"How are you using social media in your marketing?" I asked.
"As little as possible," he replied. .
I put down my fork. As a business consultant and lover of all things social, I was at a complete loss. He might as well have told me he had started examining pets in the nude.
"That stuff is a major time suck," he explained. "With everything I have to do at work, I don't have the extra time. Besides, if I come home late and then get right on Facebook, my wife will kill me."
There is no doubt that people today are looking online for their veterinarians and other service and care providers. (If the Yellow Pages aren't completely dead, they're on their last legs.) Your clients are using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, etc. If you want them to see you, you need to have a presence in these social networks.
That being said, my friend has a point about the need to expend marketing time and resources wisely. (I agreed that being killed by his wife was not the desired outcome.) With that in mind, here is a six-step plan for maintaining a useful social media presence by devoting just one hour per week. This is in no way a full social media marketing strategy, but it will help your practice get out there and connect with clients in a meaningful and manageable way. Let's get started.
1. Set reasonable goals and expectations
Just like with a workout routine, you can't expect to put in minimal time and get herculean results. However, focusing your efforts in an efficient, meaningful way can give you something to be proud of over the long term. You shouldn't expect to get thousands of fans using this approach, but rather to communicate with—and stay in the minds of—people who may actually bring their pets to you for care. You're going for quality in your connections, not quantity.
2. Remember your brand
Yes, the photo of the cat smoking a cigarette you saw on the Internet may have been hilarious, but is that the picture you want associated with your clinic? Every post or tweet you put out should fit the brand image you want to build in people's minds. If in doubt, err on the side of caution and come across as caring and professional.
3. Pick a platform
All the large social networks out there do things slightly differently and have some advantages and drawbacks. Your goal is not to become omnipresent by using them all, but to find a service that you're comfortable with and that your clients use. It's better to have a single, well-run presence than a half-dozen neglected and disorganized efforts that all make you look bad.
For most practices, I recommend a Facebook business page. The other social media sites are great, but Facebook is easy to learn. It's also the largest network by far, and the number of posts you need to stay visible is manageable. Facebook's recommendation system also helps put your page in front of people who live in your geographic area, and that's a big plus.
4. Find your content
No one wants to subscribe to see you pitching your sales and services 24/7. They want to subscribe to you because you share information that's interesting, educational, helpful, funny and engaging. You should give them what they want (with a moderate dose of information about your practice, of course).
One easy way to do this is to let other people create the content and deliver it to you so that you can share the best of it with your own clients. Email newsletters are a wonderful way to get articles, blog posts and videos delivered right to your inbox. Some of the best media outlets you can subscribe to are from the AVMA, http://dvm360.com|~http://dvm360.com  and ASPCA Poison Control. You can collect these newsletters in a folder in your email program. When you need content for your social media outlet, voila!
Additionally, developing a list of websites with great information for clients—such as http://dvm360.com|~http://dvm360.com  and http://veterinarypartner.com|~http://veterinarypartner.com —allow you to find links quickly to specific information you want your clients to have.
5. Use a social media calendar and a scheduler
Now that you have clear goals, your brand on your mind (and your mind on your brand), and helpful, funny, interesting, educational and engaging content that you're ready to share, it's time to take action.
First, schedule one hour per week as social media time. Then create a plan for what content you want to put out over the next seven days. Use a web-based program to schedule posts automatically at designated times.
The social media management company Virtue released a study of Facebook usage between 2007 and the end of 2010 that indicated the greatest activity on the site was on weekdays at 3 p.m. EST, followed by 11 a.m. EST, and 8 p.m. EST. Wednesday at 3 p.m. EST was consistently the busiest time in the week, while Sunday was the slowest day. Keep these times in mind when deciding how best to schedule your posts.
My favorite scheduler is Hootsuite (http://hootsuite.com|~http://hootsuite.com ). Users can write their posts, attach files or links, and then set the date and time for the information to appear on Facebook, Twitter, etc. It's free to use, and once you decide how often you want to put out information, you can set your entire week in a single sitting.
6. Monitor what's happening.
Once your social media initiative is up and rolling, you can't take your hands totally off the wheel. You must be responsive when clients communicate through your social media channel. Have notifications about client comments sent to your clinic via a regularly checked email address. Figure out who will address these comments.
When clients reach out in this way, don't panic. You don't have to respond immediately like you would if they showed up in person. Twenty-four hours (48 on a weekend) is a good response time and won't leave clients feeling ignored.
Like global warming and Justin Bieber, social media is an unstoppable force. It's undeniably changing and improving the way we communicate with pet owners. Even if you have the most cutting-edge medical practice, you run the risk of seeming outdated without a presence in social media. So carve out an hour a week to log in and have fun with it. Then get back to the work of being a vet.
Dr. Andy Roark practices in ljamsville, Md. He is the founder/managing director of a veterinary consulting firm Tall Oaks Enterprises, LLC. Follow him on Facebook or @DrAndyRoark 
For a complete list of articles by Dr. Roark, visit http://dvm360.com/roark|~http://dvm360.com/roark