Free access to online pet care information is causing concern among traditional ‘bricks-and-mortar’ practice owners. Here’s how to turn the threat of online vets into an opportunity. By Shane Conroy
From cleaning wounds with green tea to using licorice root to cure itchy skin, the internet is full of questionable at-home remedies for pet owners. At the same time, the emergence of house-call practices and online vet services such as video consultations may seem to be encouraging pet owners to steer away from traditional ‘bricks-and-mortar’ practices.
However, despite some practice owners’ fears, ‘Dr Google’ and other at-home veterinary services are not a sufficient replacement for the critical role bricks-and-mortar practices will continue to play in pet healthcare.
“We cannot over emphasise that direct physical examination of a patient by a veterinarian and contact with the animal’s carer are central to quality veterinary care,” says Dr Julia Crawford, president of the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA). Rather than viewing Dr Google as a threat to your business, Dr Crawford believes bricks-and-mortar practices could embrace it as a positive.
“The very fact that a pet owner cares enough to do the research is a good thing. As veterinarians, we rely on physical examination as much as patient history and hence owners’ research can be interesting but not necessarily damaging,” she explains.
But with Dr Google and other at-home vet services seemingly here for the long haul, what can bricks-and-mortar practice owners do to remind pet owners that their neighbourhood vet is the best source of quality care?
1. Become a trusted resource
Dr James Ramsden, managing director of Pet Pack, suggests starting with a dose of reality. “When you look at actual search volumes you see that searches for specific symptoms or treatments are tiny when compared to people searching for bricks-and-mortar vet practices near them.”
Dr Ramsden believes the fact that many vet practices remain invisible to Google is far more damaging to their revenue than pet owners searching for at-home remedies. Setting up a Google Business Listing is a good start, and Dr Ramsden’s company offers a range of website optimisation services.
He also believes practice owners need to better understand the power of digital marketing such as email newsletters. “Many pet owners turn to Google for answers because they don’t feel like they can get the information from their local vet,” he says. “You need to set yourself up as a trusted resource, and that means engaging with your clients on a regular basis.”
Things like content-rich email newsletters and info-packed blog articles on your website will help to make your practice the go-to place for pet owners looking for information online.
“In a way, you can become your own Dr Google,” says Dr Ramsden. “It will prevent your existing clients from having to look elsewhere for information, and you will capture traffic from related Google searches.”
2. Offer ongoing wellness plans
Nathan Harris, COO and co-founder of Knose, believes that bricks-and-mortar practice owners could benefit from a mind shift in how veterinary services are delivered. His company enables practices to move away from one-off transactions to a subscription model for ongoing pet wellness plans, which can include anything you decide such as a certain number of consultations included each year.
“The highly trained local vet is easily the most trusted when it comes to pet help and advice, and turning that advice into an ongoing wellness plan locks the customer into the vet regardless of how much marketing ‘noise’ online retailers make,” he says. “And by including some consultations in each wellness plan, you also lock out Dr Google while increasing customer visitation and treatment spend.”
Harris also believes that pet insurance is another vital tool to keep pet owners thinking of their local bricks-and-mortar vet as their first and only source of quality pet care.
“It’s all about lowering the barriers to visit,” he says. “Obviously, a major barrier is cost. Pet owners may turn to Dr Google looking for a free or low-cost solution, or as a way to rule out more serious conditions that they’re afraid may require costly treatments. Pet insurance removes that cost stress from the equation and goes a long way to reducing delayed visitation.”
3. Create a full-service network
Dr Noam Pik, CEO of Orivet Genetic Pet Care makes the point that millennials are more likely to make decisions based on information they find online—especially on social media—and that an erosion of trust in and loyalty to the veterinary industry is a major factor driving them to Dr Google. “They spend more and have growing disposable income, but veterinarians are lagging to offer a more convenient experience that provides the full range of services pet owners are looking for such as day care, walking, boarding, in-home pet sitting and home vet visits. So pet owners are going elsewhere to find these solutions, and will get core veterinary services there as well.”
Orivet offers a range of genetic services, including screening for genetic diseases. This helps reduce the costs and stress associated with a sudden diagnosis of a genetic disease, and enables vets to engage pet owners in full lifecycle planning, while connecting with other service providers to create a full-service network for pet owners. “The Orivet platform’s best feature is the link back to the veterinary clinic for implementation of veterinary recommendations,” says Dr Pik. “It also links data from annual health questionnaires to other service providers such as insurance and online pharmacies back to the clinic. This allows the veterinarian to benefit and keep in touch with the pet owner.”