Updated: Oct 18, 2022
So I reached out to my friend Carrie Wiita.
You might know her form her popular podcast Very Bad Therapy. but what you don't know is she's also a marketer...
and a researcher...
and she's done research on marketing for therapists.
Obviously, since I'm doing a deep dive on therapists and marketing, she was the perfect person to ask.
So I sent her the following email.
A lot of therapists are paralyzed when it comes to getting clients.
They feel so unsure about what the "right" answer is that they do nothing.
Do they use Psychology Today? Talk to school principals? Network with other clinicians? It gets worse because many times people have done a little of some of these but haven't seen fruit.
For instance, they have a Psychology Today profile but only get crank calls, or they sent out fliers to a local middle school and never heard anything back. All of this leaves them wondering, "am I doing something wrong?"
So, because they aren't sure what to do, and their previous efforts haven't worked, they stop doing much of anything.
From a marketing viewpoint, starting from scratch, how would a therapist start getting clients?
The following is her answer.
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The Simple Secret to getting more referrals for your practice.
The very short answer is this:
To start getting clients, you need to make sure you appeal to the clients you want to work with, and then you need to get in front of them with an offer they find valuable. Then, you need to be constantly looking for data that tells you whether you’re appealing and whether your offer is valuable and adjust accordingly.
How your reputation helps you be a more effective therapist.
The long answer…starts now.
In grad school, I became so frustrated by this field’s attitude toward marketing that I did my master’s thesis on the intersection of psychotherapy and marketing. I came to what I feel is a very significant conclusion—it is not only possible but likely that therapist marketing can positively influence client outcomes.
Marketing can make therapy work better.
From a common factors perspective, one of the biggest contributors to client outcomes over which therapists have any control is the therapeutic relationship. The therapeutic relationship (like any relationship) begins with the first impression the client has of their therapist.
The first impression happens the moment a potential client makes a judgment about you as a therapist. In our always-online world, if you’re a therapist in private practice, it is very likely that the therapeutic relationship you have with your client begins the moment they find you on Google.
The most commonly occurring number of therapy sessions is ONE.
I think a psychological concept called expectancy violation is at play. When we expect someone to be a certain way or expect a situation to unfold in a certain way, but these expectations do not come to pass, they can be said to be violated. Expectancy violations result in a break of trust.
No trust? No therapeutic relationship. No second session.
We generally don’t notice, however, when the expected happens—when our expectations are confirmed. If, in fact, what we expect also feels familiar, our brains register pleasure, and when we encounter familiar people, we are more likely to interpret ambiguous communication signals in a positive light.
An intake is more likely to go smoothly—and a stronger bond to be established—if the therapist feels familiar to the client before they even enter the session.
Good therapists use branding and marketing to set expectations.
So, when our future clients form their first impression of us, we want to set expectations for what they’ll find if they meet us in person. That means accurately portraying ourselves and how we work.
Done authentically, this is going to do three things:
Create an impression of who you are in every clients’ mind,
Drive away wrong-fit clients, and
Get right-fit clients to schedule a consultation.
We don’t want wrong-fit clients to sign up and have a poor experience in therapy, but we do want them to remember exactly who you are as a therapist—so they can tell a right-fit client all about you. In our “reputation economy,” this is often as valuable as a session fee.
The prerequisites for building an amazing private practice brand (as a therapist).
The prerequisites for all of this are twofold:
You need to know who you are as a therapist and how you work, and
You need to be communicating that out into the world. I call the former your “Interpersonal Brand,” or IPB, and the latter is how you send your IPB out into the world—your marketing!
So if you ask me, I think the key to successful marketing is developing your Interpersonal Brand.
I have developed a framework for this process called Interpersonal Brandwork, an iterative and dynamic process that combines self-discovery, audience insights, and marketing efforts.
There are seven parts to Interpersonal Brandwork:
The 7 steps to building your therapy brand.
Awareness and Discovery
Awareness and Discovery can happen concurrently.
In the Awareness phase, you develop one professional identity that is meaningful to you and useful to your target audience (which is different from “your ideal client,” a popular marketing concept I don’t use because I find it limiting and oppressive).
In Discovery, you engage in deep learning about the audiences you hope to serve.
Your Commitment is your promise to your audiences that sets and manages expectations for the relationship.
IPB Infrastructure describes all the ways you extend your Interpersonal Brand out into the world, including your brand architecture (advertising, networking, etc.) and your service offers (therapy, coaching, etc.).
Reflection and Evaluation
The Reflection and Evaluation phases, like Awareness and Discovery, are concurrent processes that happen after you’ve started to put your Interpersonal Brand out there.
In Reflection, you check in with yourself—is the professional identity, audience, and infrastructure you’ve been working on sustainable and fulfilling?
In Evaluation, you measure the reach and impact of your IPB on your target audience—who is being reached, and are service offers successful?
Finally, the Synthesis phase takes us back to the beginning. The key to Interpersonal Brandwork is taking the insights you’ve gained throughout and feeding them back into the process, adjusting as necessary. Your Interpersonal Brand is a fluid, dynamic, responsive thing, not some tagline you come up with once and try to plaster all over the internet.
Why clarifying you brand is core to marketing (and getting clients.)
Developing your Interpersonal Brand has to happen before you decide how you’re going to put it out there.
If you haven’t done this work and throw together a Psychology Today profile, you run the risk of it sounding like any other generic therapist profile.
If you are just randomly trying to network without offering anything of value, you might never hear back when you send out those flyers.
But once you’ve done the work, you should ONLY engage in the marketing efforts that are in line with your Interpersonal Brand. If doing TikToks is consistent with your IPB and you want to do them, great! But if not, you shouldn’t do them! It will feel forced and inauthentic, and you won’t know what to talk about anyway.
What's it look like to build your brand? Here's an example.
Interpersonal Brandwork can be used outside of therapy services, as well. For example, a few years back, I co-created a podcast with my colleague, Ben Fineman. I hadn’t developed Interpersonal Brandwork then, but looking back, we absolutely went through the process to create the Interpersonal Brand that is our show, Very Bad Therapy.
We decided what professional identity would be sustainable for ourselves and what people tended to find appealing about us, and we learned as much as we could about the audiences we hoped to reach.
We created a Commitment—we would interrogate the practice of therapy by hearing about its worst moments and we would endeavor to empower both clients and therapists to make therapy better, always with a dedication to research and a healthy dose of irreverence.
Making money wasn’t high on our list of priorities, and consequently we haven’t attracted an audience of deep-pocketed sponsors. But we did want to appeal to people in the field with a passion for making therapy better—which is how we got involved with Sentio and met Jordan!
Marketing should make you feel better about yourself, not worse.
As I said at the beginning, the short answer to how to start getting clients is that you need to make sure you appeal to the clients you want to work with, and then you need to get in front of them with an offer they find valuable.
Then, you need to be constantly looking for data that tells you whether you’re appealing to your audience and whether your offer is valuable and adjust accordingly.
I think the best way to do this is Interpersonal Brandwork. This should result in marketing that is both effective and doesn’t feel icky. In fact, it should make you feel really good about yourself and the work you do. That it’s also likely to improve the therapeutic relationship and your clients’ outcomes is just icing on the cake!
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