The new age of pet tech – as digital goes digitail: our fourth Long Tail Theories blog

It’s hard to think back to this time last year and think how ’normal’ everything was…  This is the new age of digital pet marketing.

At The View, with our ‘pet and vet’ specialism hats on we were wrapping up another hugely successful year of PR for the summer’s DogFest events (“like Glastonbury, but for dogs”!)  And we were going all out, in the run-up to Christmas, to create fame for another thrilling National Pet Show at the NEC.

What a difference in 2020.  Events cancelled, shops shut, people furloughed or working from home… but we’ve found that legions of organisations and charities working in the companion animal sector have adapted in extraordinary ways.

In, this, our latest LONG TAIL THEORIES article, we’ve spoken to inspirational people on what they’ve done to keep their brands or services in the spotlight – and how they’ve done it.

Unsurprisingly, digitisation is at the heart of their innovative thinking, but we don’t just mean taking sales online more, or pumping out more social media, or jumping on Zoom as second nature.

Research into pet marketing and the digital revolution

In its recent survey, The Impact of Covid-19 on UK Marketing, Alchemis, the business development firm for agencies sought to shed new light on how marketing has been impacted now.  It looked at what marketers at a wide range of organisations perceive to be the mid-to long term changes they’ll need to adopt from now on.

The overwhelming response from people they surveyed was that the Covid crisis has pushed them towards doing everything more digitally.

Taking pet events virtual

The PDSA press office is a case in point.  Always the epitome of efficiency and creative thinking, the team have done it brilliantly.

Previously, presentation of the charity’s prestigious animal awards: the PDSA Dickin Medal, PDSA Gold Medal and the PDSA Order of Merit would normally take place at a formal, closed ceremony.  They’d usually hold media calls at a location relevant to the story to offer press photo and interview opportunities with the handler.

This year, the PDSA Gold Medal – the animal equivalent of the George Cross – was awarded to Magawa, a landmine detection rat working in Cambodia.  His work there has transformed the lives of the country’s citizens. This incredible rodent has discovered no fewer than 39 landmines and 28 items of unexploded ordnance to date. During his career he has helped clear over 141,000 square metres of land (the equivalent of twenty football pitches), making it safe for local people.

But, with Covid – and Magawa’s location in Asia – a normal news event just wasn’t possible, so a ‘virtual press conference’ came to fruition. The PR team told me they held a “media call of sorts, where we offered interviews completely remotely via phone and Zoom.  It was highly successful, although it meant negotiating different time zones which was probably one of our biggest challenges.”

It was a PR triumph, with coverage across the globe.

Gabby Kuehn is the irrepressible ball of energy behind PAAW House (Pets Are Always Welcome), the social enterprise that campaigns for a change in legislation to allow pets to live in rented and leasehold accommodation, in addition to other causes.  It already has a powerful website, blog and social media community, but, with coronavirus hitting, Gabby wanted to build its following further and galvanise more voices.

She says: “We only launched last November.  Things were really beginning to take off.  We had events planned all over the summer (which would also support our chosen charities StreetVet and the Wild at Heart Foundation).  But then lockdown happened.

“I thought we can either bury our heads and come out at the end, or we can do something constructive.  So PAAWstival was born.  This virtual festival for dog lovers was a fantastic opportunity to remain busy while keeping our brand out there, while also giving them much needed light relief during a lonely and scary time.”

PAAWstival comprised a weekend of online talks and fun with pet businesses and pet experts, plus singers and comedians who were unable to play their gigs ‘in real life’.  There were games and competitions too; everything to keep the proverbial tails wagging.

Kuehn continues: “Despite being such a young organisation, running a first time event, we notched up 1,500 people online on Facebook Live.  We were thrilled and received the warmest, most enthusiastic feedback from them.

The Alchemis report also revealed that, in some cases, Covid had changed working practices so much that they amounted to nothing short of a digital revolution.

Virtual animal rehoming

In April the RSPCA announced it was to start ‘electronically’ homing and fostering animals in response to a massive rise in interest from people in lockdown.

A statement said: “In recent weeks, there have been more than a million visits to the RSPCA rehoming pages online – a rise of almost 30% – and a staggering 600% increase in interest in fostering, with more than 115,000 visits to our fostering page.”

The charity had some 4,800 animals in its care at the time, but said social distancing rules – and animal centres closed to the public – meant adoptions and fostering could only be organised online or via telephone.

Would-be owners got to “virtually meet” their potential pet, with home visits and ongoing support conducted virtually.

Values and altruism in the pet and vet market

Values messaging was another theme the Alchemis study identified. The crisis has encouraged some companies to act altruistically. Most of the people it spoke to felt their company had a role to play in educating and / or helping their customers / clients through the current crisis.  But this is particularly marked in the world of companion animals.

Already a font of welfare knowledge for pet owners, The PDSA ramped things up further. It supported them with pet health guidance through weekly blog pieces as well as weekly pet care columns and Q&As.  These resulted in widespread media coverage across the UK in such titles as Metro, Cosmopolitan and countless regional papers.

The press team explained: “During lockdown and beyond we’ve provided valuable veterinary advice to owners who may be worried about the impact of Covid-19 upon their pets, as well as recommendations on how they could keep their pets healthy, happy and entertained.”

The remarkable humanitarian charity Pets as Therapy (PAT) is at the forefront of community-based animal assisted therapy. In normal times volunteer PAT teams visit residential homes, hospitals, hospices, schools, day care centres and prisons. They work with their own pets to bring joy, comfort and companionship to many individuals who appreciate being able to touch and stroke a friendly animal.

Cate Archer, owner of internet sensation Doug the Pug Therapy Dog and PAT ambassador explained that the organisation had had to suspend all visits at the start of lockdown.  Despite deep risk assessments, with the virus raging, bodies such as the Royal College of Nursing understandably viewed visits from animals as being way down the priority list.

But technology was embraced with gusto to continue this invaluable work.

With PAT, Cate and Doug piloted a series of Zoom storytime sessions through schools to reduce vulnerable children’s stress and build their confidence while they were confined to home.  The children and sometimes their siblings too read to Doug on a one-to-one basis. And Cate (on behalf of Doug) reads to them.

An ongoing project for Cate and Doug has been regular visits to a mental health unit in Brixton.  Again, this just couldn’t happen anymore, so video calls were the way forward.

As Cate says: “Some of our anxious and disturbed clients live in tower blocks with window restrictors, so they couldn’t even throw open their windows to breathe. Some chose to keep their screen black in case they hadn’t got dressed that day – or felt their flat was a mess.  But Cate would always say to them: “Doug wouldn’t see that.  Dogs don’t judge. It doesn’t matter if you’re still in your pyjamas.”  She would describe what he was doing and involved them in the conversation.

She concludes: “It’s not the same as Doug sitting on their laps; being a warm, cuddly comfort blanket for them, but it is the next best thing.  These sessions have become a consistent, uplifting experience for them during what is still an incredibly tough time.”

Change of tone in marketing

Back to the marketers again. The Alchemis study reported that a significant number of respondents suggested a major change for them had been the content and tone of their messaging as well as their choice of communication channel.

Several brand marketers explained that the ‘hard sell’ was being dropped in favour of a more empathetic tone with variations of ‘we are here for you’. This was driven by a genuine desire to help, but also a fear of being seen to be overly ‘commercial’ in a time of crisis.

Not that this is an issue with social enterprises, but Gabby Kuehn agrees with the sentiment: “In addition to our other activity we also launched a Facebook group called PAAWS United. No doom and gloom allowed; it’s all about posting fun and happy pictures of your dog for other people to enjoy. It’s been so heartwarming to see the posts rolling in from our fast-growing community.”

The Alchemis study asked how Covid has impacted marketing campaigns and budgets. Virtually half of respondents said they’d either cancelled or reduced them.  And virtually half also said they’d postponed them.  But interestingly 63% reported that lockdown had allowed them more time to think strategically and 77 per cent of respondents said they’d adapted.

And, on this last point, our friends in the ‘pet and vet’ world have demonstrated this, in buckets.

Digital vs ‘real world’ marketing

To round off, much has been made in the report about the growing importance of ‘digital’ – and where Covid has restricted ‘real world’ activity digital has filled a gap.  But is suggests that digital

Is not the be all and end all.  Digital has solved a problem in lockdown, but the key part in this sentence is ‘solved a problem’ rather than ‘digital’.  Once we are back to the new… ‘you know what’, I suspect and hope we will return to a balance of rich communications tactics to grow and maintain brands and loyalty.

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