Caroline Johnson – “Now’s the time for vets to capitalise from being online”
Having had a variety of roles within the veterinary industry including sales, management, marketing and people and practice development, Caroline Johnson now owns and manages a trio of successful online businesses with her husband; vetpol®, vbay® and vetmart®. In this exclusive interview she reflects on the key influencers of her business decisions throughout her career and the increasing importance of online activities as well as giving some tips on how vets can best use the Internet to benefit their businesses.
How did you get the ideas for vetpol, vbay and vetmart?
While my husband and I were running our veterinary consulting business, we basically took a step back to look at where the market was going. It was clear that the Internet was the future even if we didn’t understand how it all worked back then. The key to building any successful business is understanding the market you’re in and making the most of opportunities as they present themselves. We couldn’t have imagined exactly what impact the Internet was going to have but it was clear that there were going to be multiple opportunities we made the decision to ride the crest of a very large wave rather than find ourselves left behind.
We launched vetpol as an online community to bring the veterinary profession together, which started as an online forum and expanded from there. Jumping in at the deep end really was the best way to learn. The more time we invested into it, the more gaps we saw open up in other areas, leading to the creation of vbay in 2012; an online market place that brings vets and suppliers together.
Then came vetmart. Now, around 36 million adults use the internet regularly and 45 % of the population own pets, so there are literally millions of pet owners accessing Internet every day. More clients are turning to the Internet to search for advice, products and services but with over three trillion URLs out there, getting found online is becoming increasingly challenging. Vetmart helps vet practices do just that, allowing them to showcase their products and services and providing ‘everything animal’ under one roof.
What are your aspirations for their future?
We’re really excited about what the future holds and believe the possibilities are endless, so plan to continue developing vetpol, vbay and vetmart. We have recently upgraded vetpol’s site and people can expect some more exciting changes in the near future.
We have really big ambitions for vetmart; our aim being to make it the biggest animal site on the net. I’m confident this is achievable because of our timing. The pet market is absolutely massive and has been proven to be recession-proof. Despite the huge increase in online usage for everything from finding a veterinary practice, to searching for a local dog groomer, there is nowhere on the net that brings everything together, except for vetmart.
As the Internet grows it is also becoming more fragmented and very crowded. It’s no longer good enough just to have a website; you need to get your business found. That’s why vetmart really is a no-brainer for those with an animal-related business – vetmart is a hub for animal owners. It doesn’t cost anything to create a listing, so it’s a completely risk-free way for practices to boost their online presence.
How do you think veterinary businesses feel about the increasing use of the Internet and social media?
We’ve actually recently conducted a survey of the profession in conjunction with veterinary communications company, Companion Consultancy, which looked at just exactly that. It captured a huge spread of businesses across the veterinary profession and has produced some very interesting results, shedding light on the attitudes of veterinary businesses to their online activities.
One of the most overwhelming findings was that the veterinary profession has really embraced online activities – even if they’re not too confident with how to use them most effectively. It was really encouraging to see how many people are positive about it. The proportion of vets who are regular users of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn was actually quite amazing, especially when you think that a few years ago these platforms didn’t exist. So clearly people understand the need to get online.
Is there anything that you think holds vets back from engaging their customers online?
The biggest barriers appear to be lack of time, confidence and expertise, which were highlighted by our survey. We have written a White Paper based on the analysis of the results, in which we make some practical suggestions as to how practices can easily overcome these obstacles and maximise their online opportunities. (Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy of the White Paper). There are some really simple solutions which can be easily implemented to make a huge difference.
Unfortunately, many practices still view their online ventures as an ad-hoc activity rather than something that needs to be integrated into their marketing plan as standard which needs a much larger investment attributed to it. After all, it is just another arm of their promotion – and a very powerful one at that.
Do you think that vets are keeping up with other professions when it comes to being online?
I think at the moment we’re behind the curve. Not that we’re not doing it; we just need to do certain aspects better. For example, pet owners turning to the Internet for advice mainly access non-veterinary information because this is what predominates.
However, contrary to popular belief, our survey highlighted that the majority of vets don’t feel threatened by ‘Dr. Google’ and believe the Internet has had a positive influence for education. The survey also demonstrated that many practices are not making the most of online retailing potential and still think of themselves as local businesses, so clearly there are many more online opportunities for the taking.
What are your views regarding online sales of veterinary medicines?
There’s a great big myth among vets that they can’t compete with big companies online but you only have to look to the St Francis Group price tracker to see that in the majority of cases they absolutely can. The price tracker shows three tiers of prices – vets typically compete within the middle range at which they make a good profit.
That’s one of the great things about vetmart –you don’t even need an online shop to sell NVP and VPS medicines and in the future this will also apply to POM-V medicines too. This is one of the most under-utilised benefits of the Internet – you can now sell to owners beyond your usual catchment area. All of these elements have to be integrated as part of an overarching plan to promote the practice, drive sales and forge strong relationships with customers.
One of the biggest problems is that vets don’t see themselves as sales people – but actually being a vet is all about selling; selling solutions, selling their services and selling themselves. It’s territory that many are just not comfortable with and the excuse of an inability to compete online can become a justification to avoid venturing into the world of online sales. There definitely needs to be more resources put in place to help vets gain confidence and expertise in this area to help them make the most of what is available to them.
What advice would you give veterinary practices looking to boost their online presence?
The first thing is to take a step back from their business and think about their own expectations of client service elsewhere and how the Internet fits in to that relationship. We’ve got a situation where the veterinary market is fairly flat- but where some practices are struggling and others are thriving, growing at 15% plus in some cases. There’s quite a divide that’s opened up.
I’ve found that the common factor of successful businesses is that they are wholly focused on their clients, i.e. the end user. I don’t think this will ever change. When it comes to what they’re doing practically, almost without exception the successful business understands the importance of the Internet and uses it to enhance the customer experience and grow business. Some practices are even finding the majority of their new clients are now coming to them via channels such as Facebook.
It’s a case of recognising the trends of the market, identifying opportunities and giving clients what they want. Helping businesses achieve this is something I’ve always been passionate about but if I’m honest, the Internet is not my spiritual home! It was never in my long-term plan to become the owner of a throng of online businesses. I’m not even particularly technically minded and it’s not a medium I initially found myself comfortable with. However, I have always been committed to helping businesses prosper and building relationships with real people, which is what excites me about the Internet – some people forget that it can achieve both of these goals very effectively. The more I do, the more I love it; not for what it is but for it can do.
To find out more about online use within the veterinary profession, contact email@example.com to request a copy of the White Paper, along with a detailed set of recommendations for improving online activities based on the findings.