By Bill Rebozo
The pet industry significantly outpaced the US market over the past 5 years. Grooming and boarding services are one of the fastest growing segments in the pet industry, nearly doubling in size over the past 10 years, despite recessions and evolving consumer habits.
Great news…right? Of course it is great news! We are witnessing an evolution in the market as more and more pet parents are spending more and more money on their furry babies. The bad news however is, others—including tech savvy startups and deep pocketed pet super stores —are extending their reach into this market. Are you prepared?
Technology is obviously a great way to optimize your business and connect with customers. Today, your customers possess a greater affinity for technology and expect their preferred businesses to use it. However, technology requires two primary ingredients many small companies lack: time and money.
It turns out that many of these technologies are very simple, and the best part is that many of them are also free. In this article we are going to build an “integrated digital marketing engine” to help manage your social profile, communications, contacts, reputation, and surveys to help you get more customers, delight existing customers, and improve business efficiency.
While all of the software mentioned in this article is free, most have optional upgrades that do cost money but these were chosen because the functionality available in the free packages is plenty to get you going. All of this software is also cloud based so there is nothing to install, any device will work, and everything integrates directly into your digital marketing engine.
Your next question might be: “Wait…I can’t or don’t have time to deal with all this fancy online technology!” All the software mentioned in this article was selected for ease of use. Also, there is usually somebody in the family or business that has an affinity for this stuff. For example, my wife and kids help me mange social media because I’m busy, but more importantly because they are much better at it.
So let’s get started building up our free, integrated digital marketing engine.
We will assume you already have a social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, because an active social presence is table stakes and it doesn’t cost anything to setup. The real question is, how effectively you are using it?
The most important thing to consider about social media isn’t “where”, “how often”, or “when” to post (but we will cover these) but “what” you post. Sure, that cute puppy video you reposted got a lot of views, but what did it do for your business? The best social media posts are the ones about YOU! Here are some simple and free things to consider:
- Post pictures of your work, your employees, and your customers.
- Publish before & after photos for customers to share with their friends to extend your social community (make sure you get their permission).
- Offer discounts and promotions using seasons and pet holidays to keep them fresh and relevant.
- Short videos introducing staff members or new products are often well received.
- Feature a “Pet of the Month” or other types of contests and awards.
- Like and follow social channels of other regional pet businesses like shelters, veterinarians, pet stores, and trainers.
- Participate in and share relevant community events.
It is important to make sure your content is visually appealing. You also need to make sure all of your content is consistent (logos, colors, imagery, taglines, services, etc.). Creating this custom content may seem like a daunting task but there are plenty of free and simple tools to create stunning visual material.
First, you need images to start working with. The best images are always the ones you take, however, free professional images are available online at:
- FreeImages (www.freeimages.com)
- Pixabay (www.pixabay.com)
- Freerange Stock (www.freerangestock.com)
Always make sure you understand the terms and conditions for the use of each image.
Don’t settle for just posting the raw images, make sure you jazz them up with text, photo enhancements, and your branding elements using online editors like:
- Canva (www.canva.com)
- Pablo (www.pablo.buffer.com)
- Stencil (www.getstencil.com)
LogoGarden.com provides a slick tool to create logos, which are incredibly powerful and reusable. Don’t forget about the native image editors loaded into Windows and Apple machines, which may seem a bit clunky, relative to their online counterparts but are 100% free.
Make sure you spend some time making your content visually compelling, concise and consistent because you will reuse a great majority of it throughout your digital marketing engine. Time spent creating and perfecting this content is a sound investment. Like my father always used to say, “Measure twice, cut once.”
Now that we have a better idea of “what” to publish, let’s talk about “how often” and “when”. The range varies considerably depending on your number of followers, the social platform used, and the type of content you post. In general, focus on 1–3 posts daily between noon and 6pm. Start at a lower frequency to establish a baseline and gradually increase the number and type as you learn how best to optimize each social channel. Make sure you analyze your results; you can’t manage what you don’t measure.
I know that sounds like a lot of work, but fortunately there are free online tools that make is easy. These tools enable you to queue content and post across multiple social channels simultaneously during peak periods of the day. You can spend as little as 30 minutes preparing and launching a week’s worth of content across Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. These tools also aggregate the performance of each post into a single interface for quick analysis and action.
Buffer.com and Hootsuite.com offer free but robust entry level versions of their software to get stared.
While social media is a great way to connect with customers, your digital marketing engine runs more effectively when you integrate other channels into the mix. A consistent monthly or quarterly newsletter puts you in front of customers on a regular basis to strengthen your brand and share recent information. Newsletters should be about YOU and include compelling images and graphics, calls to action…hey wait…isn’t that the same type of content you created for your social media posts? Yes! Typically, you can repurpose popular social posts into 4–6 topics for your newsletter. Most online newsletters provide the tools to create, deliver, and measure the success of each campaign. Once you are up and running, creating a newsletter should take between 30–45 minutes.
MailChimp (www.mailchimp.com) is the most popular online newsletter system. Make sure you get people to sign up for your newsletter, too. Include links to your signup page on your website and social media pages, also make sure you post newsletters back through your social channels.
You can expect about 90% of your customers to admit that online reviews influence their purchasing behavior. Search engines also use review ratings to prioritize results. Like it or not, managing and monitoring your digital reputation is important. Fortunately, it is also free and easy to maintain once you get everything setup.
Some key engines you can start with are:
- Google+ (www.google.com/business)
- Yelp (www.biz.yelp.com)
- YP (www.yp.com)
- Foursquare (www.business.foursquare.com)
The first thing you need to do is setup your company’s profile with each review platform. In addition to the basic information, use this opportunity tell your story in a visually compelling way. Remember that content library we started building for your digital marketing engine? Use it!
Make sure you respond to reviews quickly and consistently. While you can typically respond to any review privately or publicly, make sure you publicly resolve any negative review. Even if the customer is completely wrong, your response will be judged by other potential customers. Keep your response short. Apologize for any inconvenience and, if possible, offer some sort of remediation. Good reviews are far more fun and easier to deal with. Just provide a simple “thank you”.
It is important to monitor and manage your online reputation diligently. Most of these review platforms will alert you when reviews are posted. You can also create a Google Alert (www.google.com/alerts) to monitor whenever your company is mentioned online.
Talkwalker.com is another excellent free resource to automatically monitor your digital reputation.
The heart of your digital marketing engine is your customer database. Index cards won’t work here. Additionally, more and more of your customers expect digital conveniences with their preferred businesses. Just try asking a millennial to “fax” a copy of their vaccination records and watch the hilarity ensue. Any good contact management system enables you to store all your records securely online, manage sharing permissions, access the information from any device, and integrate directly with other components of your digital marketing engine.
Now, there are a lot of options here ranging from simple online spreadsheets to fully integrated CRM (Customer Relationship Manager) systems. Most likely your needs will fall somewhere in between. While many generic online CRM systems like Zoho, Insightly and Hubspot provide free entry level tiers, they require extensive customization and often can’t meet (or exceed) the specialized needs of a service oriented pet business.
There are also rich, purpose built grooming and boarding software platforms that manage everything from customers, appointments, inventory, payments, and time sheets. While these systems are not free, many offer a free trial period to determine if they are the right fit for you. BizBark.com is a new alternative that provides a simple pet business solution which integrates with a purpose built mobile app, and is 100% free.
Surveys are a great way to collect customer feedback and measure it over time. A good online survey published once or twice a year confirms your commitment to customer satisfaction and often leads to undiscovered opportunities. Use surveys to figure out why customers chose you, what they value, what you can improve, and how their opinions change over time.
Don’t underestimate the importance of writing specific questions and providing the appropriate mechanisms to collect feedback. Survey writing is both an art and science. Keep surveys short (under 5 minutes) and concise. Provide response options (4–7) so users can quickly select from the options, but include an open ended question to receive more qualitative feedback. Make sure you search for examples online to get an idea of the types of questions to ask.
You can create surveys using Google Forms (www.google.com/forms), but it will take a bit longer to setup. SurveyMonkey.com is the most popular online survey system and includes survey templates for groomers and pet boarders. Once these systems are configured it shouldn’t take more than 45–60 minutes to create and publish a survey.
Remember, your survey is part of your integrated digital marketing engine so make sure you distribute it through all your available channels, including social media and newsletters.
While you can create your integrated digital marketing engine overnight, it is going to take time to master the technology, analyze your results, and tune your engine. But that is OK. The best time to plant a tree is yesterday but the second best time is today. The best part is that it only takes a little time and no money to get started.
The pet service industry is expected to continue to experience explosive growth rates. Additionally, the demographics of pet parents is shifting to younger, technology savvy customers. Ladies and gentlemen…start your engines. ✂
Bill Rebozo has developed, managed and evangelized software solutions his entire life, working with small scrappy startups and big dogs, including Microsoft. He is passionate about pets and is currently enjoying the combination of technology and needs of independent pet businesses to improve the happiness and health of every dog at BabelBark.