When Rick Wall, DVM, graduated from veterinary school three decades ago, he had no idea that blogs and tweets would occupy his consciousness alongside spays and neuters.
Now that he’s six months into the redevelopment of his four practices’ Web presence, the Woodlands, Texas, practitioner says, “I’m fascinated by this whole process. When I first started, we didn’t even have computers. Now we’re talking about a blog on our site, posting things regularly, linking to Facebook and YouTube.”
As a group, veterinarians have been slow to embrace the potential marketing benefits of a fully developed website, Internet consultants say.
“We still have a ways to go before veterinarians take this seriously,” notes Mark Feltz, DVM, whose company VetNetwork.com designs websites and marketing plans for practitioners.
“There are practices with $2 million to $3 million facilities, with clients who pay hundreds of dollars per transaction,” Dr. Feltz says. “You can’t have it look like your fourth-grade daughter designed your website.”
A clinic’s website is its front door to the world, a vital extension to word-of-mouth marketing, Internet experts say.
“When people are looking for a veterinarian and get a recommendation from a friend, the next words out of their mouth are, ‘Do they have a website?’ ” says Jeff Larche, managing partner of the Internet marketing firm Digitalsolid.com.
Mike Ina, DVM, owner-operator of Arguello Pet Hospital in San Francisco, last year completed a contracted redesign of the clinic’s site, Arguellopet.com, which had been “pretty basic, not as user friendly as it could have been,” he says.
Now, in addition to information about the hospital’s 81-year history, location, hours and services, site visitors can download consent forms, post photos and stories of their pets, check appointment times, view medication schedules, get prescriptions refilled and access articles on grief support.
Dr. Ina and his staff say the website, developed through Beyondindigopets.com, is responsible for adding about four new clients a week to the six-doctor practice.
“Because this is a very old and established practice, we have a core of long-term clients who are probably not very computer savvy, but our new clients definitely are,” Ina says. “We knew this was a step we needed to take.”
The motivation for launching a site or redeveloping one is obvious, but figuring how to get started can be intimidating.
From interviews with practitioners and Web professionals, some insights emerge.
Set Definable Goals
A quality website offers a wealth of possibilities, but a poorly defined site diffuses the impact. So spell out and quantify your objectives, professionals say. Digitalsolid’s Larche suggests issuing a formal request for proposal.
“If you’re extremely specific about what you want your site to do, you’ll get lower bids,” he says. “Forty to 50 percent of a (Web developer’s) cost is spent educating small-business owners.”
Dr. Wall set objectives for the revamped site that will serve his three primary-care practices (Animalclinicsofthewoodlands.com) and one that will help market his specialty Center for Veterinary Pain Management and Rehabilitation (Vetrehabcenter.com).
Be Search-Engine Friendly
Experience taught Wall that being neighborhood close is an overriding driver of primary-care business, which is why he has three locations in The Woodlands, a master-planned community. For that reason, he shifted money previously spent on Yellow Pages ads to ensure that when prospective clients type “veterinarian” and “The Woodlands” into a search engine, his site appears at or near the top of the results.
Some keys to search-engine optimization are using relevant key words in site copy, linking to other relevant websites and avoiding Flash animation, which can block search-engine robots, says C.J. Levendoski, managing partner of Creative Marketing Solutions of St. Louis, the developer of the marketing tool hometownvet.com.
To differentiate his pain management and rehabilitation practice, Wall is developing slide shows and videos displaying the benefits of therapeutic tools such as acupuncture and underwater treadmills.
Don’t Forget to Educate
Levendoski advises veterinarians to avoid the temptation to “sell, sell, sell.”
“The more forms of education you can use, the more conversions you’ll get,” he says.
Kelly Baltzell, founder of Beyondindigopets.com, had a veterinary client who heard from a pet owner who thought her cat might be seizing but who didn’t want to overreact. The veterinarian told the woman to go to the website and view a video showing a cat in mid-seizure.
“Is this what’s happening with your cat?” the veterinarian asked. As fast as she could say yes, the woman was on her way in with her cat.
“When you have people who start passing things around, saying, ‘I found this great article’ or ‘Here’s a great video about cat seizures,’ you benefit from the kind of marketing that’s truly viral,” Baltzell notes.
Looks Aren’t Everything
A site’s design should be clean, attractive, professional and functional. Bells and whistles sometimes are overkill.
Feltz, of VetNetwork.com, advises clients to hire a professional to take photos for the site, but Larche says there is also room for a grainy image or two.
“We live in an age that prizes authenticity and looks with suspicion on marketing that comes across as too slick,” he says.
Sometimes, however, it’s best to entrust the aesthetics to professionals, or at least to people with a strong sense of visual presentation. Wall says his first choice for his site’s color scheme didn’t stand up to scrutiny.
“My wife said it looked like a strip club,” he notes.
Remember to Update
No matter what content gets loaded, it won’t turn visitors into clients or clients into boosters unless it’s effectively managed. Larche recommends a content management system like WordPress.
“Consumers and search engines both prefer content that’s updated often and that’s rich in facts,” he says. “When people see old information, it’s almost worse than seeing no information at all.”
Baltzell advises against contracting with a service that charges by the change.
“We offer unlimited changes because I want you to call me,” she says. “It’s really bad to visit in June and still see Christmas pictures on there.”
It’s an Investment
Developing a customized website with a strong focus on marketing can cost anywhere from about $4,000 to $15,000, depending on features, Web experts say. The good news is that the price has remained stable over the past decade or so.
Some consultants charge by the Web page, but that’s not always advisable, the experts add.
“I’ve seen many sites of 10 to 15 pages that are so much better than others of 40 to 50 pages,” Feltz says.
Analyze the Results
Once a site is finished, Larche advises using the free service Google Analytics to track:
• How visitors get to the site.
• Where they go on the site.
• How long they stay.
• How many are new and how many are return visitors.
Of course, the real measure of marketing achievement is turning those visitors into clients. Wall hopes someday soon to quantify such success.
“I can’t talk from a whole lot of experience,” he says, “but I am excited about the possibilities.”