Marketing Through the Pandemic: Tips for Reaching Clients During COVID-19

In the face of a global pandemic, animal hospitals across the country acted quickly to implement strategies to stay connected with clients, inform pet parents, and provide safe ways to treat patients. The most successful were able to leverage these strategies to keep clients engaged and coming back.

Rebecca Meyer, experience lead at Small Door Veterinary

“With lots of news and myths circulating regarding whether and how coronavirus might affect pets, we regularly updated our members with the latest facts and advice on how best to protect their pets.”
—Josh Guttman, CEO of Small Door Veterinary, New York City

by Lavanya Sunkara

At the beginning of 2020, no one anticipated the ensuing events that would drastically change the way animal hospitals operated. As essential businesses, animal hospitals remained open for sick patients and eventually began caring for pets via telehealth services and curbside drop-offs. While some practices saw an uptick in patients due to the rise in adoptions of “pandemic puppies,” those that quickly incorporated innovative marketing strategies saw their businesses thrive.

Practices that communicated clearly, moved quickly to establish new protocols, offered online forms and virtual events, and focused on the health and safety of staff and clients have been the most successful during the long quarantine months. Well-established and AAHA-accredited hospitals like the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSCPA)-Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston continued to provide top-notch service while emphasizing safety, client relations, and COVID-19 awareness. Practices like AAHA-accredited Small Door Veterinary in New York City have seen a dramatic increase in usage of their online portal and continue to promote their brand with their media presence.

Here are some marketing strategies hospitals have employed to stay connected to their clients during COVID-19.

Posting Educational Blog Posts

In these uncertain times, pet owners express concerns, including “Do dogs and cats get COVID-19?” and “Can I get COVID-19 from my dog or cat?” In addition to a modern and personable website, it’s important to maintain up-to-date information about safety guidelines and address frequently asked questions.

Veterinary marketing expert Bill Schroeder of InTouch Practice Communications, a digital marketing agency, recommends having “a really solid website that allows you to distinguish yourself from the competition, one that [conveys that you] clearly understand the emotional decision a pet owner makes when they are evaluating your practice against other practices.”

Providing an educational blog with relevant content can assuage client fears, provide comfort, and give pet owners a reason to return.

“With lots of news and myths circulating regarding whether and how coronavirus might affect pets, we regularly updated our members with the latest facts and advice on how best to protect their pets,” said Josh Guttman, CEO of Small Door Veterinary. Their online Learning Center features articles on pet health and wellbeing. Topics include advice on pet separation anxiety when returning to work, ways to keep pets entertained, and travel certificates.

Staying Connected

Whether it’s a newsletter, an email blast, push notifications, or informative on-hold messages, communication is key to staying in touch with clients. Robin Brogdon, founder and CEO of BluePrints Veterinary Marketing Group, emphasizes dated e-blasts every one to two weeks so “it is clear when the message was last updated because COVID protocols change so often.”

“It is nerve-wracking to leave your deeply loved pet somewhere overnight when they are not feeling great. The texts provide families with visual assurance that their animal is well cared for and receiving comfort and attention.”
—Rob Halpin, director of communications at MSPCA-Angell Animal Medical Center, Boston

According to Rob Halpin, director of communications at MSPCA-Angell Animal Medical Center, about 60,000 recipients receive a quarterly e-newsletter that “addresses topics of interest to pet owners who want to keep their pets healthy: from tips and tricks for assessing illness at home to tutorials for administering medicine at home.”

Angell is well regarded for its daily “goodnight texts” sent to in-patients’ families. “It is nerve-wracking to leave your deeply loved pet somewhere overnight when they are not feeling great. The texts provide families with visual assurance that their animal is well cared for and receiving comfort and attention,” shared Halpin. Care coordinators who send these messages also serve as vital points of contact for the families, answering questions and providing updates on their pet’s condition.

Sometimes a personal touch is essential for a lasting impression on customers. Lily Chen, DVM, of Point Vicente Animal Hospital in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, who also runs her own mobile practice offering integrative treatment, said, “I give short personal updates on what’s going on in my life and offer tips and resources that are useful for clients. I would make recommendations on what to watch out for during a particular time (e.g., summer season and foxtails) and warning signs of certain issues.” Chen also allows her clients to text her with simple questions and to coordinate appointments or refills.

Jamie Richardson, BVetMed, Small Door Veterinary

Providing Telehealth and Curbside Services

For practices like Small Door Veterinary, which already relied heavily on digital services prepandemic, the transition from in-person visits to virtual ones at the beginning of quarantine was seamless. “All members had access to our mobile app, via which they can communicate directly with our medical team 24/7 if they ever have queries or concerns about their pet. This service was well used prior to the pandemic, but we have seen a more than 250% increase since the pandemic,” said Guttman. The practice also started offering video consult appointments so that members could see a veterinarian from their home.

Pippy Pelham, content strategy and marketing lead at Small Door Veterinary, said the online service provided their members peace of mind and saved them the hassle and cost of a vet visit, especially for mild conditions that can be monitored and cared for at home.

For times when an office visit is necessary, hospitals moved to curbside drop-offs and implemented video calls via Zoom or FaceTime with the owners in order to safely follow social distancing protocols.

At a few of their client hospitals, Brogdon’s BluePrints Veterinary Marketing Group implemented the KIND Campaign to make curbside drop-offs go as smoothly as possible.

Seth Bishop, VMD, Small Door Veterinary

“Upon arrival at the hospital, a team member would greet the pet owner in the parking lot and provide a bottle of water, a KIND bar, a small handout that asks for their patience and kindness, and inform the pet owner of the process to help their pet—including triage, contactless forms, and any other pre-visit questions,” explained Brogdon.

Before leaving, pet owners receive summary paperwork and a flyer that reinforces the practice’s commitment to the health and safety of everyone, expresses appreciation for their business, and encourages them to review the practice on social media.

Sending Regular Reminders

With the stresses of working from home and homeschooling kids, it’s easy for clients to lose track of their furry friends’ checkups and vaccinations.

“We continued sending regular reminders about any care that pets were due for (such as vaccines, blood tests, etc.) and included education on what types of veterinary care could be safely postponed for a few months, and what was essential to take place immediately,” shared Guttman.

Offering Virtual Events

Almost everyone by this point has attended a Zoom session; fun and educational virtual events are another effective way to reach pet owners.

Veterinary assistant Jamie Han, Small Door Veterinary

Small Door Veterinary replaced in-person events with virtual sessions via Zoom and Instagram Live. These include dog training seminars, puppy playgroups, pet health seminars and Q&A sessions, trivia nights, pet food cooking classes, and kids’ events.

Tess Payne, marketing director at AAHA-accredited DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital in Oregon, proudly shared about their now-virtual canine therapy program. The 80 highly trained dogs and their handlers used to volunteer all over the state. When in-person visits stopped, they went online and continued to bring much-needed joy to people’s lives.

“Our canine therapy program is one of the ways DoveLewis supports the Oregon community, and stay-at-home orders forced us to get creative so these extraordinary dogs could still bring some joy into people’s lives. We’ve reached well over 20,000 with virtual Read to the Dogs kids’ programs, a pen-pal program for senior living centers, and digital courtroom stress relief,” noted Payne.

Heidi Fillion, LVT, Small Door Veterinary

Being a Media Expert

Building your website’s search engine optimization (SEO) profile by way of regular coverage in both print and online media is vital to improving your brand and reaching new clients. Pelham emphasized, “It’s extremely important to dedicate time each week to answering media inquiries and interviews, helping to educate pet owners, and positioning yourself as a trusted expert.” According to Pelham, a steady stream of coverage has increased their brand awareness and helped garner new members.

In order to increase the website’s SEO profile, Pelham explained, “you need new links from reputable sources over time to help your website rise in Google’s listings to ensure new clients can find you when they’re searching.”

Media presence also offers an opportunity to establish your practice or hospital as a leading expert. “Our doctors have been busier than ever on the media-relations front. Angell’s reputation is such that journalists often turn to us for questions about pet health as it relates to the pandemic. We likely average one to two print, online, or TV interviews per month on these topics, and this is an essential outlet for our doctors to demonstrate thought leadership as it relates to pet care during the pandemic,” said Halpin.

Engaging on Social Media

Rachel Barrack, DVM, of Animal Acupuncture in New York City, relies on social media to engage with her existing and potential clients.

“Social media has been a great tool to stay in touch with patients. Many of them follow me, specifically on Instagram (@animalacupuncture), and I am constantly posting tips, COVID news, and relatable content.” Barrack always answers direct messages and comments.

Even if it’s not a patient, “I am happy to help in any way I can,” she said.

Lily Chen, DVM, Point Vicente Animal Hospital

Offering Promotions

Going the extra mile makes a huge difference in attracting new clients and retaining existing ones. For Small Door Veterinary, it was giving a free year of membership to their online portal to those who have recently adopted a pet, and subsidizing pet transportation to help members get their pets to the practice.

“The member could come in the car with their pet, or send their pet alone with drivers specially trained in pet care,” said Pelham. They have also offered members prescription deliveries to their home (or another convenient location) to save them a trip.

In these strange times, it’s the small acts of kindness that facilitate the human (and pet) connection we all crave that make a world of difference. Whether it’s a reassuring goodnight text about a pet in the hospital or a direct message from the veterinarian to address a minor issue, little touches mean just as much as a well-curated website, a detailed newsletter, or an organized curbside drop-off service. In-person, virtually, or socially distant, connection means everything.

Lavanya Sunkara
Lavanya Sunkara is a New York City–based freelance writer and animal lover. She enjoys going on hikes and road trips with her two adopted dogs. Follow her on Instagram @nature_traveler.

 

Want to boost your client connection even during COVID-19? Get a downloadable marketing checklist

 

Photo credits: Photos courtesy of Small Door Veterinary, MSPCA-Angell, Small Door Veterinary, Point Vicente Animal Hospital, and Small Door Veterinary

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