Amanda L. Donnelly, DVM, MBA
Often veterinary practice owners and managers find marketing to be an important but somewhat daunting challenge. They aren't sure where to spend money, they may not know which marketing expenditures are most effective and finding the resources to devote to marketing can be a significant issue. Specialty practices have the added challenge of marketing to two different client groups--the referring veterinarians and pet owners. With the increase in the number of veterinary specialists and the expansion of specialty hospitals, many specialists are trying to decide how to make the right marketing choices for their practice. Since effective marketing can affect profitability and in light of the fact that specialty practices often spend considerable sums on marketing, it is wise to identify which marketing initiatives are most beneficial.
All too often, veterinary practices decide whether to spend money on marketing efforts based on a gut feeling as to whether the initiative seems like a good idea and/or based on whether the current cash flow exists to pay for the project. The problem with this decision-making process is that there is not sufficient consideration given to whether the marketing efforts will be effective in meeting the practice goals. This haphazard approach also ignores the importance of calculating whether the marketing initiatives will have a favorable return on investment for the practice.
Some practice owners establish an annual budget for marketing determined as a percentage of revenue or merely based on a figure they are comfortable spending. While it is important to establish a budget for your marketing plan, this approach to spending is flawed. It does not take into consideration relevant factors such as the size or age of the practice, the competitive environment, and available resources. Is it fair to say that a large, multi-specialty practice should spend three times as much on marketing as a practice one-third its size? Maybe. Maybe not. Arbitrary marketing budgets do not factor in the need to look at establishing desired outcomes and the importance of marketing to your goals.
Develop a Strategy
To make the right marketing choices, management teams need to undertake an organized approach to marketing based on developing an effective strategy. Before writing a marketing plan, every practice should engage in strategic planning. Strategic planning starts with developing a clear vision or mission for the practice. The words vision and mission are often used interchangeably. This process serves to create a foundation for marketing efforts and the mission statement will guide decisions made in marketing planning. An example of a mission statement for a specialty practice is: "Our mission is to enhance the human-animal bond by providing exceptional quality specialty care and to provide sophisticated, compassionate service to all our clients." Marketing objectives that focus on implementing service standards and promoting the availability of cutting edge technology would be consistent with this mission.
Strategic planning also includes a situational analysis and the formulation of strategies to achieve practice goals. The situational analysis or SWOT analysis refers to strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the business. Strengths and weaknesses involve an internal assessment of the business while opportunities and threats involve an external focus on the competitive environment. A thorough SWOT analysis can help practices to focus on developing appropriate and effective marketing objectives. For example, if the practice determines that service to referring veterinarians is a weakness due to some communication problems, then marketing efforts should center on improving service to area veterinarians. Likewise, if a specialty practice identifies a potential threat to the business of a reduction in caseload due to competition, then marketing efforts should center on how to minimize or overcome this threat.
When formulating a business strategy and deciding on marketing initiatives, specialty practices should consider the long-term goals for the practice. Is the practice a new or young practice that is still in the process of growing and branding itself in the community? Has the practice been in existence for 20 years but is now facing competition from several other specialty practices that have opened? Do the practice owners want to accelerate growth and add more specialists or do they just want to maintain profitability without increasing the size of the practice? It is important to look at the current status and future goals of the practice. The strategy and marketing initiatives for specialty practices will differ depending on the goals of the owners, the competitive landscape, the availability of specialists, the practice revenue, the current branding for the practice, the ownership model and organization of the practice, demographics and the size and age of the practice. It is imperative that specialty practice owners clearly communicate with their hospital managers or administrators about the goals of the practice and work together to formulate sound strategies to achieve these goals.
Implementation of the Marketing Plan
All veterinary practices should have a written marketing plan for a defined period of time which is typically a year. Bear in mind that if the marketing plan is for the calendar year, then planning needs to occur well before the end of the year to ensure that you are ready to implement plans once the new year begins. The marketing plan should be aligned with the practice business strategy and focused on reaching specific objectives. Responsibility for all tasks should be outlined in tactics in the marketing plan and assignments should be delegated to specific individuals. Staff members must be empowered to implement the marketing plan and be given specific deadlines for all activities. Most marketing plans will include both internal and external marketing efforts.
Internal marketing refers to efforts to increase utilization of services by existing clients. Internal marketing also refers to efforts by the practice to train and motivate staff to work together as a team to better meet client needs. In the case of specialty practices, internal marketing focuses on the existing referring veterinarians since they are the primary clients. Examples of internal marketing include clinic visits to area practices, continuing education events for area veterinarians, improvement to client service, newsletters and advertising targeted to referring veterinarians and brochures or other marketing tools distributed to referring veterinarians.
External marketing refers to the written or verbal communication aimed at attracting new clients. It also involves efforts to promote and increase awareness of the practice. For specialty practices, external marketing includes efforts to gain referrals from those general practitioners who are not currently referring cases and to increase awareness of the value of specialty medicine to pet owners in the community. Examples of external marketing include any efforts such as mailings or visits to encourage referrals from area veterinarians, all advertising targeted to pet owners, radio spots, newspaper or magazine articles, and participation in community events.
Calculating Return on Investment For Your Marketing Initiatives
When deciding which marketing efforts are most beneficial for your practice, you should consider the financial return on investment for marketing expenditures. This process first involves calculating the total costs that will be incurred. Don't forget when calculating costs to include all dedicated staff time involved. Forecasting the outcome for all your marketing initiatives is a critically important next step that is often overlooked. Why spend money on marketing if you have not defined the outcome desired and forecast a favorable result? When assessing the return on investment for various marketing activities, consider the following:
Some marketing efforts fall within the category of operating costs. For example, website maintenance and printing of brochures are periodic costs that are just the cost of doing business.
Just because it is difficult to calculate an exact return on investment on a marketing initiative does not mean it will not be effective. For example, it may be harder to forecast an exact financial return on client service training but these costs are usually not exorbitant and it is reasonable to anticipate a favorable outcome.
Sample Measuring Return on Investment for Marketing Initiatives
Practice Goal: To Increase Internal Medicine Caseload and Revenues
First consider the following when establishing your marketing objectives:
Assess how you can best quantify your achievements:
An increase in the number of patients referred from each practice
An increase in cases referred by doctors not currently referring
An increase in internal medicine revenues
Bear in mind that it is not always easy to determine how much of your increase in revenues or caseload are a direct result of your marketing efforts vs. practice growth that would have occurred anyway.
Objective: To Increase Internal Medicine Referrals From Our Top 30 Accounts by 20% in 2008
Tactic #1: To host an on-site CE event (relevant topic chosen) for our top 30 accounts on February 20th.
Costs of marketing initiative
Invitations will be faxed to all 30 hospitals--staff time 1 hour at $13/hr = $13
Referring veterinarian liaison will prepare invitation and call all hospitals that do not respond within 10 days--estimate 3 hours at $15/hr = $45
Staff costs to organize and host event:
Hospital manager to secure catering for event and be present at event: on salary therefore no additional direct costs, part of job description.
45 attendees at $25/person = $1,125 (this cost includes food, drink, supplies)
Total costs for event = $1,183
Return on Investment Projection
With an average transaction of $400, an increase of 3 patient referrals would pay for this marketing initiative.
Even though it may be difficult to determine if an increase in referrals is a direct result of the CE event, this event has a favorable ROI based on the number of cases needed to justify the expense.
We can maximize the ROI of this initiative by securing some sponsorship funds.
We can maximize the ROI of this initiative by emphasizing to attendees when they should be referring cases/the benefits of referral that they may not be aware of currently.
This initiative has the added benefit of improving relationships with our referring veterinarians.
Most specialty practices engage in some type of marketing and many spend sizable sums on various marketing initiatives. To maximize the effectiveness of your marketing, develop your strategy first and then draft a written plan that encompasses reasonable objectives that will help you attain your goals. The time you spend on planning is well worth it and will help drive your success.