Most therapists seem to have an incomplete idea of what marketing means. Some think it is about creating awareness (“you have to get your name out there!”), promotion (“you need to market yourself!”) or sales (“you must have an elevator pitch!”). All those things are part of marketing but each of them individually fails to capture what marketing is about.
In the next three posts, I will share a perspective on a more holistic way to think about marketing, and how to go about designing a marketing strategy for your private practice.
Marketing is about relationships
Much like in therapy, what makes a difference in marketing are the relationship we are able to create and nurture. This includes people we meet in person and those we communicate with through any marketing vehicle. Because marketing is about relationships, it is fundamental for you as a therapist to think about and understand three things:
- Yourself, who you are, and the value you can provide.
- The people you want to attract, reach and connect with.
- The context in which those relationships occur.
As we will see later on, these are key elements of a marketing strategy.
Many therapists face a second problem: they feel overwhelmed with all the possible marketing activities that are available. They will start writing a blog, paying someone to create Google Ads, or mailing brochures to physicians’ offices, hoping that any of those things will stick.
This is understandable. On one hand, financial anxieties, self-doubt, and a fear of not doing enough or being behind (“everyone else is doing it!”) can trigger what sometimes feels like a maniac response. On the other, most clinicians did not receive any training on what it means to think strategically about their business. It might feel like there is a steep learning curve and, more importantly, like a different mindset is required.
Thinking strategically involves asking big questions
The problem, though, is when therapists jump to “doing” mode without a plan or a sense of long-term direction. It becomes difficult to be focused or efficient in how we use our time and resources. Without a clear vision of where and who we are and where we want to go, building a practice is like building a house without having a blueprint.
This blueprint is provided by a marketing strategy, which entails thinking before doing. To be clear, I don’t have anything against “doing”. In fact, I believe marketing is also about taking action, without being paralyzed by doubt or slowed down by perfectionism, and that it is crucial to be nimble in order to adapt and grow.
However, I strongly believe that these things are not incompatible with taking a step back and being thoughtful. Designing a strategy is about planning, and having a long-term vision and a sense of direction. It is not a one-time exercise but an ongoing activity for every practice owner.
Having a blog or a Facebook page, creating a workshop or an e-book, or giving interviews in the media are not “strategies.” They are examples of specific marketing tactics or activities, which can certainly be incredibly beneficial, but they need to be organized around a coherent strategy, plan, and vision. Reaching the right people with the wrong message is, at best, inefficient.
A marketing strategy gives you the direction to organize and prioritize resources, ensure you have a consistent and relevant message, and, more importantly, connect in a meaningful way with the people you want to work with.
Before you begin
Before thinking about the different elements of a marketing strategy, you may want to spend some time understanding the landscape or, to put it in business terms, the market conditions for your practice. This is the context in which your business will develop and your marketing strategy will unfold, so it is very important to take some time to think about it.
One way to approach this is by using what is called the 5Cs framework: company, customers/consumers, competitors, collaborators, and context/climate.
Company (i.e., YOU)
This is about you and your passion, your skills, your interests, and the vision you have for yourself personally and for your practice. This is where you think about what made you become a therapist, what makes you tick, who you want to work with, and what value you think you can provide, but also about your shortcomings, your fears, and your insecurities.
This is not so much about selecting a niche (yet), but about understanding things like what kind of population(s) exist in your market, how do people feel about therapy, what do they look for in a therapist, where do they find therapists and how do they go about it. This can help you get a sense of whether there is a potential market for the population you’d like to work with.
I personally don’t think of other therapists as “competitors,” but for purposes of this framework, this is where you would understand how saturated your market is, what specialties are most common, how much do therapists typically charge, what do their websites look like, or what services do they offer. This can help you identify any available opportunities in your market given the existing offering.
Here the question is about people or organizations available in your area who could support the growth of your business. What referral sources are available, how can you connect with them, and what are their (unmet) needs? Are there professionals in adjacent disciplines (e.g., dietitians, divorce mediators, parenting coaches) that may collaborate with you? Organizations or institutions that seem aligned with what you want to do?
This is a bit more difficult to grasp, but it is also important to keep in mind. Are there any trends, locally and nationally, that might impact how you think about your business and design a marketing strategy? For example, what is happening with insurance (availability, rates)? What sociodemographic changes are you noticing? Are there any fads that seem relevant?
A lot of the information needed for a thorough assessment of the 5Cs is not publicly available and therapists don’t typically have big budgets for research. Still, there is a lot of information you can find online, looking at online directories, other therapists’ websites, Facebook groups, Google keyword insights, etc. And of course, there is also more you can learn if you connect and talk with people in your community.
Designing a marketing strategy
Once you have a better understanding of the landscape, that work will be helpful to inform the design of your marketing strategy. I suggest that a marketing strategy for private practice includes four components that need to be considered in relation to each other. The first one of these components is YOU.
This is a deep dive in the first C (“Company”) of the framework presented above. This component of a marketing strategy involves reflecting on, acknowledging, and understanding your strengths, skills, capabilities, motivations, needs, wishes, and goals.
It is important to think about these elements from a business, clinical, and personal perspective since they are interconnected. Your therapeutic beliefs, philosophy, and approach will inform your marketing approach; similarly, most of your business decisions potentially have a clinical impact.
This component of your marketing strategy involves asking questions such as:
- What are your interests and your skills today? Which ones would you like to acquire or develop further?
- Why did you become a therapist? What are you passionate about in this profession? And hat kind of therapist would you like to become?
- What do you think psychotherapy is about? What is your theory of mind and of therapeutic change?
- How comfortable do you feel talking with others about what you do? If not enough, what is getting in the way?
- How do you feel about seeing your practice as a business? How do you feel about “marketing” and about money?
- Do you think you are a better writer than speaker? Do you enjoy meeting colleagues individually but hate large networking events?
- Are you comfortable talking to other therapists but feel anxious talking to non-therapist referral sources?
- How much money do you need to make in order to make this sustainable? How much money do you wish to make?
- What is your maximum number of sessions per week before you burn out?
- What will you do for self-care and to ensure boundaries to protect your personal life and your peace of mind?
- How does your practice fit with the rest of your life now and how does the vision you have for your business fit with the vision you have for your personal life?
In my next post, I will discuss two more elements of a marketing strategy for private practice: thinking about your target audience (aka niche) and about your brand. These two elements are crucial to understand the people we want to serve, and how to reach them in a way that is meaningful, authentic, and relevant.
Santiago Delboy, MBA, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Chicago, IL. Prior to joining the mental health field, he spent over a decade working in marketing research for multiple organizations and as a consumer insights consultant with McKinsey & Company, where he focused on business growth and brand strategy. He is the founder of Fermata Psychotherapy, where he helps individuals navigate the consequences of complex relational trauma and live a fulfilling life.