Therapist Directories: Are They Worth Your Time (And Money)?

When I’m asked for suggestions about how to get more clients for an online therapy practice, one of the first things the other therapist usually mentions is their membership in such-and-such online directory. It turns out that quite a few of the therapists who are struggling to find clients are already members of one or more directories, so it’s clear that not everybody who joins a directory actually winds up with many clients. Therapist directories might be a great deal, but for whom?

The theory for practitioners seems to run something like this: learn about online therapy, build a website, pay fees to list in one or more directories, and start accepting clients from a large and never-ending flow referred by the directories. Hmmmm… Does it really work?

Probably each step in that sequence could do with quite a bit of attention, but for the moment I’d like to focus on that step where therapist directories come into the picture.

So here’s my understanding of the business model employed by the typical therapist directory which offers to list your online practice and provide some kind of basic marketing and advertising for you.

First, you pay a fee of some type to the directory, usually in the form of a monthly recurring fee, but occasionally in the form of a percentage levied against any client referrals you receive from the site. Even though many of the world’s leading professional organizations in mental health explicitly prohibit the latter type of referral fees on ethical grounds, a few directories still do it. I guess they just make sure that nobody involved in running the directory is a member of an organization like the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, etc.

With your fee in hand, the directory applies it to cover general and administrative overhead costs, amortized web design costs, and so forth, and of course it extracts a reasonable profit. Whatever is left over — which might be a pretty small proportion of the original — goes toward advertising and marketing. Advertising what, exactly? Why, the directory itself, of course! That point bears repeating in an italicised paragraph all its own:

Typical directories do not advertise individual therapists; they advertise the directory.

Sure, if you’re lucky, you might from time to time get a mention on the front page of the directory itself, but apart from your positioning on that specific website, the typical directory does nothing to increase your exposure.

It gets worse…

Directories aren’t just advertising to potential online therapy clients. They’re also advertising to potential new directory clients. In other words, they’re advertising to your competitors. A certain proportion of the fees you pay to a therapist directory actually goes directly toward convincing your competitors to share the same directory space with you, further diluting the flow of traffic to any one practitioner.

The end result is that you as an online practitioner started off with, say, £1 available for investment in advertising and marketing. You might have spent that whole £1 yourself directly on, say, Google AdWords advertisements promoting your individual practice. But instead, you give that £1 to a therapist directory, and that directory spends maybe 50p, maybe 20p, maybe as little as 10p of your contribution on advertising the directory. What does it spend on promoting your individual practice? Quite literally, nothing.

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And what happens if you, as an enterprising young online therapist, decide to undertake some of your own advertising specifically for your own personal listing? After all, you can get vastly more ‘bang for your buck’ by advertising yourself directly rather than paying someone else to do it with some meagre percentage of the money you give them. Well, if the directory has been doing a decent job with their advertising — focusing on appropriate keywords matched to online practices like yours — you wind up bidding against them for advertising space. That drives up both your costs and theirs. And of course, ‘their’ costs are paid for by your money, so you can see how fruitfully that all pans out.

So, maybe you can see why in terms of value to practitioners, it doesn’t really seem like much of a deal to me, although it does seem like a wonderful deal for the folks running the directories.

But that, as far as I can tell, is pretty much how it works.

I’ve been thinking about this sort of model quite a bit lately, as I’ve been working on a project that comes at the job of promoting online therapy services in a completely different way. So, if you happen to be one of the many online therapists struggling to fill your client roster, stay tuned…

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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