If veterinary services are essential, surely effective marketing means just sticking a sign out the front of the practice. Well, no, actually … By John Burfitt
There was a time in the past when the only marketing you needed to do for a veterinary clinic was finding a spot on a main road, and sticking a big blue sign out the front. Then you could sit back and wait for the clients to arrive.
“Do that, and you’ll be waiting a long time,” Dr Alan Guilfoyle, owner of the Clermont Veterinary Surgery in Central Queensland says. “But this comment sums up the problem we face as vets, that many people still don’t know the difference between advertising and marketing. There’s not been enough focus on marketing within the profession, and there needs to be.”
It’s a point emphasised by Rob Johnson, chief content officer of Engage Content. “There’s this big misconception within the veterinary profession that marketing doesn’t work,” Johnson says. “Marketing is about finding and building an audience. Advertising is about selling to that audience.
“It’s rarely one thing that gets a client walking through the door. Certainly not putting up a sign that’s the same as every other vet. That just says you’re the same as the vet down the road. And you’re not.”
Marketing vs advertising
There was a revolution about a decade ago, Johnson explains, when the impact of digital communications changed all the rules about marketing. Businesses of all sizes discovered they could directly access their own market of loyal clients and potential clients through a range of activities. “Digital marketing became the most accountable option of all,” he says. “The other change was the rise of content marketing and data, using blogs and stories to communicate your message with your audience, and to build trust. The focus became getting to know your market and getting them to know you.”
In July 2018, the Pew Research Center released the Internet & American Life Project research study, which concluded 80 per cent of US internet users searched online for a health-related topics with 44 per cent seeking information on healthcare practitioners and facilities. Caroline Ucherek of CJU Medical Marketing says one of the first aspects she often has to correct with new veterinary clients is the difference between advertising and marketing. “Advertising is that, ‘buy one, get one free’ or ‘sale, sale, sale’ approach, whereas marketing examines the unique aspects of your practice and differentiates you from other expert clinicians,” she explains. “Marketing answers the client’s question, ‘why should I choose you to take care of my pet?’. It’s about creating a sense of trust to help those clients gain a greater understanding of the services you offer, so they can make an informed choice in their selection of service providers.”
Creating that sense of trust needs to be achieved through an effective strategy, Ucherek says. “You have to start with a clear plan.”
Ucherek says an effective marketing plan covers five main aspects: establish the brand of the clinic, create a profile of the practice and the team, build a comprehensive website, work with strong imagery, and access specific social media platforms.
“You need a clear understanding of what it is that makes you different and how to communicate that with clients,” she says. “You then need an active outreach plan to connect with the different groups you want as part of the audience.”
“The problem we face is many vets don’t know the difference between advertising and marketing.”
Dr Alan Guilfoyle, Clermont Veterinary Surgery
An outreach plan might include regular updates of content and imagery on social media platforms, e-newsletters, stories on blogs and websites, online advertising as well as local community engagement.
When marketing doesn’t work…
But if it seems regular posting on social media platforms is the main key to marketing success, then think again, according to two leading Sydney vets—Dr Matthew Muir of the All Natural Vet Care clinic and Dr Lindsay Hay of the Baulkham Hills Veterinary Hospital. For all Facebook’s reported impact, Dr Muir says his own experiences were less than impressive.
“When we have reviewed our return on investment with Facebook advertising, we determined it’s a comparatively high cost of acquisition,” Dr Muir says.
Adds Dr Hay, “We don’t have any social media presence—Facebook, Instagram or the like. I’m sure there are practices that do it well, but I am not convinced it is a good thing unless you really work at it hard and I am not prepared to spend time and resources to keep that up to date.”
A veteran of 40 years in the profession, Dr Hay says he instead utilises other avenues of digital communication. “We have a website that is mobile friendly to stay in contact with existing clients and reach potential new clients,” he says. “We have also used Google AdWords, and a third-party data mining program provider for reminders for vaccinations and injections, as well as appointments.”
When marketing works…
And now the Baulkham Hills Veterinary Hospital is about to extend its marketing efforts into a new chapter. “We haven’t yet started the module which allows online appointments but I intend to. It seems clear many people will default to a business that offers online access for appointments which is accessible via a mobile-friendly site.
“Word of mouth continues to be very important aspect of our marketing, but the 21st century version does require engagement with technology—think of Google rankings and online feedback and comments.” Of all their marketing efforts, Dr Muir says it’s e-newsletters to their database that has proven most effective. “E-newsletters linking content back to our website is our strongest consumer touchpoint and helps bolster our SEO (search engine optimisation),” he says. “Google is increasingly how people are finding us.”
Dr Muir’s marketing plan also includes regular public appearances at local shows and fairs, but he too claims word of mouth remains the most effective form of marketing. “Personal referral is still well ahead of everything,” he claims. “Building a strong client foundation through attention to satisfaction and trust is pivotal to our main marketing strategy.”
The rise of content marketing, in the form of sponsored stories and blogs, is the other development that demands new focus, Dr Guilfoyle says. “All aspects of media are looking for positive stories, and the most should be made of what is going on within your practice,” he says. But before any marketing plan can be rolled out, he states a practice needs to get its house in order first. “Every member of the team needs to be working with the same plan, so that good marketing starts with the first phone call or first email contact, and then it works through every step of the way,” he says.
Most importantly, adds Rob Johnson, attention must be paid throughout the cycle. “If you don’t have a plan and a way of measuring its success at each stage, then you’re not marketing,” he says. “You’re just making noise.”