Web sites provide both internal and external marketing opportunities, and are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Web sites are among the most economical forms of advertising and should be created, maintained, and actively utilized by all veterinary hospitals.
The Internet is a global medium, but our target market is local, so appropriate strategies must be utilized. Internal and external marketing using the Internet can be efficient and cost-effective. Effective internet marketing should be an extension of effective client service initiatives.
The World Wide Web (WWW) is a feature on the Internet that brings all of the audiovisual qualities of television right into your computer with one major advantage. Sites on the WWW are typically "linked" with similar sites so you can start at one point and leapfrog along to a variety of sites that might be of interest. This is what is commonly referred to as 'surfing the net.' One of the other features of the WWW is that there are a variety of "search engines" to help you find what you're looking for. The search engines are superior to printed indexes because, when you see a site of interest, you just need to click on it (not even plug in an address) and you're instantly there.
Veterinarians not only like to 'surf the net' but many are making a presence on the Web with their own Web pages. With new software and online server options now available, web pages can be created without specific knowledge of HTML, the computer language of the Web, just as current word processors have icons to replace basic DOS and ASCII commands. There are also several sites at which you can register your own domain name or process it through your current Internet provider. For the economy-minded, it's also possible to piggy-back your web site on other sites without incurring any major expense.
Creating a practice web site has never been simpler, or more economical. However, the goal of such an endeavor is not just to have a presence in cyberspace. The goal must be to provide an enhanced customer service experience that not only serves the needs of existing clients, but attracts new ones as well.
Web Site Creation
There are now many options available for creating a web site, regardless of who actually does the design work. The most important aspect of creating the site is to design the content that will appear on the site. This cannot be delegated to a "webmaster", but can be assigned if the content design is being done by a company that also deals with veterinary marketing. There are three major options for web site creation: Host the site yourself; use onsite hosting, or; use a company-supported site. All have advantages and disadvantages.
Select a URL
The Uniform Resource Locator (URL) is the practice's address on the World Wide Web. It is a sequence of numbers and periods, but for people to be able to find the site, it is assigned a domain name. The process of selecting a name is neither difficult nor expensive, but it does take some flexibility since many veterinary-related domain names have already been assigned.
The domain name should be selected with great care, since it is the means by which the practice will be identified on the Internet. Avoid long and complicated names, in favor of those that are short, descriptive, and easy to remember.
To properly utilize the domain name so that when a client accesses the site they see the appropriate content, the server must link the domain name with the IP address provided by the hosting service.
It is important to realize that a web site should be a portal for pet owners, not a one-time visit, so content must reflect this strategy. When practices invest in a showpiece web site with lots of technological gimmickry, they might impress a client on a first-time visit, but they do not, on their own, entice the viewer to return with any regularity.
There are several features that need to be addressed to keep web sites effective as marketing tools and not just glorified banner advertisements. Provide useful health-related content, preferably with illustrations, that will help clients learn about health care topics. Provide detailed information about the hospital and its staff. In many veterinary hospitals, the client never gets to see any of the hospital beyond the examination rooms and reception areas. The web site can serve as a valuable resource for touring the facility (including treatment areas, imaging, surgery, intensive care, boarding, grooming, etc.) as well as giving clients the opportunity to better appreciate the staff. The content on any site must be fresh if it is to entice viewers to come back on a regular basis. This can be done by regularly adding content to the site, refreshing existing content, and by using technology (such that some new content rotates onto the site every time an existing viewer returns). Make content on the site easy to find. Clients lose patience if it takes more than 3 hyperlinks to find the information they are seeking. Either keep the site content tabs manageable, or create a site search engine for clients.
Make Site Easy to Find
The Internet is global, but a good marketing program is local, so it is important to make the practice easy to find by consumers likely to use it. While it might be gratifying for pet owners around the world to visit the site for their healthcare information, this is unlikely to result in increased client traffic or enhanced revenues for the practice.
Use the web address on all marketing pieces, including business cards, client education materials, newsletters, e-newsletters, etc. This information will be used by clients, and perhaps shared with friends and family in the practice trade area. It is a good strategy to use abridged topic information in these pieces and direct clients to the web site for more complete information.
Create a local network of businesses that cater to the same client base, including groomers, boarding kennels, pet supply outlets, veterinary associations and even other veterinary practices. Shared links not only increases the likelihood of increased client exposure, but it increases the relative page rank of the site, which in turn raises the site in the listings of search engines.
Consider advertising on local search engines, which only charge on a click-through basis. That means that charges only apply if consumers actually click on the hyperlink that takes them to the practice web site.
Strategies for Getting Noticed
Web sites must be optimized so they will be included in search engines, and so clients will be able to find the site if they don't already know about its existence. Creating a beautiful site is only half the battle. If clients can't find the site, and if pet owners don't find the practice by routine web searches, then the web site is failing.
It is important to optimize the site for keywords, depending on how you think your potential clients might be trying to find you on search engines. They might be searching for any of the following: Vet, veterinarian, veterinarians, veterinary clinic, veterinary hospital, animal clinic, animal hospital, location, etc.
Meta-Tags are pieces of information that are provided on a web site, but not visible to viewers. They are incredibly important in helping a practice be ranked highly on a search engine. There are several important meta-tags that can be utilized for search engine optimization, such as:
Each of these has opportunities and limitations, but must be part of a strategy for getting noticed on the Internet. For example, Keyword tags used to be more important, but since many web owners abused the process by "salting" their sites with keywords and trick effects, this has become less important in the ranking of web sites. However, it is a mistake to ignore keywords simply because they are less important in the ranking system than they once were.
Search engine optimization also is enhanced by links to the site, links within the site, and using keywords and optimization strategies to help the site rank highly on internet searches.
The World Wide Web is a global network of computer networks, but the promotional needs of most veterinary practices are decidedly local. It is important to concentrate on marketing efforts that will attract clients from the local trade area, and this often requires the participation of an experienced web-marketing consultant rather than a technically sophisticated "webmaster"
When creating a web site, design it with the notion that some clients that access the site will not have broadband Internet connections, and may not have the latest and fastest home computers. It is best to keep the resolution of graphic images at about 72 dpi so that the file sizes are small enough to be easily and quickly loaded. Since the web cannot currently handle resolutions higher than this, larger image files are a waste of bandwidth, and frustrating for owners trying to access content.
Similarly, consider whether the site really needs special effects, such as Flash animation. While this is an impressive use of technology, it greatly increases the cost of web site development with no evidence that it translates into selection of veterinary services by the consumer.
Finally, devote the most effort to search engine optimization, improving the chances that the practice will be found on web searches. After all, a web site does not good for the practice if it does not attract business to the practice.
No part of this material may be reproduced or copied in any manner without express written consent of author. Some of this material has been abstracted from Management Basics for Veterinarians, with permission]
1. Ackerman, L: Business Basics for Veterinarians, ASJA Press, New York, 2002
2. Ackerman, L: Management Basics for Veterinarians, ASJA Press, New York, 2003
3. Ackerman, L: Five-Minute Veterinary Practice Management Consult, Blackwell Publishing 2006
4. Bizvet. www.bizvet.com