In my previous post, I shared some thoughts on what marketing is about and discussed the first component of a marketing strategy. In this post, I share my thoughts on two more components: thinking about your target audience (aka niche) and about your brand.
A business cannot be everything for everyone. This is true for a large corporation and for a small private practice. You will not appeal to everyone and, frankly, I don’t think you should. In order to try appeal to everyone, you will probably end up diluting anything that makes you distinctive. And it’s what makes you different what potential clients might find appealing. Not what you have in common with every therapist in town (more on that when we talk about branding).
By now, most therapists may have heard that they need to specialize, identify their “ideal client”, find a niche. Or define what I call a target audience. This certainly makes sense in many ways. It helps you build a focused reputation, gain credibility, target your marketing activities and messages, and prioritize resources (including your precious time).
Defining A Target
Defining a target can be done in many ways: based on several things, including:
- Clinical issues (e.g., OCD, addictions)
- Presenting problem (e.g., shame, grief, self-esteem)
- Demographics (e.g., LGBTQ, teens, men issues)
- Occupation (e.g., students, military)
- Cultural background (e.g., Spanish-speaking, a specific nationality)
- Life stages or transitions (e.g., parenting, divorce)
- Benefits sought (e.g., self-awareness, improved relationships)
- The way you work (e.g., group therapy, somatic experiencing)
- A combination of the above
If you are going to focus on a target audience, it is important to keep a balance between being too narrow and too broad. What that means depends on many things, such as the characteristics of your market and the breadth of your interests and skills. The “right” niche is not just based on “doing what you love”, but it is found in the intersection of your passion and what makes sense business-wise (e.g., is there a market for it?).
While defining a target audience or niche can definitely be helpful, I do not think it is absolutely mandatory. Again, it depends on several factors, like the characteristics of your market and the breadth of your network. It is also not set in stone, as you can modify your target as your interests, skills, and understanding of the market evolve. Finally, it is not necessarily restrictive – as your network and your reputation grows, people who may not be your primary target might want to work with you.
Identifying a Niche
Identifying a niche is important but is only the first step. Once you have done it, try to have a good sense –based on your experience, your own research, or other people’s guidance- of who these people are, what they need, and what’s the best way to connect with them. There is an old adage in marketing that says “people don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill – they want a quarter-inch hole.” In our field, I would translate this as “people don’t want to get therapy – they want [fill in the blank, depending on your target audience]”.
What this means is that it is important to understand what your niche is about, who they are, and what they need, in as much detail as possible. This includes thinking about what needs they are trying to meet, what they care about, what they need help with, what is their life like today, what are they looking for in a therapist, what they would want to get out of therapy, what marketing channels would be most effective, what tone and message might resonate with them, etc.
One thing that therapists often miss is the fact that their “audience” goes beyond potential clients. And includes thinking about referral sources, who have access to the clients we would like to serve. Whether it is primary care physicians, college counseling centers, religious institutions, or human resources managers. You need to think about developing an ongoing relationship, what challenges and needs they may have, and what you can offer in order to become a resource to them.
You are a brand – there is no escaping it. Your “brand” is defined by the way people think and feel about you and your practice. Even though brands live in the hearts and minds of people, you need to be very mindful and intentional about the ways you define it and build it.
But what is a brand? A brand is not a logo, a slogan, an identity, or a reputation. At least it is none of those things alone. More fundamentally, a brand is a promise.
Think about the name of your favorite restaurant, news outlet, or apparel store. What comes to mind? How do you feel about it? Those names probably evoke the type of content, product, service or experience that you would expect (i.e., what the brand promises). Similarly, what do people think or feel when they think of your name or your practice’s name?
Our articulation of what we wish to evoke in our target audience’s hearts and minds is called brand positioning. This is not a slogan or an elevator pitch. But an internal statement that will guide all your marketing activities: what you say, how you say it, where you say it. And, most importantly, who you have in mind when you say it.
Brand positioning incorporates an understanding of your target audience and your value proposition (i.e., the benefits and other attributes you wish associated with your brand). Your brand might be associated with outcome benefits (e.g., gaining self-awareness, reducing symptoms, improving relationships), intangible personality traits (e.g., compassionate, knowledgeable, cool). And aspects related to how you handle your business (e.g., responsiveness, professional, flexible). While there is only so much we can do influence what other people think or feel, it is important to take the time to think about what we want our brand to stand for and how we wish to be perceived, as that will provide a blueprint for all your marketing activities.
Your brand positioning should be relevant for your target audience and unique, or at least distinctive. What is different about you, what you do, and the way you work? Does this matter to the people you are trying to attract? Why should someone go to see you instead of the therapist next door? The clearer you are about these questions, the more focused you will be when connecting with your audience. And the more likely you will be of impacting their perception.
How are brand perceptions developed? Brand perceptions are created and reinforced across what I call “touchpoints”. These include all the different ways your audience interacts with you and your practice. For example, a potential client will start forming an impression of you at all points of their “journey” (this is not an exhaustive list):
- Before they contact you, through what they see and read on your website, the quality, and style of your logo. What they find when they google you, or whatever they heard about you from the person who referred them.
- When they contact you: through the tone and content of your voice recorder, how long it takes for you to get back to them, the kind of questions you ask during the first contact, your fees, and the documents you ask them to complete beforehand.
- When they meet with you: through their experience of you in the session, how they felt during that first meeting, their impressions of your waiting room area, and your office décor and organization.
- After the first session: through the available ways you offer to be in touch, your response time and the tone you use, your assistance with insurance issues, and your flexibility for rescheduling and policies.
As you can see, everything you do has an impact on how people will perceive you, i.e. on your brand. There is no way to avoid that process. So it is important to be intentional about it even if we cannot fully control it. This also highlights something therapists should keep in mind: most clinical decisions have a business impact, and vice-versa.
Thinking about your brand positioning is important whether you are a “generalist” or have a specific niche. Even if you have a well-defined target audience, you will not appeal to or be a good fit for everyone in that group. If selecting your niche requires thinking about them, defining your brand requires thinking about you.
In my next post, and last of this series, I will write about the last element of a marketing strategy, the so-called Marketing Mix, which is essential to link and transition between strategy and action. Stay tuned!
Santiago Delboy, MBA, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Chicago, IL. Prior to joining the mental health field, he spent over a decade working in marketing research for multiple organizations and as a consumer insights consultant with McKinsey & Company, where he focused on business growth and brand strategy. He is the founder of Fermata Psychotherapy, where he helps individuals navigate the consequences of complex relational trauma and live a fulfilling life.