For R+ dog-trainers only: marketing and advertising advice

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You are welcome to share this blog post. 
Recently, on one of the dog trainer forums I frequent, a colleague asked a great question:

“What one piece of advice about advertising do you wish you had heard, or heeded, when you were starting out?”

The one piece of marketing advice I wish I had heard or heeded was to not spend money on advertising right away. Here is why: I didn’t yet know what gap or area I needed help with. Obviously, the goal is more appointments, more class sign-ups, etc. There are nuances I hadn’t thought of, and which are different for each business, and each community.

What part of your community do you want more business from?
What part of your community do you want more referrals from?

Do you ask most or all contacts, whether they hire you or not, “Whom may I thank for this referral?”

Likely answers:

1) found you on Google and I liked your website because _________

2) pet store named __________

3) veterinarian in the area named _____________

4) client named ___________________

5) I saw something on your Facebook feed that interested me

6) I saw something on Instagram that interested me

7) I saw one of your YouTube videos on YouTube when I searched for how-to_________, and realized you are local

8) I was referred by another trainer named ________ who said you are a good fit because of location, expertise, or other.

9) I was referred by the local shelter(s)/rescue(s)

Whether or not you get clients from your contacts is a different conversation; but do you know if you get contacts from all 9 of these? The only ones I would consider possibly optional are Instagram (though I know some trainers who gets lots of business from it) and YouTube, which is huge for me, but I know most folks don’t do a lot with it (5-10% of my contacts originate with YouTube, and another 10% or so mention my videos as part of the reason they contact me)

Did you get regular contacts from the other 7 options? Few of us do, and even fewer of us did in our first year.

Veterinarians    Identify which ones in your area you didn’t get contacts from, and focus your energy, and possibly your advertising budget, on those. No contacts from vets? Not even your own? You have a vet right? Why aren’t you getting a referral or more from them each month? Do they have your cards, pamphlets, whatever? Do you talk to them about what you do, and how? Do they not think you are amazing? Show them. Give them a gift certificate or two for one free lesson – for their staff, a client in need, whatever. Let them hear how amazing you are from their clients and staff.

Pet Stores     Where do you buy your pet supplies? Are you getting referrals from them on a weekly basis? If you aren’t, why not? Do you make the giant mistake of buying pet supplies on-line, or buying in bulk? I buy dog supplies from two different stores in my county: one every week, and one every month. No exceptions. I buy other places, too, but there are two in particular I work hard at getting referrals from. And I do get them!  And if some of the products cost a little extra (local stores where I live are actually quite competitive), pay the difference out of your advertising budget. What have you done for these little stores lately? Not big things, not bribery, not bullshit – little things to build a rapport. Do you have any t-shirts with your business name on them? Maybe the staff would like a t-shirt. Get to know them. Maybe one of them has a dog and could benefit from a lesson gift card. Amazon doesn’t give dog training referrals. Be smart.

Google   If you live in a big place, the first page of Google might be a lofty goal, but I would aim for page 3 or better  (aim for page one, but don’t be bummed if you only get to page three in the first few months).  Once they click on your page, will it bring clients? You can be number one on Google, but if your website doesn’t bring emails, phone calls, and contact forms, does it matter? I wasted a lot of energy, and some money, on SEO and various things I was told would help and whatnot. None of it was helpful to me, but it might be to you – consider talking to a pro for one hour. Respect their time the way you want yours respected. Pay them. But also know that SEO professionals make suggestions that have to do with stuff they can affect. When people ask us for advice about their dog, we talk about training; when people ask a veterinarian, the vet talks about veterinarian stuff. A lot of the stuff SEO experts talk about might or might not improve your position by 3% or 5% or 10%.  I don’t see much from them about how to write a good blog post, or how to ask for a testimonial; and those things matter much more than coding tricks.

Web Site    Once a person lands on your site, if they haven’t already decided to hire you, it is important that it is very clear what kind of training you do. Some clients don’t know the difference, but many only want positive reinforcement trainers, and some won’t consider anything but the other stuff. I make it as clear as possible. It is probably more important for me than most others because I am a huge middle-aged man who has a Rottweiler. People are prone to assumptions, so I make it clear.

Testimonials is the single most important section. Don’t be shy, and don’t be coy. When people pay you a compliment via email, even if it is just two sentences out of a long email, ask if you may use that for a testimonial, and ask if you may use their whole name, and if appropriate, their profession. I have a thing I say or write – something like this, “I so appreciate your kind words. Dog training is a competitive business. Industry experts say testimonials are the single most cited reason for hiring a trainer without a referral. May I put this on my website, and include your name and occupation with a cute pic of Grover?”  This is important. Which is more valuable, a testimonial from an unknown person named, “H.” or “Hollie Huthman, owner, Shakedown Tavern” with a pic of her dog?

If you have great FB reviews, but no testimonial section on your site, contact your FB reviewers and ask for permission to share their reviews as testimonials on your website, and make that the first page after the cover page. “I searched for dog trainers, found your web page, and was impressed by your testimonials.” Make your goal to hear that weekly or more. Spend advertising money to make that happen if need be (hire a web person if you aren’t comfortable doing it –  it is more important than any ad).

Blogging    If you write at all, blog. If you like to take dog pics, blog. Make sure your blog is part of your website, not hosted separately and linked to it. Blog hits should equal website hits, because website hits drive your placement for Google searches. Make it easy to pick one of the posts and read, rather than have to scroll through (soon to be many) of them. Share those on the FB pages that allow it. The reality is that the best way for you to improve your site’s SEO is traffic; it still helps, no matter where the traffic is from. I get huge numbers in South Africa. Do I get clients from there? No, but it drives my Google position. Shorter is better. Under two pages is ideal is critical unless you are a great writer, and the topic is in depth. Keep it short and meaningful (I get the irony that this post is ~5 pages, but I am writing it for a very small audience, and it isn’t meant for laypeople to slog though). If you have no idea what to write, try reviewing a product. Maybe you can cooperate with a local store to review a product for them and then they might share your blog on their page, too. Go to your shelter and ask if you can write a post and post a pic of a particular dog who need attention for adoption.

Whatever your topic, keep at it. Once a month, once a week, whatever you can do. People’s experiences with blogging are varied; mine sure are. Some of my best posts are practically ignored, while others have thousands of views, and still get several hundred hits / week. I admire when well-known bloggers and famous trainers engage commenters on articles, but it is silly if you aren’t famous. My advice is set your comments to “must be approved” but approve any that aren’t spam or hateful. Don’t engage unless it is to a specific question, until you are well-known. You had your say, and it is best to let your work speak for itself. There are several pages on FB that allow or even encourage bloggers; most require you to ask permission from an admin, but most admins will review your work and approve it. Don’t be shy.

Facebook        Do you have a plan for boosting your Facebook numbers? Ask people for feedback, or hire a Social Media consultant (I wouldn’t do that, but it might be right for you).  Make a commitment to post a certain amount, minimum. There is a balance to find here. Too few posts, and your stuff won’t even show up because of algorithm reasons. Uninteresting posts, and people will unfollow, or worse, unlike your page. Optimally, I try to make 2-3 posts every day, but only if they are worthy.  Get permission from every lesson, and every class member, to post pics of their dog. Most people are excited, and if you let them know when you posted the cool pic of their dog, they might share it.  Get two pics, and stagger them so you have more content. “Here’s Murphy, my morning lesson from today. Isn’t he sweet?” 8 hours later: “Encore pic from Murphy — great loose leash walking lesson today.” Share good stuff from other people, famous and not so famous. Read other people’s blogs, and share not just their current posts, but good older ones, too. Shoot for at least 50% pics, though. Those are what get the most attention.

Experiment with making memes and sharing great pics you have taken. I am usually happy if I get 10 interactions per post. Sometimes I get 0. But everyone once in a while, I get hundreds. A few times, I have gotten thousands. One time (yes, only one time in the years I have been at it), I received over 30,000 views of my Facebook page, because of a meme I created and posted. My overall page likes went up by several hundred in a week. I didn’t know that would happen. Never guessed it would happen. But it sure wouldn’t have happened, if I hadn’t been keeping up my page.

Other Trainers       It is a competitive business. It’s normal to feel antsy about communicating or cooperating with other trainers, but it is important, and can lead to more work for all parties. None of us are good at everything. I am not, anyway. I try to take a class or two a year, and take a private lesson each year. It’s fun, and a great way to get to know people (make sure you let the trainer know what you do when you sign up; it they aren’t comfortable, just move on). Some of my clients want to show their dogs; some want to compete in agility or other sports. Since I don’t teach those, I try to make solid, informed, referrals. Does it make me a better resource to give a good referral with solid information, or to just act like I don’t know anyone who does that stuff? Get to know the people in your community. I belong to a group of R+ trainers who share a table at events, and are hoping to do more community-building activities soon. We We even have a website that talks about our qualifications and ethics, and has links to each trainer’s site. Personally, I don’t like the idea of any formal arrangement about referrals or money or anything like that. But knowing who does what, and who is best at which, is good business.

YouTube    In chatting with other professional trainers, the main worry I hear is being judged for imperfect performance or technique. Let go of that. Remember what Voltaire said: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” When dog R+ trainers pick apart the technique of other R+ trainers, it is because they are insecure or threatened. Let your video(s) be fun and silly at first, and work up to a production styl piece if and when you feel like it. My most popular videos by far are single camera, no edit demo’s of fun stuff – not the ones I have spent hours editing and getting just right. Also, get permission from clients and video them having fun. They will share it with their friends and family, and voila – more views, more potential likes to your YourTube video or Facebook page. Finally, be tough. Don’t worry about the mean people. I logged into my YouTube channel one day and had received a thumbs down on all of my videos (this was years ago, when I only had about 30). I was pretty upset, and then I received a note from some P+ who said they wanted me to know, they had given me thumbs down all my videos because I used food in the videos. That had nothing to do with me, see? It was his problem. And, no, I didn’t do the same back – that would be very counter-productive.

Shelter/Rescue Groups     This is hard because there is such variance in groups and shelters, and what their approach to training is, and what their standards are. This is important: don’t help just for referrals and then be upset if you don’t get them. These groups are way too busy, and the individuals involved are way too stressed, to play any kind of quid pro quo games with local businesses. Get involved with the shelters or rescues you share most values with, and do it because you want to help, and think of referrals as a bonus. Don’t limit your help to training, either – the dog poop picker upper didn’t make it in that day? Grab a shovel. For the rest, consider offering discounts to new adopters, or 1-3 free consults for dogs still in the program. But still – do it because you want to help, not because you expect something out of it. That approach will backfire. It is okay to not help, but don’t help badly.

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As I was writing this post, I was listening to an interview with the rock band Rush, and the interviewer asked a silly question along the lines of, “Has your career worked out as you planned?” The band members all laughed, and all contributed to the answer, so I can’t quote them individually, but their main points were these: “It is isn’t possible to have a plan in high school about how your band will become world famous, and last for 35 years, and what steps you will need to take to make sure all of that happens. Instead, what we tried to do was make a plan for each record, and for each tour. We tried to be nice to each other. We tried to make each other laugh. We tried to be nice to everyone involved in the business, from the roadies and caterers to the other bands. When we were an opening act, we never demanded a sound check. When we became headliners, we made sure the opening act always got a sound check. We did interviews. We signed t-shirts. We made sure we remembered it was our fans that allowed us to do this, and that being kind to our fans was more important than getting back to the hotel 20 minutes earlier. Mostly, we just tried to be nice to everyone.” As I was listening, I realized a similar approach works well in dog training. No plan I have made has worked out quite as I had in mind. Instead of getting discouraged, I took the parts that worked out, developed those, and made new plans that didn’t quite work out. I try to be nice to everyone. I try to be fair to anyone I do business with. So far, it is working out okay.

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