Marketing to the public versus peers

By Ellen Anderson, Ph.D
February 3rd, 2024

When I began my career, in the early 1990s, word of mouth, recommendations from health providers and insurance provider directories were the primary methods I used to find a therapist in independent practice.

Psychologists promoted new psychotherapeutic approaches by speaking at conferences, writing manuscripts, and books. In the digital age, there is an inordinate amount of competing content, but it seems that most people still seek out a psychologist through personal referral, recommendation from a health provider, or via an online directory.

The method of finding a therapist is essentially the same, leading me to believe psychologists may not need to engage in a great deal of effort to attract new clients, outside of local networking with referral sources.

In contrast, to promote a new service, idea, or psychotherapeutic approach, specific marketing efforts are required.

Much has been written about marketing for mental health professionals. When I input the word “marketing” into the American Psychological Association website search engine, it generated 1,195 hits.

Psychologists are encouraged to differentiate themselves and communicate their unique strengths for the purpose of crafting their online professional image.

If you maintain a listing and profile on a public directory, you are already engaged with self-branding. The first few sentences of a profile typically reflect how the practitioner wishes to be perceived by potential clients and colleagues in the field. Unsurprisingly, the way that you communicate about yourself is part of your professional image.

Promoting services or ideas on social media strikes me as inextricably entwined with self-promotion. There are no hits on the APA website search engine for the term “self-promotion.” This seems odd given the 1,195 mentions of marketing.

Psychologists have long been conflicted about self-promotion. Dr Joyce Brothers is currently regarded by many as the first media psychologist to become a household name. Nonetheless, in the 1970’s, some leaders in the American Psychological Association advocated to revoke her membership.

At the time, many psychologists felt that dispensing advice via the media was unprofessional and potentially unethical. By 1999, the pendulum had swung, and Dr. Brothers was invited to speak at an APA conference.

A decade later, an article by Tori DeAngelis published in “The Monitor on Psychology” about Brothers, then 83-years-old, referred to this as a “misunderstanding with APA”!

DeAngelis noted that Joyce Brothers was indeed, “ahead of her time.” She played a seminal role in de-stigmatizing and promoting psychology to the public. But, for more than 30 years, she was shunned within our profession, perhaps because her bigger platform afforded her a degree of impact unparalleled by her peers. It provides yet more evidence that you cannot be a prophet in your own land!

How important is online presence and social media to promote new psychotherapeutic approaches and ideas in today’s world?

As a person who is uncomfortable with blogging, tweeting, and posting online, but paradoxically, enjoys writing books and articles, I am acutely aware that my avoidance has a detrimental influence on the degree to which my communications will have reach and impact.

Case in point: I am the editor of a book series in clinical health psychology, published by APA. (Note: this is an unsubtle promotion of the series, but since it also brings awareness of some wonderful authors in the field of clinical health psychology, I’m only cringing a bit).

This APA clinical health psychology series has six books on psychological treatment of subgroups of medical patients. The topics include integrated primary care, psycho-oncology, cardiac psychology, medical patients with chronic pain, psychological treatment of patients with chronic respiratory disease, and a topic that is important but rarely addressed in the literature, psychological treatment of medical patients with comorbid harmful substance use disorders.

Each of the authors are considered experts in their field and APA has not marketed that book any more than any other. However, one of the books has sold more copies than all the others, combined!

Its author is skilled at utilizing social media and works incredibly hard as an academic, advocate, author, and public speaker. She puts in the time and effort needed to maintain an active online presence and this literally pays off in terms of more robust sales.

Lesson learned. Writing a book is half the work. Book sales are directly related to efforts at promotion of the primary message via digital and other media.

Is it important for practitioners to make overt efforts to curate their online professional image to attract new clients?

Perceptions of professional image are usually influenced by content found in the public domain of the Internet and social media.

Practitioners are more appealing when their online presence creates a perception that they are approachable, professional, and competent. In my experience, competent clinicians do not need to make a great deal of effort to market themselves beyond these common-sense steps.

In contrast, new ideas require a great deal of exposure to take hold within the psychology culture. Proficient use of social media is the most efficient method to amplify the volume of exposures.

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