Where I live, there’s a tongue-in-cheek saying going around: “If you need a therapist, throw a rock and you’ll hit two.” There are a great many credentialed therapists, of any theoretical orientation you can imagine, within a short drive. Since the helpfulness of therapy is culturally accepted and supported by much of my academic community, most therapists in private practice are doing well. But even when working in a therapy-friendly area like mine, it took some effort to get a practice up and running.
So, you might ask, how is it that I was able to establish and maintain a successful and profitable private practice for almost 30 years? The secret isn’t much of a secret at all. I embraced the idea that marketing my work is as important as my expertise in doing it. I accepted that I could not count on word of mouth to be enough to bring new clients to my door.
Doing our own marketing takes more than a little effort. It’s easy to make it something we’ll “get around to.” But building a successful practice requires putting on a marketing hat for several hours each week, every week, no matter what. I share this story of my own marketing journey in the hope that those opening a private practice for the first time will find it helpful.
6 Marketing Essentials
1.Define your niche: In an area where more than 700 therapists are within an easy drive, it was, and is, important to identify what makes me unique. In my case, I only had to follow my heart. I love working with distressed couples and complicated families. That made me a logical referral for other therapists who didn’t share my enthusiasm for that work. I created a brochure about my credentials and interests and sent a mailing out to the other therapists in the area.
Think about underserved populations and diagnoses where you have expertise. It’s probably not useful to define yourself only as a trauma specialist unless you are qualified to serve a population within that issue such as veterans or adult children of alcoholics or postpartum moms. Knowing what we now know, every therapist better be prepared to deal with trauma. Highlight your training for other issues and populations as well.
2. Choose your location wisely: Where you are is as important as who you are. I opened my main office near my home, something I had dreamed about for years. But I soon found that there were too many therapists in town to build the full practice I wanted – at least at first. As the new person at the time, I decided to look for a less therapist-rich territory. I didn’t have to look far. A community only a 25 minute drive away had zero therapists! I sublet my main office for two days a week to another therapist, found a very inexpensive office in that neighboring town, took out ads in the local paper and contacted the pediatricians. I was full in a month.
3. Make personal connections: Network. Network. Network. People are more likely to refer to therapists they know, regardless of expertise. I’m proud of a guestbook that I kept for years. In it are the names of professionals I invited for lunch or for a morning coffee or an afternoon or evening tea. I always stressed how I could be helpful to them, whether by offering groups or workshops or by taking on patients when they didn’t have the time or the expertise to provide regular counseling.
The obvious professions I reached out to were physicians in private practice, clergy and school guidance counselors in order to offer complimentary and supportive skills. The maybe not-so-obvious people I contacted were the owners of fitness studios, beauty salons and daycare centers. Customers of these businesses sometimes talk about serious issues their staffs are ill-equipped to handle. Staff are often relieved to be able to suggest someone who can offer more help.
4. Do public service speaking: Find ways to be visible in your community. Contact the local PTOs (parent teacher organizations), churches and group medical practices and offer to do free workshops about your area of expertise. For many years, I also personally sponsored an annual series of four or five free workshops for parents and teachers. Yes, setting up these workshops and developing engaging and useful programs took time. But talking to more than 100 people a year resulted in more client self-referrals.
5. Write: Small newspapers are often happy to run human interest content for which they don’t have to pay. Set up a meeting with the editor of your local paper and show samples of your work. I wrote a monthly column called “Family in Focus” at no charge to our town newspaper. Each column talked about a common parenting issue and included some practical tips. Every month, my face and my “voice” appeared in the paper. Just about every month, the column drew in a client.
6. Social media: Use social media to stay visible and connected. I have a website, a FaceBook and a Twitter account and I’m LinkedIn. But having social media tools isn’t the same as using them. To be effective, it’s crucial to regularly blog on the website, post on FB and tweet and update on LinkedIn. People need a reason to visit regularly or they don’t.
As the years went by, I was able to gradually reduce my marketing efforts. Once established, I was able to close the satellite office and again work only in my own town. The need for public speaking and networking became less urgent but I continued to respond to invitations to speak because it maintained my visibility and because I very much enjoyed it.
As I move into retirement, I no longer need to do the marketing I’d be doing if I were still building and maintaining an active practice. But even as I wind down, doing some trainings, writing for sites like PsychCentral and using social media helps me maintain membership in the local community of therapists, something I treasure.