can bring those elements to your online presence. "Buck up and learn a little about Web optimization," he says. "Take a class. Keyword usage and search engine marketing aren't things that will be here today and gone tomorrow. They're a part of our way of doing business for a very, very long time."
"And don't forget the check," Tassava says.
"The check?" I ask. "What are you talking about?"
"The check," she repeats, flapping the bill for our dinner. "Social media might be your practice's cheapest date, but we're not."
Now that's a comment I'd "like."
Bash Halow, CVPM, LVT, is the owner of Halow Consulting in New York City and Wyalusing, Pa.