Top 5 reasons pet owners turn to the internet for veterinary advice

Posted by Mark Olcott, DVM on Jan 26, 2016 12:03:40 PM

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After 20+ years as a veterinarian I’ve cultivated equanimity with Dr. Google.  I’ve written about him before, and he’s a reality that is part of the internet world in which we all live.  I’ve seen clients in an exam room literally researching what I was telling them while I was standing right there!  But, let’s not get too high and mighty.  You’ve probably done the very same thing at your doctor.  Or at the pediatrician’s office.  Maybe not while she was still speaking, but you’ve done it.  What about when you’re shopping for a television in Best Buy while searching Amazon to see what their price is?  

What’s behind this phenomenon?  In veterinary medicine it’s rarely about finding low prices, so why do pet owners turn to the internet for advice instead of a veterinarian?  I think there are 5 reasons:

  1. You’re not talking about the things that they really need help with.  Pet owners are much more interested in things we’d call “husbandry”, like behavior, food & diet, breed related issues.  See the Banfield 2015 State of Pet Health for more info on this topic.
  2. You’re much more difficult to communicate with.  Think about it:  Google is always there and answers are a fraction of a second away.  Granted, the quality of the answers is often suspect, but pet owners don’t know what they don’t know.  If a layperson don’t know any better and someone online tells him very authoritatively that garlic works against fleas, he’s likely going to believe them.  In our hurried world, I think people will choose convenience over accuracy 9 times out of 10.  Which do you offer?  What if you offered both?  What if asking YOU a question was just as easy?
  3. They’re available on multiple channels, not just desktop.  In fact, you could argue that Google’s functionality is even better on mobile due to location based services.  Given our clients’ addiction to mobile devices and the convenience they bring, your practice simply must be completely mobile compatible.  If a client or potential client has a quick question that can’t be answered on your website, they’ll have to pick up the phone and call you, and they increasingly don’t want to do that.  I’m an introvert so I acknowledge a bias here, but it’s not just us introverts who are avoiding the telephone anymore.  Think of the incredible services that are available without having to talk on the phone:  summon a car to take me to the airport & pay for it without opening my wallet, order food, complete 100% of my holiday shopping, stay in touch with high school friends I haven’t seen in 20 years, meet my future spouse, etc..  Even those of you who claim to offer online appointment booking:  is it REALLY seamless or do you still have to talk to the client on the phone at some point in the process?
  4. Consumers have a “positive account balance” with search engines.  Because of the incredible search algorithms they have, the ratio of valuable info:garbage is very high with Google.  Not so with most veterinary practice communications.  To be clear, I’m not talking about the value you provide IN the exam room.  I’m talking about the other 364 days a year.  Are you creating value with personalized educational content?  Are you talking about the things that matter to clients?  Or are you sending them a spammy mix of drug coupons and newsletters that none of them read?  The practice I take my dog to uses a leading reminder/appointment confirmation service and an online pharmacy.  Between those two providers, this practice sent me 7 emails last week!  Do that for a week or two and the value you provided during their last office visit is long gone.
  5. The internet is free.  Let’s not forget probably the biggest reason people like getting advice from Google.  Or neighbors in chat rooms, for that matter:  it’s free.  An office visit with you is not.  Now, I’m not saying you should give your services away, but you can’t provide any care to a particular patient if you can’t get them through your front door in the first place.  One exciting benefit of some insurance plans and most wellness plans is that they decrease the “barrier of entry” for your hospital.  Offering unlimited office visits as part of a comprehensive wellness plan can be a very powerful tool to lower clients’ natural hesitancy to bring their pet in when something isn’t right.  The model they’re used to in human medicine is that, other than a co-pay, an exam is essentially free.  Now, we all know that it is most certainly not free, and Milton Friedman was right:  There’s no such thing as a free lunch.  One way or another, someone always pays.  With respect to veterinary wellness plans, an overwhelming majority of subscribers who come in for a “free” office visit buy something else during the visit.  Just get them in the door!  Seeing a veterinarian, live and in person, is unquestionably in a sick pet’s best interest and the sooner the better.  

You can’t compete with the internet and you shouldn’t try to be all things to all people.  But there are some simple solutions, like offering your clients instant messaging and reevaluating all the marketing material that’s going out of your hospital.  When I’ve mentioned, for example, instant messaging with clients the reaction I often get is, “Well...our doctors don’t want to do that.”  My response is that it’s not about what your doctors want.  It’s about what your clients want.  Look at it from their eyes and ask if you’re doing everything you can do to be relevant and timely.  It’s not hard and the upside is huge.  Good luck!

Topics: Innovative Technology For Vets, Marketing For Veterinary Practices, For Practice Managers