Marketing for therapists is often times an unwelcome chore or a daunting endeavor. Very few have formal marketing training, some may feel insecure or overwhelmed, and many are uncomfortable by the mere idea of marketing and promotion.
Most therapists get bogged down with the details. Who should I network with? What features should my website have? What should I say about my practice? This urge makes sense, because most people just want to get it done.
However, without truly understanding what marketing is really about, it can easily become a long to-do list and a series of disjointed trial-and-error efforts. As much value as action has, it is worth taking a step back and asking ourselves: what is marketing in the first place anyway?
An old tale
Six blind men were asked to describe an elephant. Each of them felt different parts of the animal. One touched the elephant’s leg, another one its belly, and the others grabbed its trunk, tusk, tail and ear. When it was time to describe the animal, they started arguing.
“An elephant is like a pillar made of clay!” claimed the one who touched the animal’s leg. “No, it is like a tree!” replied the one who touched its trunk. “You’re both wrong, an elephant is like a metal pipe!” said the one who touched its tusk. The men could not agree. Even worse: they were all right, but none of them could tell what the elephant really looked like.
In marketing something similar happens. Many people have partial ideas of what marketing is. Is it about having a website for your practice? Networking with referral sources? Advertising on your local newspaper? Having a niche for your practice? Being present in social media? Marketing is about all of the above, but it is fundamentally about empathy and relationships.
Because of this, I believe therapists are in a better place than most professionals to understand the essence of marketing. Yet many therapists often associate marketing to unscrupulous sales tricks and manipulative advertising.
Marketing is about empathy because its focus is not on promoting yourself or your services, but on understanding your consumers first. By “understanding” I mean being able to put yourself in their shoes. What are their needs? What are their concerns? How do they make decisions? What barriers do they have to overcome? What problems can you help them solve? How do they perceive you and how do they feel when they interact with you?
Corporations spend millions of dollars each year to try to understand consumers. Some of the most successful products started by gaining insights into the needs of consumers. Take the example of Swiffer, the leading cleaning product by Procter & Gamble. A team or ethnographic researchers observed how people cleaned their kitchen floors. They learned that most people swept their floors before mopping, and they seemed to spend as much time rinsing their mop as they did actually cleaning the floor. Based on these insights, P&G developed Swiffer, which became an instant success, selling $100 million in the first 4 months.
Most therapists do not have the luxury of investing in this kind of marketing research. Most have not received formal training in marketing per se. But empathy, sensitivity and intuition are the tools of our trade.
The very first step when thinking about marketing your practice is not to decide about your website, your logo or your office space. It is about understanding what your “consumers” need, what they think, how they feel and how they behave.
Wait – what do you mean by “consumers”?
The term “consumer” may irk some therapists. We don’t need to debate the terms, but when I talk about “consumers,” from a marketing perspective, I refer to anyone you want to reach because they could be interested in “consuming” your services, your ideas and your talent.
- The most narrow definition includes your current clients. They are clearly “consumers” of your services. You know them intimately so you can understand what they may need from you, and you work on that during your sessions.
- Your potential clients, however, are also your consumers. Do you spend enough time trying to understand them? What challenges do they have in their life and what changes would they like to make? These are critical questions that should lead many of your marketing decisions.
- Your referral sources are also your consumers. You want them to buy into the idea that you are a therapist worth sending clients to, and your clinical experience, knowledge and skills can be of value to them. Paraphrasing JFK, when was the last time you asked not what your referral sources could do for you, but what could you do for them?
Marketing and relationships
With this broader understanding of who your consumers are, it becomes clear why marketing is about relationships. You cannot understand what others need if you do not know them. This is why it is important for therapists to reach out, connect with other people, be known and talk about what they do.
Which brings me to a very important point:
Marketing is not about selling
While the ultimate goal of marketing is to get more referrals and grow your practice, marketing is not about selling. Marketing and sales are related and overlapping functions, but they are not the same. Traditionally, the starting point of sales has been the product or service that is being offered. In contrast, the starting point of marketing are the consumers. There is a big difference.
Unfortunately, often times when people say “I know how to market my practice” what they mean is “I know how to sell my practice.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with selling, but I suspect part of the difficulties clinicians have marketing their practice stems from this confusion. Stay tuned for my upcoming post expanding on the difference and why it is important for therapists.
The next time you attend a networking event, take a potential referral source for lunch or post something on your blog, keep this in mind: your main goal at that moment is not to sell anything. Your main goal is to use that opportunity to develop a relationship, to start a conversation, to get to know each other, and to offer something that the other person will value, such as a trusted partner.
Marketing is not (just) about promotion
This is another very common misunderstanding. For most people (not only therapists) marketing is about promoting your product or service. Promotion can take place through advertising, social media, networking events, public speaking, word of mouth, or public relations. It is a very important part of marketing but it is definitely not all there is.
First of all, promotion also tends to start with the product or service in mind. In traditional marketing, promotion was a one-way street. You have something to sell, so you let people know about it through advertising. With the advent of social media, the era of one-way communication between marketers and consumers is quickly eroding. In addition, there are more pieces to the marketing puzzle that has been called “marketing mix.”
So, what IS marketing for therapists?
Back to our original question. How can we define “marketing” in a way that is relevant for therapists?
Here is my proposal of a working definition:
In part two of this post I talk in more detail about each of the elements of this definition.
In the meantime – what is your definition of marketing?