Web Marketing on a Shoestring

The fundamentals of starting—or growing—a practice

Magazine Issue
November/December 2009
Web Marketing on a Shoestring

A year ago, when my husband, Mike, graduated with a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, he decided that he didn’t want to pursue the traditional route of getting an agency job before starting his practice. My father, a therapist with more than 30 years experience and a well-known figure in the field, insisted that it wasn’t possible to leap into private practice without first establishing a local reputation with agency work, but Mike was determined to try. The recession made it easier to explore an alternative path: there were no jobs to be found! So the question confronting Mike—and me, a stay-at-home mom with a preschooler and a baby—was whether a beginning therapist could market his practice through a website on a shoestring budget and attract enough clients to get launched.

By the time he graduated, Mike had spent a couple of years putting in 16-hour days taking classes, working, and finishing his internships. Exhausted by the effort of finishing his degree and eager to begin his career, he didn’t have a lot of energy to market a new practice. That responsibility fell to me, someone with a bit of web savvy, who loves the challenge of being an entrepreneur and experimenting with new marketing ideas. It didn’t hurt that while Mike had been busy with graduate school, I—entirely self-taught—had launched two national therapy websites and succeeded in figuring out some of the mysteries of the Internet.

Once I’d helped Mike develop the highest-quality, clinically relevant content for his website, my web-marketing approach was threefold: focusing on the website name, clarifying the location of the business, and optimizing search ranking. First, Mike needed a powerful website name. We began our collaboration right off the bat with a major marital disagreement. I learned quickly that even my husband wasn’t immune to the “therapy website name epidemic.” Perhaps I hadn’t ranted enough about website mistakes therapists make, or perhaps he’d learned to tune me out after months of one-way conversations. His proposed website names were logical and straightforward, using either his personal name or his business name, but they ignored the strategic significance of a website’s name: for search engines, it needs to highlight whom you serve, what you offer, and—just as important—where you’re located.

While my professionally established, well-respected father benefits from having a website named after him, his goal isn’t to attract new clients, but to have an online home for his projects and the accumulation of his writings through the years. For the people Mike was trying to attract to his site, his name and the name of his business were inconsequential. They didn’t know he existed, so why would they be searching for his name? or for that of his business?

In naming a therapy site, the most important concern is the terms that a prospective client looking for treatment would be most likely to use. Mike wanted to concentrate on seeing couples in the broadest sense—engaged couples, GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered) couples, and unmarried, committed partners—so the key factor was to use the term these clients were likeliest to use. Even though Mike had a strong attachment to his professional identity as a “therapist,” I’d already learned from my work on a website directed to couples about to get married that the term most commonly used by people seeking help with relationship problems was “couples counseling.” So after a bit of arm-twisting from me, that’s the name he incorporated in the name for his site.

Next we focused on the business’ location. The Internet may seem huge, with millions of websites and even more web surfers, but it’s crucial to remember that a clinical practice is a local business. Therapists need to be clear where they’re located. In constructing the site, we were careful to make sure his exact suburb appeared on every page. We were careful to take into account that there are a lot of areas within 10 minutes of his office, so we added the phrase “serving the following areas” to include nearby neighborhoods, suburbs, and cities.

Of course, there’s always a downside to focusing on a particular therapeutic clientele. Mike wanted to specialize in couples therapy, but he’d been told that the bread and butter of most therapy practices is individual clients. Would individual clients ever find Mike’s website name doing an Internet search? Probably not. If they did, would they click on it in preference to websites that might better match what they wanted? Not likely. The payoff, however, was that naming his practice as he did greatly shrank his direct competition in a heavily populated area. Instead of competing against thousands of seasoned therapists, he could increase the chances of ranking higher for his target client population in his exact geographic area.

Once you’ve got a strong website name and have established your geographic base, the third marketing challenge is to get the search engines to notice that you exist. There are all kinds of elaborate and costly methods for doing this, including paying companies to submit your site to search engines. But the low-cost “secret sauce” of Internet marketing for getting your site to rank high on the relevant search-engine results is to get links from websites whose subject matter and target audience are similar to yours.

In effect, Google and other search engines believe in the academic model of the peer-review journal as the arbiter of legitimacy. To be published in a refereed journal, you must receive the approval of colleagues knowledgeable in your area of expertise, who decide whether your contribution has value within the field. In the Wild West atmosphere of the Internet, anyone can say anything. The primary control that distinguishes someone who’s merely pretending to be an expert from people with more established credibility is whether sites with a track record and a good reputation are willing to link to you. Though clearly not foolproof, links presuppose a certain level of endorsement and the existence of a personal and professional relationship that confers legitimacy.

For Mike’s shoestring site, I had one legitimate place to start the ranking push, and that was on my own premarital-counseling blog. Since search engines love blogs, I used my blog to talk about how engaged couples may enter their relationship not realizing they have major challenges in store—as my husband and I were discovering. So I found a way to write about an important topic and insert a link to Mike’s new website without sounding like it was a sales pitch for him.

At this point, the only traffic Mike was getting was from friends and family who’d been told about his website. But a few hours after I’d blogged about his website, guess what! Google discovered my blog entry, followed the website link, and put Mike’s website in its directory, just as a librarian would add a brand-new book to the library catalog. That was an exciting day for both of us, but we then had to face the next question: now what?

The next step was to wait. The frustrating part is that it can take many months for search engines to rearrange their website rankings and list your website higher among the results of a search. There’s no telling exactly when your website will start showing up for those keywords you want, but having strong links, as from my topically related blog, was better than if he had some link buried in a “resources” page on a low-traffic colleague’s website. About two months after my blog entry, Mike had his first “found you on the Internet” client. That client had no idea he caused cheers in my family and a huge sigh of relief that our marketing plan could actually work.

The beauty of this type of low-budget web marketing for the new therapist—or any therapist—is that clients keep coming, steadily, without any investment of effort, money, or time. Since that first client, the vast majority of Mike’s referrals have come from his website. He’s getting the exact type of clients he wants (couples), and he’s doing better than most of his colleagues who are paying for Google ads. Best of all, now even my old-school father has become a believer in the power of the Internet as a marketing tool. After seeing his success, he paid Mike the ultimate tribute: “You’ve overturned 30 years of wisdom on starting a private practice! I’m now officially outdated.”


Elizabeth Doherty Thomas

Elizabeth Doherty Thomas runs two national therapy directories. She trains non-technical therapists in managing their websites and online presence through tele-classes, audio CDs, a blog, and personal consulting.