Entrepreneurs Tina Cannon and Christi Scovel have developed a great way to connect pet owners with veterinarians, but they need to get much more involved in social media in order to get people flocking to their website (PetsMD.com), said experts.
Cannon, an accountant by trade, got the idea for their website a couple years ago (see original story here) while witnessing friend Scovel, a veterinarian, answer phone calls around the clock from desperate pet owners trying to book appointments, or just seeking information about their pets’ maladies. Cannon jokingly suggested there should be a website to handle this, freeing up vets like Scovel to enjoy an evening out.
Cannon said 175 million vet appointments are made annually in the U.S. and “they’re all done by the telephone,” she said, adding: “nobody is offering online integrated booking. We’re the first and we’re either crazy or smart.”
Last year they raised $30,000 from friends and family and launched their website, which includes their trademarked Symptom Checker tool (they also built an iPhone app for it) that helps users diagnose what is wrong with their dog or cat, before calling a vet or booking an appointment. PetsMD is free for pet owners, but charges vets an annual listing fee, ranging from $59.95 to $249, much like an apartment rental site would charge a landlord. To date, Cannon said 30,000 vets have listed their clinics or services on the site.
The pet health industry has weathered the recession and Cannon said PetsMD’s revenues have steadily grown by 30 percent month over month. At their current pace Cannon said the company should be profitable a year from now.
“We have a really pretty graph that goes from bottom left to upper right,” said Cannon. “I wouldn’t say any industry is recession proof, but the pet industry is up almost 4 percent this year alone.”
Americans will spend more than $12 billion this year on veterinary care – an increase of about $1 billion from the 2008 total – according to the 2009-10 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA).
Cannon said they’ve already raised another $150,000 and will be seeking to raise an additional $350,000 in the coming year to help grow the site’s online traffic. PetsMD currently averages 45,000 page views a month and Cannon wants to boost that to 500,000 over the next few months.
In order to make that jump Cannon said they will need to spend the funds on a new SEO strategy and a big marketing campaign.
But Cannon said their main challenge is building awareness for the site and the unique content and services it contains for pet owners. “We’ve built this really cool car, now we need to tell the world about it,” said Cannon “The challenge is marketing what we have.”
TAKING IT TO THE EXPERTS
Joel Warady, who runs his own small business marketing firm the Joel Warady Group, said Cannon and Scovel should be utilizing more Web 2.0 technology, such as blogs and social media platforms to create a community around PetsMD that will ultimately drive more traffic their way.
“What I normally recommend is to fish where the fish are and the fish are on Facebook,” said Warady, adding PetsMD needs to create an application that lets it access Facebook’s 100 million U.S.-based users. “In today’s world to ask people to visit a new website is really difficult, but instead bring your website to the people.”
Warady said it’s unlikely that vets will continue to use PetsMD if they don’t increase traffic and justify the fees they are charging. As a solution, Warady suggested PetsMD use what he called the “groupon” model, where companies offer discounts when enough people sign up for their service.
“If this is a first-time visit to a veterinarian and you come through the site, the vet gives you 30 or 50 percent off,” said Warady, adding in these tough financial times it provides pet owners an extra incentive to come see you. “It’s going to do two things: it’s going to drive traffic to their vet with a new patient, and it’s going to be able to say to that vet, we can bring you potential patients.”
Brian Moran, President of the Moran Media Group and the owner of two dogs, liked the name PetsMD and the logo, but said the website is “a work in progress.”
Moran, whose company publishes Small Business Success magazine and runs the website SmallBusinessEdge.com, said PetsMD.com should be more user friendly and Cannon and Scovel should play up their “Find a Vet” section that allows pet owners to review and rate the vets listed on their site.
“One of the company’s goals must be to populate the rating/review section with comments from pet owners,” said Moran, who also found it frustrating that few of the vets listed on the site included contact information such as website links, emails or phone numbers. “The whole point of finding a vet is to be able to call them once I find them on the PetsMD site. The site is forcing me to take the extra step by going to another website to get the phone number. In my opinion, this is a critical mistake when you allow the user to leave the site to get more information that you should have provided them.”
Moran also suggested adding an “Ask the Expert” feature, where they profile a different vet, or clinic, every week and have the doctor answer questions about pet care. He also said a good way to drive more traffic would be to run “Pet of the Week” contests, where users submit pictures of their beloved dogs and cats and the winners could receive discounts or gift certificates to their online store.
Kevin Dugan, Director of Marketing for Empower MediaMarketing, said PetsMD should focus more on bringing in vets, rather than simply growing traffic numbers.
“Targeting 20 vets, who in turn tell 20 pet owners is a lot more cost effective than trying to reach 400 pet owners,” said Dugan, who added the content on PetsMD needs to be more specified as it feels more like a portal than a community for pet owners. “A portal is a directory with some content and some e-commerce capabilities. There’s no real reason to stick around sites like this. A community allows more sharing of content, two-way communication and has more useful functionality.”
In order to attract a larger following, Dugan said PetsMD should allow users to create “pet profiles,” which would let them create records of their pets’ health histories, which would be very valuable for vets. “Improving my relationship with my vet and making the site more of a resource would be to PetsMD’s benefit,” said Dugan, adding the site could also “remind me to get my pet a check up and make it a two-way discussion.”
Dugan said establishing partnerships with bigger brands is an excellent way to build traffic and credibility and suggested they reach out to online pet retailers like PetSmart.com.
“It cuts into their profit, but it outsources all e-commerce headaches and it gets PetsMD access to PetSmart customers online and in store.”