Finding Your Client Tribe

Do you remember when you were in school, when you used to want to be friends with the cool kids? Turns out decades later those kids weren’t really that cool, and your real friends, the ones that you still keep in contact with today are sometimes the ones you least expected.

Your clients are like that, too. Often a client initially appears to be great, but fizzles out, when all that time, you have some wonderful, under-the-radar clients sitting in your practice that you aren’t thinking about much – the low-maintenance ones who are just perfect for you.

If only there was a way to filter out the clients that you don’t want and bring in more of the ones that you do? Hint: there is, and it’s totally what this article is about! It’s called target marketing, and now that I know how to do it, I would never go back to what I was doing before. It has provided me with a sense of clarity of my own business goals, and it ensures that all of the business decisions I make are “on brand” and in line with my goals. Once you start using this, you will start spending time on the people that you do want (and you will truly understand who they are), and you will stop wasting time and money on the people that you do not want.

I hope you’re on board with me!

Target marketing is a four-step process1 of taking the entirety of the population of people who need veterinary services and titrating it down to one or several, very-specifically-described groups of clients. For example, if you are a small animal veterinarian, you will no longer be marketing to “dog and cat owners,” you might choose to target “cat owners who want low-cost care.” If you are a large animal vet, you will no longer be doing “everything large animal,” you will be doing “small ruminant medicine.” It might be more subtle with a specialist: little changes like increasing the level of customer service to meet the “specialist image,” or refusing procedures that could be performed by the primary care vet and are taking away from your time. Before we get started, I’m going to say this straight away: this process can be time-consuming, but the more effort you put into it, the better the rewards. Once it’s done, it’s done. You will make tweaks over time, but the hardest part is over!

The Four Steps

Step 1: Write down your main services & Identify need sets

Your services would be things like vaccines, emergency care, dentistry, and orthopedics.

Need sets are more obscure. Each service will satisfy multiple needs in a client, and this is its need set. For instance, when a client comes to you asking you to vaccinate her dog, she may want a disease to be prevented, want her dog to be healthy, want to be a good owner, or may be required to do so by law or for boarding or a groomer. None of these answers may be right or all of them might be right for a specific client. Every person is different. You have to use your best guesses when you are developing these lists.

Step 2: Group customers with similar need sets

At this stage, surveying your customers would be helpful: the need sets that you may think are important to customers and to certain groups of customers may not be important to them at all2. If surveying is not an option, use your best judgement, but I would strongly encourage this, as it will be extremely helpful to you moving forward!

Other options for gaining information are focus group interviews (dinner, anyone?), analyzing your records for patterns, and testing concepts that you have developed. Sometimes you just won’t know how a car drives until you take it out on the road.

Step 3: Describe each group

Once you gather that vast amount of information in Step 2, look for patterns in the need sets that will allow you to group people together. Note that you are not grouping them based on their demographics, like age, sex, or income, nor their location.

Once you create your groups, you will describe as much as you can about the following three items: Demographics, Lifestyle, and Media Usage.

  1. Geodemographics: Includes age, sex, education level, income level, marital status, occupation, religion. Demographics does not include location, so for ad targeting purposes, be sure to add in any location information (the “geo-“ part) you may have on current clients.
  2. Lifestyle: What are their hobbies? What do they do for fun? Where do they go in general and to shop? What is important to them?
  3. Media Usage: Where do they go to consume media, both for entertainment and news?

These are all important because you will use this information when you create your advertisements – it’s as simple as knowing to place an ad on Instagram instead of Facebook, and targeting age groups 25-40, instead of all ages. Once you describe these items, your life will be much simpler, as you have already done the “hard thinking” in advance!             Once again, the more detailed you get with each of these items, the better you can target your clients. These are also excellent prompts to make you think outside-of-the-box when it comes to unique advertising opportunities: for instance, what sort of activities do your clients love that someone isn’t currently sponsoring?

Step 4: Select an attractive segment to serve

You’re now at the end, and kind of the fun part! Who do you want to be going forward? It might be a blatantly obvious decision when you look at your opinions, but for others it is not. You need to select one, or at the most 2 or 3 segments to serve. These will be your target market(s).

If you’re struggling, make it objective (probably a good idea, anyway)! Use the ranking scale1 to the (INSERT DIRECTION – “Ranking Your Client Segments”) to score each group and prioritize them, or create your own!

Once you have decided on your target market, carve its description in stone (and your written practice objectives)! Your goal is to please those clients and only those clients. Over time, you will start to change your habits from trying to please everyone to speaking the language of just this target market, and these clients will become increasingly happy with your services. You will most likely have higher job satisfaction, as you know you are providing your clients with valuable services at an appropriate compensation for yourself.

Let’s Do an Example Together You are a General Practice Veterinarian. These are the services you offer:

Service 1 Service 2 Service 3 Service 4
Vaccinations Preventive Care Exams Sick Patient Exam Emergency Services

Step 1: Write down your main services & Identify need sets

There very likely are more needs for each of these services, but to keep it simple, I’ve limited the lists.

Vaccinations Preventive Care Exams Sick Patient Exam Emergency Services
Owner wants toprevent disease Owner wants tocatch disease early Need a problem fixed Need a problem fixed
Owner wants to feel like they are doing the right thing for their pet Owner wants to feel like they are doing the right thing for their pet Owner wants to feel like they are doing the right thing for their pet Owner wants to feel like they are doing the right thing for their pet
May be legal requirement Owner wants to make sure their pet is not suffering May need emotional support May need emotional support
May be groomer/boarding requirement   Need urgent care Need immediate care
      Need special payment options

Step 2: Group customers with similar need sets

Group A: Owners who want the basics Group B: Owners who want to feel like they are doing the best for their pet Group C: Owners who need more guidance/New Owners
Basic preventive care In-depth preventive Care Moderate to in-depth preventive care
Emergency care Want to catch disease early Want to feel like they are doing the right thing for their pet
Need a problem fixed Wants to make sure their pet is not suffering Need more info and guidance*
Need immediate/urgent care    

*This was new information that emerged from one of your surveys – good thing you did it!

Step 3: Describe Each Group

The information in this chart is compiled from both your records, your survey results, and brainstorming.

Note that nothing described below is a judgement. Attempt to be as objective in your descriptions as possible to get the best results.

  Group A Group B Group C
Geodemographics Male/FemaleAge 35-60Lower IncomeHigh school educationCities XXX FemaleAge 40-70Higher incomeCollege gradCities XXXXX Male/FemaleAge 20-35Moderate, but increasing incomeCollege gradCities XXX
Lifestyle Life is not as centered around their petTakes pet to family eventsShops at Walmart, Petsmart Very attentive to their pet – considers pet a family memberShops online for food and supplies ActiveLikes to go to dog park and hikingShops at Petsmart and small local stores
Media Usage Facebook Facebook, Magazines Instagram

Step 4: Select an attractive segment to serve

Based on the worksheet above, you decided to select Group B and Group C as your target clients.

How will this help you thrive going forward?

You will have a very clear idea of who your clients are and who they are not. You will now be able to spend extra time with that new owner who needs extra guidance and that long-term client who wants an in-depth discussion, because that’s the type of practice you have chosen to become. You will charge appropriately for your time because you know this is the heart of your practice.

On the other hand, when a client who fits more into Group A ends up at your practice, you will more readily cut ties and refer them to a more appropriate practice for your needs. You are not a bad person or a bad vet for doing so. You are sticking to your plan. Other practices are out there that serve the needs that these clients have.

Moreover, your marketing approach will completely change. Instead of creating ads for the entirety of the pet-owning population, you will now create ads aimed only at Group B and Group C. Group B’s ads will focus on their need sets: this group wants to be sure they are doing everything they can for their animal, both as prevention and catching disease early. Alternatively, Group C knows they want to do the best they can for their pet, but they are unsure of where to start: this group is seeking information, so give it to them!

In terms of advertisement, you will now use your determined geodemographics, lifestyle, and media usage to place your ads. Studies show the more detailed and accurate this information is for each group, the more likely you are to reach your intended audience without wasting money in doing so! For example, if you are an equine vet, instead of saying your clients “like to ride horses,” say they like “eventing, Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), and Warmbloods.” You know what’s additionally great about each of those descriptors? Each of them is a tag that is recognized by Facebook Ads and will help you to more specifically target your audience as you are placing an ad on that platform (which means your money works harder for you)!

Finally, this might be a hard decision, but you may choose to drop services once you select your target market. If you re-evaluate the groups listed above and their need sets, you might notice that Group A was a heavy consumer of urgent appointments and emergency services. Of course, Groups B and C will still need those services, but would after-hours emergency care be a service that you either want to or can refer to an emergency hospital? Many of us would celebrate having that option (okay, speaking for myself…). The process of target marketing sometimes has benefits down the line that you perhaps weren’t expecting when you first started it!

Another service-related matter is the problem of certain services no longer being on-brand once you’ve implemented this plan. If you are a general practice small animal vet, it would probably be best to perfect everything that falls under general care, as well as your customer service, before you offer more specialized services. If you are, for instance, a sport horse vet, perhaps you should think about dropping dentistry and focus more strongly on promotion of orthopedics, rehab, and alternative therapies – services that are on-brand for sports medicine. If you are to be a small ruminant vet, you need to ease away from the other large animal work.

With all of this said, note that this is a process. When you select your target market, you are not immediately that new person, and you do not immediately have the clientele to match it. Likely, you will not immediately start refusing the work that is not on-brand with your new image – you do have bills to pay. What you should do is immediately start working on sculpting your new image, much of which does not cost anything more than your time. Much of this falls under branding, and although this is too extensive of a topic to cover here, I will simply say this: everything you do and say, and everything that you present to a client that stimulates their 5 senses will affect their opinion of you. Every chance you have to interact with them is a chance to return to the idea of what kind of clinic you want to be for your new target market. Make the most out of it.

I’ll conclude with saying that this is a lot of information. Some of you may choose to do all of it (awesome!). Those of you that can’t bring yourself to do that – do whatever version of it that you can. Even if it’s just thinking about your current clients, what categories they tend to fit into, and deciding how you want to proceed, that is better than trying to please everyone. It will still give you a clearer purpose for your practice! You might even choose to do more in the future, but do what you can now, and you won’t regret it!


  1. Hawkins, D. and Mothersbaugh. (2016). Consumer Behavior: Building Marketing Strategy. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
  2. Geissler, G. L. (2003). Targeting a niche market of pet owners: Consumer evaluation of a mobile veterinarian’s service concept. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 3(1), 74–84.
DVM Karen Bolten
DVM Karen Bolten
Veterinary Marketing and Management Expert, South Carolina, USA.  Dr. Karen Bolten graduated from the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2009 and went on to complete an Equine Internship at the University of Missouri. In 2010, she moved to South Carolina in the United States, where she founded Myrtle Beach Equine Clinic. In 2018, she sold her large animal practice to return to school for business management, where she is now double majoring in Marketing and Management. Follow Dr. Bolten and her amazing work, online at, and on Instagram and Facebook

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