If you are the only barber in town you don’t need to advertise at all. Business will find you naturally and keep you as busy as you want to be. By contrast Oakville, Ontario, where I carry on my practice as a psychotherapist, with a population of under 200,000, boasts more than 200 psychotherapists. From the consumer’s perspective, Oakville’s mental health is being exceptionally well served, but from the therapist’s perspective, building a sustainable practice represents a real challenge.
Only a generation ago one would build a practice primarily through print media: advertising purchased in health inserts of local newspapers, the wide distribution of a brochure, perhaps a special listing in the Yellow Pages. The internet has rendered such an approach largely obsolete.
The first web-based business strategy focused on search engine optimization, or SEO, the aim of which was to achieve #1 position in Google for certain key-word searches associated with your practice. The competition among SEO marketers sometimes led to abuses. I wasted a considerable amount of money with an SEO expert in Montreal whose improper practices caused Google to blacklist my website altogether, compelling me to find a new domain name and start from scratch.
Instead of addressing all of your marketing efforts toward obtaining that coveted #1 position, it makes more sense to follow a strategy that will have your name appear several times on the first page of a Google search, and there are various ways to accomplish this goal.
1. Your website
Visit a dozen websites belonging to your competitors to see how they are organized, what information they provide, and the initial impression they offer. Develop a critical eye for what seems to work visually and what does not. If you already have a website, how does it stand up against the competition? If you are just developing a website, you now have guidelines on how to proceed.
An attractive photograph of yourself creates a personable first impression that may draw prospective clients to your office. Examine the photographs on competitors’ websites with a critical eye. If you were looking for a therapist, whom would you choose based on the photograph alone? What makes that photograph more attractive than others? Which therapists would you avoid based on their photographs? What makes those photographs less attractive? Try to create a distinctive pose or background that will make your photograph memorable, and then use this same photograph for every marketing spot listed below.
Google ratings, however, have no interest in the visual allure of your home page. You would do well to read the Google webmaster guidelines and share them with the person designing your website if you are unable to do it on your own. Google constantly reiterates the importance of content and urges users to keep adding fresh content to their websites. I find that words offered to specific clients during our sessions often provoke ideas that I can share with my entire clientele and I frequently write brief essays that I post to my website under the heading “Ask Art.”
Be sure to have someone else-preferably someone not as computer savvy as yourself-“test drive” the navigational tools in your website. You will frequently discover that procedures that seemed self-evident to you may not be so for your prospective clients.
When you have made your website as client-friendly as possible, submit the site to Google following the instructions in the webmaster guidelines. You will probably find it worthwhile to “verify” your website with Google.
2. Free listings
A number of business organizations offer free listings and you would be well advised to take advantage of them. The most comprehensive method for locating these opportunities is to go through the first five Google pages for each of the keywords that you would associate with your practice (e.g., psychotherapy, psychotherapist, therapy, therapist, counselling) to spot “umbrella” organizations, as distinct from individual websites associated with specific therapists. Such organizations vary from region to region, but you may be served by iBegin.com; Weblocal.ca; Ylm.ca; 411.ca; foundlocally.com; GoldBook.ca; Hotfrog.ca; cofars.ca.
Your professional organization will probably maintain a directory of therapists to which you may add your name. It will probably be worth the effort to attain the highest level of certification or licensing that your professional organizations offer, both for the quality of service you can provide and for the marketing value of this certification. For example, in Ontario the OACCPP maintains a directory at oaccpp.ca. My particular specialty in EMDR is served by emdrcanada.org. A comparable organization exists for the United States.
3. Paid listings
A number of professional organizations will list your website for a modest monthly fee. These include theravive.com; psychologytoday.com; therapytribe.com; goodtherapy.org; networktherapy.com.
Local business umbrella organizations may also prove useful. I have registered with health-local.com; citydirect.info; and 411.ca.
4. Marketing specialists
You may be contacted by marketing organizations that offer to create a special website on your behalf in order to boost your Google ratings. These services understandably cost substantially more than simply registering your website with an umbrella organization. Frequently the marketing organizations will make claims based on professions other than psychotherapy. They aren’t providing false information but information that may be misleading for your particular needs. For this reason, you would be well advised to avoid organizations such as Yellow Pages that require signing a long-term contract, for you may discover that marketing techniques that work perfectly well for plumbers and electricians don’t work as well for psychotherapists. Other organizations include Rogers Outrank and Local Splash.
Any writing you can do that will lead readers back to your website will repay the effort it requires. Networktherapy.com, theravive.com, health-local.com, and therapytribe.com all accept articles with various restrictions on length, content, and exclusivity. You may also consider writing for EzineArticles.com.
A number of organizations will reward your efforts with electronic insignias that you can place on the homepage of your website.
6. Google Ads
You can advertise through Google Ads, specifying how much you want to spend each month. You pay each time someone clicks on your ad. Essentially this represents an auction: you are bidding against other psychotherapists who wish to have business directed toward their ads when certain keywords are typed into Google.
If you can cultivate a regular source of referrals you will make a major contribution toward the success of your practice. Referrals from physicians are invaluable but difficult to obtain. I have several times sent my brochure to every physician in the regions from which I draw clients, without any success. In another campaign, I requested each of my current clients to give me permission to write to their family doctors, giving a brief summary of the success the clients had experienced with me, and describing my practice in a paragraph or two. I enclosed a copy of my brochure and business card. The campaign had no perceptible effect.
On two other occasions, reasoning that those with mental health problems often turn first to their local clergy, I arranged a personal interview with every clergy person in the region of my practice, explained the nature of my work, and suggested that given the nature of their responsibilities they would be unable to provide long-term counselling or psychotherapy and might be grateful for a professional to whom they could refer parishioners. For the most part I enjoyed a receptive audience but my efforts proved fruitless in terms of producing actual clients.
Many local mental health organizations welcome volunteer speakers. I have given talks for the Turtle Creek Early Years program, the Seminars for the Separated program of the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Oakville Parent-Child Centre. Such occasions will give you the opportunity to make yourself known and to distribute copies of your brochure and business card. It has been my experience that such groups tend to prefer interactive presentations over straight lectures. Discussions that ensue during question periods can be helpful in highlighting the actual mental health concerns of potential clients in your area, which may not always be the same as what you have predicted.
Many of the umbrella sites described above make provision for special offers to potential clients. These organizations tend not to be oriented specifically toward psychotherapy, but you can make use of their service to make an offer such as “free half-hour consultation.” In my experience, once potential clients have actually come to my office and spent half an hour talking with me, they usually sign on for treatment.
10. Associating with an established practice
In setting up a practice you will generally have the choice of a home office (where legal), an individual rented office, or an office provided within the context of an established therapy practice. This last alternative offers several advantages including name recognition associated with the group practice and inclusion of your name within their website. Google rankings reward longevity, so that a new website, no matter how wonderful, has less Google appeal than a website that has already existed for ten years. Working within an established practice may also give you the opportunity to place a link to your own website.
If you have the good fortune to be the only therapist in town, most of the foregoing information is probably unnecessary, but for the rest of us, constant attention to marketing proves to be an essential part of the job.