Think of a three-legged stool. It stands—and supports your weight—only because each leg has been built to do its part; it’s perfectly balanced. Remove, or even shorten, just one leg and the stool topples. Like the stool, a balanced marketing plan requires three legs. Unfortunately, it’s rare to see a dog business marketing plan that gives careful attention to all three.
More often dog walking businesses put emphasis in one area, ignoring or underserving the others. Sometimes the focus is on marketing to referral sources, sometimes on getting out in front of the general public of potential clients, but most often on staying in touch with current and past clients. But the most powerful marketing plans balance a bit of all three, because each has a specific role to play in the success of your dog walking business.
Referral sources—other dog professionals who send clients your way— are the most critical audience as you start out, and they’re what will feed your business for long-term sustainability as well. Get a few good referral sources on your side and your business will build much more quickly.
Referral sources such as veterinarians, dog trainers, dog daycares, pet sitters, and pet supply stores tend to come into contact with people precisely when they need your services the most. Potential clients may complain to a veterinarian or dog trainer about their dog’s destructive or hyper behavior, be told by a daycare that their dog isn’t a good fit for group play, or worry out loud to a pet sitter or store clerk about an overly long workday. You want fellow dog pros to have your name on the tips of their tongues when this happens.
When courting referral sources, think about what you might do for their businesses, rather than what you’re hoping they’ll do for yours. For example, ask any potential referral source for 10 minutes to interview them for an article about their business in your newsletter. Invite dog trainers and pet sitters out to coffee or lunch. Ask trainers what you can do to help reinforce their training work on your walks. Surprise a vet clinic or dog daycare with a pizza lunch on a busy day. Starting relationships this way allows you to avoid the discomfort of cold requests for referrals. And referrals will follow if you make other dog pros’ lives easier and find ways to show them your expertise and professionalism.
Marketing to potential clients is about building your brand awareness and recognition. It takes time for people to become actively aware of a new business or service, so start early and be consistent. Success here requires staying in front of people so they’re already aware of you and know just who to go to when they decide it’s time to hire a dog walker. So the more marketing you do, the more effect it will have.
Don’t confuse marketing to potential clients with marketing to the general public. The more you narrow your focus, the less money and effort you’ll need to spend on your marketing, and the more successful returns you’ll see. You really don’t want all people with dogs to call you anyway. For one thing, you only want people within your service area. Make that too broad and you’ll spend more time driving than walking. And there’s no point in marketing your services to people who can’t afford them, so economic factors come into play as well.
You may wish to further narrow your focus to specific sub-culture groups. For example, you might tailor your message to busy families. Maybe you want to appeal to the green-minded in your community. Or to the gay community or to churchgoers. It’s not necessary to focus your audience in this way, but the more specific you are, the easier it will be to both tailor your message and target your marketing efforts.
Writing articles for the local paper, distributing a printed newsletter, providing informational fliers (Why Hire a Professional Dog Walker, for example, or 5 Things To Ask Before You Hire a Dog Walker) to local dog businesses, distributing custom branded trading cards for the dogs you walk instead of business cards, wearing logo clothing when out walking—these are just a few examples of public marketing projects you might employ.
Current And Past Clients
Retention marketing is key to longevity. This should be the smallest portion of your marketing plan as you start out, because you have few people to keep in contact with at first, but should grow in importance as your business grows. You’ll spend time and resources landing your clients; it makes no sense not to keep them in your marketing loop. This is not only good customer service, it’s also how you build word of mouth over time. Get enough happy clients talking and you’ll end up with more happy clients.
That said, if you’re just getting started and you’ve put all your weight on this leg of the stool, back off a bit and make sure you stabilize the referral and public legs of your marketing plan—you have to get clients first before you retain them!
E-mail newsletters, blogs, and social media outlets like Facebook and Instagram are the most common forms of retention marketing for dog walkers. These tools allow you to show your current clients what you do for them every day. Seeing their dogs out having fun, and getting daily or weekly reports from you via images or anecdotes, cements brand loyalty. It also gives them something to pass on to friends, family, and coworkers—inadvertently spreading the word about your dog walking service.
Building Your Sturdy Marketing Plan
Take a few minutes to consider the marketing you’re currently doing. Which leg of the stool does each project fall under? Given the stage your business is in, which legs could use some attention? Achieving the right marketing balance maximizes your efforts and helps you reach your goals that much faster.