The world's aflutter with social networking. Oprah, Larry King, and Ashton Kutcher all Twitter. President Barack Obama used Facebook to help get elected, while Senator John McCain ignored it and lost. MySpace and YouTube have spawned numerous record contracts and movie deals. Although social networks may not make you president or a Hollywood star, they do offer innovative ways for veterinarians to stay connected with staff and clients.
GET FACE TO FACE—VIRTUALLY
By now you're no doubt familiar with Facebook even if you don't participate. This behemoth of a social networking site has more than 350 million users worldwide, nearly 105 million of whom are in the United States. Facebook isn't just for kids anymore, either. The popular Web site reports that its fastest-growing demographic is women over age 55 and that there are more Facebook users ages 26 to 44 than 18 to 25 today. Those numbers represent real, pet-loving people in your community. It's time to "friend" your clients on Facebook!
Facebook is designed more for individuals than businesses, but there are workarounds. To begin, create a page for your veterinary practice, including a fan page. This allows users to become "fans" of your business. It takes only a few minutes, and it's free. Fan pages allow an unlimited number of fans, while a normal Facebook profile is limited to 5,000 friends. Fan pages are visible to anyone and are indexed by search engines to make it easier for people to find your page through Google, Yahoo, and so on. When users become fans, their Facebook profiles display a message ("Mary Smith has become a fan of Seaside Animal Care," for example) and a link viewable by all of their friends—viral marketing in action.
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When you upload photos, videos, and other information to your fan page, you send updates to your fans. We've recently used our hospital's Facebook page to ask for help with wildfire evacuations near Myrtle Beach and to alert clients about food recalls and other breaking news. (Check it out in the screenshot on the left.) The ways you can use your Facebook page are limitless, and the options expand almost every day.
Another way to use Facebook is to create a "group." This is a private page, and you control who can access it. At Seaside Animal Care, we set up a hospital staff group for our employees to use to post information about charity projects and gatherings, as well as their general musings. It's important that you establish written rules for these interactions, even though they're supposedly private. Your staff should understand that anything they post on a Web site, regardless of privacy settings or where the site is hosted, should be considered public information and treated accordingly. This means no posting of client or patient names, no last names of staff, and nothing disparaging about co-workers. My simplified version of the ground rules is this: "Never post anything you wouldn't want your parents or your boss to see, because they will."
Don't be afraid to use Facebook for your veterinary practice, but use your common sense. Think of the 31 million people over age 26 using Facebook to connect with friends, learn about organizations, and, perhaps, see what's new with their veterinarian. When deciding what to include on your practice's Facebook page, ask yourself how the information will promote your business or profession before publishing it.