Adventures (and challenges) in veterinary marketing

We would love to tell veterinarians that a one-size-fits-all veterinary marketing plan exists. But we know—and we bet you know—that this can’t possibly be true. Because—just like pets and pet owners—no two veterinary clinics are exactly alike. So how could an identical marketing plans possibly apply to everyone? The marketing efforts for your veterinary practice must be customized. Your marketing plan must re-invent the wheel. Now, with that out of the way…

…We need to say this right upfront: At AmeriVet, we don’t expect veterinarians to know all the ins and outs of marketing. Why should they? After all, most veterinarians get a degree in veterinary medicine. Not in business.

That being said, however, owners of veterinary hospitals and clinics need to have more than their knowledge of medicine to succeed. They have to be familiar with the ins and outs of running a business. And that includes how to market it. Because while word-of-mouth and referrals to you by others is very important, it can take too long to develop and can be inconsistent. Which is definitely not good for any business when it comes to monthly profitability. Or survival.

Of course, if you’re a skeptic and/or unconvinced about the power of marketing and advertising, we bet you feel that a lot of people don’t pay attention to ads. And you’d be right—kind of, sort of. Because here’s what marketing experts and researchers know for sure: People only pay attention to what interests them and is relevant to their lives. And sometimes, that turns out to be an ad.

So let’s get into what marketing actually is: A comprehensive, detailed plan that has several sub-components.

The first—and most important component—is doing the research that gives you a clear idea of exactly who your current and potential new clients are. In other words, part of your marketing plan is to find out as much as possible about your target audience/ target market. You want their demographics—age range, household income, neighborhood proximity, education level—that kind of thing. This is important and absolutely essential. Because then you have the essential information you need to help you develop your marketing plan’s strategy and tactics. So you’ll increase your chances that you’ll be saying the right message, to the right people, in the right places, at the right time. This is where advertising and media—two other sub-components of marketing—come in. We’ll be getting to those! By the way, notice that we said ‘chances’? That’s because customers are not numbers. They’re individual human beings—which automatically makes them complex. They are not entirely predictable. Which is why…

…There is always some risk involved in any marketing effort.
So be prepared for some of your marketing efforts to (gulp!) fail.

The best (and really only) intelligent thing you can do when that happens is to learn from it. Figure out—as best you can—what went wrong. Try not to repeat that mistake. Always be willing to go in another direction. And while you’re at it, commit these Marketing Truths to memory:

  1. You will never know if an idea will work until you try it.
  2. What works for a competitor may not work for you.
  3. Marketing your practice is something that never really ends.
  4. An astoundingly tiny percentage of your current customers account for an astoundingly large percentage of your profitability. So focus your marketing efforts on them. Consistently. Even obsessively!

Most marketing and advertising experts are familiar with this quote by John Wanamaker, a nineteenth-century retailer: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is, I don’t know which half.” So take a deep breath and take some chances. After all, that’s exactly what any veterinarian does when opening a veterinary practice. If you’ve done that, you can do this! And by the way, at AmeriVet, our veterinarian partners can opt to tap into our marketing department’s expertise and experience. Which can be a great way to get back to being a full-time veterinarian—instead of a marketer.

There are dozens (full disclosure: we gave up and stopped counting after a while) of articles online that are full of veterinary marketing campaigns and marketing ideas.

Some are cute. Some are clever. And some, quite frankly, made us cringe. So here’s our best advice: if you’re considering trying one of them, just stop for a moment. Go back and re-read Marketing Truths 1 and 2. Then proceed—or not—at your own risk.

Here’s the key to successful veterinary marketing: It’s your job to define—and then communicate—what makes your veterinary practice better and different from your competition’s. If you can’t do this, then you certainly can’t expect clients (current or potential) to figure it out. If you’re on this particular road, we feel for you! Because unless you get really lucky from the get-go, solving this essential marketing problem is not going to be easy. It’s usually a can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees situation. It’s very likely you are going to have to force yourself to be ruthlessly, honestly—and maybe even painfully—objective about what your vet practice is—and is not. But maybe some of these thoughts, tips, and insights will help you work it out:

  • Find out what your competitors offer, then create an “Us vs. Them” comparison chart. Study it. Are you what marketing experts call a ‘parity product’—pretty much like all the others? Or do you have what marketing experts call a U.S.P.—a Unique Selling Proposition—perhaps an amenity or service or special expertise—that is yours alone (or at least pretty rare) in your own particular marketplace? Once you come to a conclusion as to how you stack up against the competition, take a deep breath and remember this: A problem well-defined is 50% solved. So you’re halfway there! See it as a positive ‘glass-half-full’ moment and allow it to energize you to keep going.
  • Once you think you’ve come up with the best possible marketing definition of your veterinary hospital, it is once again time to be ruthlessly honest and objective. Maybe this marketing definition is memorable and you really like the attitude. But now you must ask yourself these hard questions: Is it true? Is it believable? Does it come off as genuine and authentic and real? Or does it sound like unmitigated hype? Complete fluff? Is it boringly, mind-numbingly loaded with DVM industry catch phrases and clichés? Is it shallow, cold, and empty, with no emotion or empathy? Remember, today’s consumers are like you. They are not naïve. They can identify pure manure immediately—and they don’t like it. At all. Which means if your veterinary practice can’t deliver what you’ve said about it, you might have done yourself harm that’s irreversible. How? Well, there’s an old saying in the marketing industry: Good advertising only makes a bad product fail faster. Harsh? Yes. True? Also yes.
  • Once you settle on the marketing communication message that you absolutely believe defines you, don’t be shy about using it. Why? Because this is your brand, your identity, your personality in the minds of your clients! This thought, this feeling, this attitude, needs to be present in every form of communication you do. This is how you establish—and hold on to—your position in the marketplace. If it makes you feel any better, at AmeriVet, we’ve gone through this challenging self-examination process ourselves. We can tell you who we are, what we do, and what we can do for our veterinarian partners that makes us different from our competitors. Just take a look at any and all sections of our AmeriVet website. And in our social media. You’ll see.

Marketing pitfalls, potholes—and precautions.

  1. Most marketing experts will admit that one of the hardest, toughest things they ever have to do is try to get customers to switch from one product or service to another. Think about that in relation to yourself. Let’s take who you bank with as an example. Even if you’re not entirely happy with your bank, the very idea of the time and energy—and possible confrontation with a banker—that it’s going to take to leave and go with another bank can be enough to make you take a default position and just stay put. So just imagine how much it could take to get a pet owner to switch from a veterinarian who’s a competitor over to your own veterinary practice.
  2. In general, it takes a lot more marketing work and money to get new clients than it does to keep existing clients. So never, ever take your existing clients for granted. Retain this thought: Retention, retention, retention. Keep your marketing communications to this target audience strong, consistent, and frequent. Remind them of why they like you. Let them know they are appreciated and valued. Remember the lyrics to that old summer camp song? Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other is gold. It should be playing on repeat when it comes to your marketing plan and marketing strategy.
  3. Avoid marketing and advertising efforts that come off as “Me Too!” approaches. It’s not smart to mimic or copy the look, feel, or message of a competitor. Yes, we understand that it may feel nice and safe (and oh so much easier!) to do this. But it’s really the most high-risk thing around—because you could end up blending in, being ignored, and essentially becoming “wallpaper”—which is a major waste of your time and money. Worse, you are diluting and weakening (maybe even destroying) your own brand. And your marketing efforts could even end up being mistaken for that of your competitor by some customers. Which (yikes!) means it’s like spending your money on funding your competition’s advertising. And, of course, there’s this: taking and using someone else’s intellectual property without their permission means you could end up in an expensive, unpleasant legal situation. And no one needs that! So try zigging if your competition is zagging. Analyze all your competitors’ marketing, and then do something that’s totally different from theirs. And much better, too! If it is, then consider protecting it with a copyright and/or trademark.
  4. Don’t give up on a specific marketing message too soon. Consumers encounter a massive clutter of marketing messages on a daily basis. They can’t, don’t, or won’t take it all in, much less remember it. So basically, by the time you’re personally getting totally bored with your own vet marketing communication, consumers might just be beginning to notice it.
  5. When times are tough and slow, that’s when it’s smart to increase your marketing efforts—not pull back. Why? It’s likely your competition will (unwisely) stop or reduce their marketing messaging. Which means yours will stand out and be more noticeable. It might even get you a larger share of the market. This could put you in a stronger, better position when times improve.
  6. Reality check: There is no such thing as ‘mass communications.’ Your messaging is really talking to individuals. One. At. A. Time. So use the kind of language that you would in talking to one person that you actually know. It shouldn’t feel like a formal essay you wrote in school. It should be relaxed and conversational, not stiff or stuffy. Keep your message clean and simple. Be disciplined; focus on getting one (and only one!) key thought or message across. That goes for every ad, every social media post, and in every aspect of your digital marketing. But whatever you do, don’t dumb your marketing communication down; don’t be condescending; don’t disrespect the intelligence of your client. Many, many decades ago, a famous ad man, David Ogilvy, put it this way: “The customer is not a moron, she is your wife.” Updated, that could now be, “Your client isn’t stupid, she’s the boss.” The tone, the manner, of your messaging should be like you are talking to a pet parent who’s cuddling a beloved fur baby in your exam room. So—do you get it? Have you made the leap? Your messaging should mirror the exact same feeling that an actual client experiences in your veterinary clinic. That’s what creates authenticity and credibility and, possibly, very powerful word-of-mouth. This amplifies your marketing message. You are communicating what your brand is all about to your target audience. And that’s the holy grail of marketing.
  7. Your marketing messaging should be much less about how utterly marvelous your practice is and much more about how your veterinary hospital benefits and meets the needs of the pet owners you’re talking to. In other words, it’s all about them—not you. And always remember these three things about your marketing message: A. It should feel like spending quality time with a good, trusted friend who’s interesting and enjoyable. B. No one voluntarily hangs out with someone who only talks about themselves non-stop. C. You cannot bore somebody into buying something.
  8. Endorsements by those who are well-known, along with customer testimonials, have always had a place in marketing and advertising. And they may even be very nice “warm fuzzy” boosts for your own self-confidence. But a word to the wise: think long and hard before you consider basking in a celebrity’s reflected glory. Sometimes, the famous face is so recognizable that people will remember who was in an ad—but maybe not who the ad was for. Then there’s what marketing experts call the ‘borrowed interest’ problem that’s created when a ‘big name’ has zero association with pets or pet care; there’s a disconnect in the minds of the target audience—and that’s obviously not good—on several levels. Then there’s this: Death and tragedy can strike even the famous. Or, consider what can happen if a “big name” flames out publicly in a scandal. Often, for the products, services, and companies being endorsed, it’s ‘guilt by association.’ Are you financially strong enough to do what it takes to disassociate yourself and ride out the storm? Do you have the media and publicity connections and resources in place to get the word out and protect yourself immediately? What about the legal consequences and other costs that might come into play? Can you pivot fast enough in changing your messaging, marketing and advertising (especially if you’ve signed media contracts)? Now, as for using customer testimonials: do your due diligence! Get their written permission to use their names, words, and images—and be sure to stipulate the terms of usage, too. Other caveats: Anticipate (and prepare) for what you might have to do if death or tragedy strikes and how their family members might feel about having their deceased loved ones appear in your advertising in the aftermath. Then, too, these supposedly enthusiastic customers could suddenly decide to change vets and go to your competition. Consider the ramifications of that! So, basically, here’s what it all comes down to: Is an endorsement or testimonial worth it? As the owner of your veterinary clinic, you’re the only one who can answer that question.
  9. When it comes to a marketing campaign that includes paid media, the obvious ones come immediately to mind: TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, outdoor billboards, direct mail, email, and digital marketing. But since most veterinarian practices are neighborhood-centric businesses, you should also consider putting the less-obvious ways into the mix and getting the word out. A very active online presence in social media—on every platform that makes sense—is beyond important. You should also make it a daily habit to check on the status of online customer reviews of your veterinary hospital. Your website needs regular monitoring, too; keep it as fresh and up-to-date as possible. Make sure it’s easy to read and navigate on both computers and smartphones. And while we’re on the subject of your website (or any kind of digital marketing), look into Search Engine Optimization (SEO). When someone is doing a google search online for a veterinary hospital, you want your own veterinary practice to be among the first ones that come up. Next, consider doing some reconnaissance to see what marketing communication opportunities might be ‘flying under the radar’ in the area around your practice. Pet supply stores, pet groomers, kennels, pet clubs for specific breeds, breeders, service animal organizations, animal trainers, pet sitters, pet photographers, rescue and foster organizations, dog walkers—all the services, groups, and places where people have “pets on the brain.” Just make sure that whatever company or service you choose to associate with is up to your standards of quality. When it comes to effective veterinary marketing, always, always, always protect, support, and enhance your brand and your reputation!

You already have a team of marketing experts on your payroll. But maybe you didn’t realize it.

They could be an untapped marketing resource that’s going to waste. They already have an in-depth knowledge of what your veterinary practice is all about. They already know your key target audience—those loyal pet owners—up close and personal. They even know their pets—likely by name and by individual quirk! They also might know of people who are looking for a new veterinarian, or for particular veterinary services or innovative amenities that you could offer. They constantly have ears and eyes on the ground—they hear and see things that you may not. By now, of course, you’ve figured out we’re talking about your staffers. So take on the role of their marketing team leader. Talk to them about what they know and how it could be put to use to increase the success of the veterinary practice—and themselves. Ask them for input on what kind of incentives and rewards might appeal to them. And initiate a tracking system that gets updated regularly. A heads-up: You might be surprised at who turns out to be a real marketing star on your team. So keep your mind open and receptive. Because there’s an old adage in marketing and advertising that definitely applies here: A good idea doesn’t care who has it.

Okay. We know we’ve probably given you a lot to think about. We might even have stepped over the border into the Land Of Overwhelming. So we almost hate to tell you this, but there’s much, much more to learn about marketing a veterinary practice. The fact is, there’s a whole lot of nitty-gritty yet to dig into! So if you’re a veterinary clinic owner and would consider selling it and/or take AmerVet on as a partner, keep this in mind: we could bring our in-depth knowledge about how to market a veterinary practice with us. Which means you wouldn’t have to handle it all—all by yourself. We’d definitely be ready, willing, and able to help.