There are Only Two Ways to Get Clients for Your Online Therapy Practice

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It isn’t about traffic — there are plenty of ways to get traffic. It isn’t about networking — potential customers on the other side of the planet don’t care how many Facebook friends you have. If you want clients for your online therapy practice, then as far as I can tell there are only two ways to do it. This followup to yesterday’s note on how counsellors and therapists can be great marketers offers one take on the process, from someone who’s been there.

Therapy Practice Marketing

Yesterday, prompted by an article on why therapist directories may be a waste of time, I offered some brief notes on how it is that therapists can actually be great do-it-yourself marketers. (See “Private Practice Marketing: Can Therapists Be Great at It?”.) That article was excerpted from the prospectus for our 2008 spin-off of (a site which we later sold), and this article provides the second set of excerpts from that prospectus, this time addressing a question I have been asked so many times I’ve lost count: how can I find clients for my online therapy practice?

Although I’ve been on ‘sabbatical’ now for a couple of years working on one exciting new project after another, I’ve spent some time as an online practitioner myself (apparently being the first to document over 1 million words of individual online therapy via email). So while this is just my personal take on the question, and there might be plenty of other angles I haven’t thought of, this view is quite a bit more than armchair theorising.

My Personal Take on How to Get Clients for an Online Therapy Practice

Many would-be online therapists are strongly attracted to the idea of reaching an enormous international market of potential clients via the internet. The size of an online therapist’s potential market is, after all, free of limits imposed by crude facts of geography or population density. Unlike the case of a traditional face-to-face practice, the client of an online therapist doesn’t have to face the morning traffic, the awkward bus timetable, or the long walk. Instead, the limits are thought to be along the lines of ‘anybody who speaks (insert favourite language here) and has access to the internet’. And in theory, that’s probably true.

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The harsh reality of online practice is rather different.

In reality, the message of most online therapists reaches a truly minuscule market of potential clients. And while a few online therapists do manage to reach a somewhat larger set of potential clients, they then discover just how fiercely competitive the area has become. Relatively speaking, it’s easy to reach clients for a geo-centric practice — where your message competes only with those of other practitioners targeting the same physical vicinity — but extremely hard to reach clients for a global practice, where your message competes with those of online therapists from all across the planet. As a result, many online therapists work with few, if any, actual paying clients; this is true even for many who have (sometimes rather vociferously) described themselves as an ‘online therapist’ for years.

Outside of the comparatively easier local contexts, the truth is that there are only two primary ways that anyone who doesn’t already know you is going to find you and become your client: it happens either because you provide unique and compelling content, or because you keep funnelling money into recurring advertising costs.

If you provide compelling content — written material directly relevant to what potential clients are searching for — you may be found through natural search engine results, the primary resource to which most people turn when attempting to find something on the web. And provided the search engine has done a good job of matching results to queries, that traffic will be highly targeted, meaning that the people who visit will have a good chance of finding your material relevant to them. (Traffic itself is trivial: for a modest fee, you can send hundreds of thousands of visitors to your site, but unless those visitors are looking for what you have to offer, it won’t get you anything. It’s targeted traffic that matters.) As a provider of compelling content, you may also wind up with other webmasters linking to you because of your compelling content, and potential clients can find you that way.

One nice feature of compelling content is that its value can hold up pretty well over time: once you’ve written it, you may still receive thousands of visitors to that very same content literally years down the road, plus a growing number of links from other sites, at no incremental cost and with little or no further effort.

Providing compelling content is the principal marketing strategy pursued by major web portals, search engines, online versions of magazines and newspapers, social networks…and a small minority of online therapists.

The alternative to compelling content is ongoing advertising expenditure. Advertising in the online realm means recognizing that a proportion of your potential customers are more likely to be found looking at somebody else’s site than at yours; it means paying that site to promote yours in the hopes that a few of those potential customers might be persuaded to leave the site they were on in the first place and come to find out what you have to offer. The site you pay for this privilege might be a search engine, a portal, even a competitor.

This is the principal marketing strategy of most sites which don’t have compelling content of their own, including many online retailers, as well as most online therapists and directories of online therapists. For more on therapist directory business models, see: “Therapist Directories: Are They Worth Your Time (And Money)?”.

Of course, many of the most successful sites employ both strategies effectively, producing compelling content while at the same time paying for additional exposure on other sites. Ironically, it is also those sites which do offer compelling content of their own which typically enjoy the highest returns on their advertising spending. Why? Because they have something of substance to offer the visitor who lands on their site via a paid advertisement, something which helps convert them from a curious visitor into a paying customer or client. By contrast, when a site lacks compelling content for the visitor arriving via a paid advertisement, the end result is much more likely to be that the visitor simply wanders off to some other site, yielding exactly zero return on the advertising expenditure which brought them there.

This irony is more than just a footnote to the story of finding clients for an online therapy practice. It is one of several reasons why most online therapists achieve notoriously low returns on their advertising expenditures. Amazingly, many would-be online therapists (who, not coincidentally, often build their websites first and then wonder how to get clients) continue to sink hundreds of pounds every year into advertising but invest little or no effort in creating new or updated content for their own websites. Some even say they plan to put more effort into their sites just as soon as they see results from the couple of hundred words they’ve already published. (Or when the skating rink opens on the River Styx, whichever comes first…)

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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