In an age when tweets fly through the stratosphere the way Monarch butterflies migrate, veterinarians already know that they should (dare we say need?) be a part of that clap of conversational thunder. But where to begin?

To answer that question, Waggle turned to digital and social media expert Robert Sanchez, founder and CEO of Digital Empathy, an award-winning consulting, web design, and marketing company. Sanchez has created outstanding websites for hundreds of veterinary practices, each time managing to hit a home run. He advises his clients on how to use social media to bolster their practice base and boost client activity.

"Defining the scope of what your needs are," he counsels, "is critical. You can find value in pretty much every social channel, but the crucial thing is to pinpoint how you can realistically manage social media in order to get the best return on your investment."

Indeed, the neophyte practitioner is faced with many choices—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, SnapChat, LinkedIn, Twitter, and TikTok, to name the biggies. "The two behemoths—Facebook and Instagram—are the ones that I usually recommend. They provide the easiest methods to get the best return."

Of the two, he favors Facebook for an initial foray because, as he observes, "I like the reach. A significant percentage of the population is on Facebook, and the company does very sophisticated advertising and demographic-targeting." While it's true we all fear that an online Wizard of Oz knows too much about us, Sanchez acknowledges that "this time it's to your benefit. Facebook knows its audience; they are geniuses when it comes to advertising and they have very strong capabilities. A veritable Goliath, Facebook can help you achieve your goals."

A word of caution, though. "If historically you are posting only once a week, then know that you must ramp up slowly…if you go too quickly," he warns, "from a low-low level to a high-frequency of postings, then Facebook's algorithms will make it more difficult organically for you to land the right advertising."

Sanchez further advises that you need to have a strategy to amplify your online message. He likes to think of topics that fall into different "buckets," with themed categories. He recommends using a carefully crafted schedule each week. "It will pay off in the big picture when you start to post with regularity, so that Tuesday is dedicated to patient stories, Thursday is for easy pet care, and maybe once a month, there is "Give-Away Friday," for example. You should be thinking in terms of topics that are directly sales-oriented. "Your give-away might be a free nail-clipping. Once potential clients are in the door, your job is to convert them into regulars next time they need veterinary services." You should always try to raise your profile in the community, as well. For example, if your staff is running in a local fund-raising marathon, you should post about it.

"I didn't post for two weeks and saw both page views and new page 'likes' decrease, as did new client numbers." – Catherine Foret, owner of University Veterinary Hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana
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Dr. Catherine Foret, the owner of University Veterinary Hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana, a large regional hospital with a very broad client base, was an early convert to social media, starting in 2012. She says her current average post reaches about 35,000 and that the engagement level is about 14,000; she collects about 100 new page "likes" every 28 days. "I know we get new client conversions from being active on social media. I tested it: Last summer I didn't post for two weeks and saw both page views and new page 'likes' decrease, as did new client numbers. We know that those page 'likes' turn into new clients, so I immediately went back to my regular posting schedule."

Foret emphasizes that Facebook is her go-to venue. "I don't Tweet. I want to do more than just post opinions. Our goal is to share valuable, useful information. We like to educate and have fun at the same time; underlying our postings is a strategy to drive traffic to our practice. We try to show as much as tell." To that end, they are very big on posting videos; "It's so much better to show people how to brush a pet's teeth, than to just talk about it. We want to educate and entertain."

Another valuable tip from Foret: "While we love having positive reviews on Google and Yelp, we haven't really seen that they have changed our business, but our postings have." Hence, she sets aside time at the beginning of the year to organize, design, and preschedule 75% of her posts, with each post introduced by a visually exciting banner, usually themed. She makes a master list of topics to cover throughout the calendar—maybe seasonal tick-borne diseases, check-your-chip day, a local pet rescue's bake sale, or an open house at the practice. The schedule is very fluid, though, allowing for an on-the-spot or emergency post, say, about a lost dog. She aims to post three times a week, but she is very flexible.

Sanchez underscores the importance of diversity in posts, also, sprinkling in news of a particular case, or how the practice made a difference in someone's life. Perhaps one day a week is "Meet the Staff" or an adoption/fostering page. He notes that having many buckets to choose from forces diversity in postings. "If you do a post on dental health, then shortly thereafter, you do a related post on periodontal disease, then two weeks later, follow up with instruction on at-home dental care. And, he said, with Facebook, I'd put small amounts of money, even $20, behind those posts for advertising. It will result in value."

Building a relationship with a potential client is key, even before someone walks in the door.

"You need to underscore that you all share the same values when it comes to pets. And always think, 'What is the value of that relationship over the course of an animal's lifetime?'"

As for Instagram, he notes that posts there should be pithy, like an arrow-piercing. Themes don't matter, as IG is about volume and interesting subject matter. "I think IG is strategically easier, but tactically, a little more difficult. You can easily post two or three times a day—your postings are image-oriented. So think in terms of amazing pictures."

In the end, you want your online presence to tell the story of the heart and soul of your practice.

What separates your practice from other practices? Is it your long-term staff? Are you pushing patient care to new levels? Do you have equipment no one else in the zip code has?

Sanchez summarizes, "Your posts should always give evidence of what your super powers are."