5 Time Tested Methods for Attracting New Referrals and Building Your Brand By Joe Bavonese, PhD on 11/1/22 - 3:29 PM

Suggested Tips for Clinicians:
  • Learn SEO (search engine optimization) to bring foot traffic to your practice’s site.
  • Build your advertising savvy by mastering Google business tools.
  • Consider consulting with a business coach to build your clinical practice’s brand.
For most psychotherapists in private practice, the pattern of the past two and a half years has followed a similar trajectory:

March 2020: Move to 100% teletherapy, and watch as new referrals suddenly become frighteningly scarce.

April 2020: The phone is still not ringing.

May 2020: Referrals start coming back…and then explode. In the summer, waiting lists become commonplace because clinicians can’t handle all the people who need help during the pandemic that is killing thousands of people every month and forcing businesses and schools to go all virtual.  

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In 2020, Mental Health America reported that nearly 500,000 people struggled with a mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression. The organization offered online screenings from January through September, stating that anxiety screens increased by 634% while depression screens increased a staggering 873%. In just one year, the number of mental health visits attributed to new patients increased by 27 percent in July 2020 compared to July 2019.

The pandemic has deepened the mental health crisis, the report noted. The number of US adults expressing symptoms of major depressive disorder increased from 24 percent in August 2020 to 30 percent in December 2021, per CDC figures, and a recent article in the New York Times discussed the serious shortage in the US for child therapists.

As both an owner of a group practice as well as a business coach for psychotherapists and other group practices, I have had a birds-eye view of these patterns as they unfolded across North America. Many clinicians never had a waiting list before and were not sure how to process these inquiries. For some insurance-based group practices, the glut of referrals became a nightmare with waiting lists of over 100 people. Many potential clients were frustrated that no one in their city had any openings. Attempts to automate the process only created more feelings of depersonalization for clients and frustration for clinicians.

Yet despite these hardships, the pandemic also made marketing unnecessary for many private practices. It made it easier than ever before for licensed psychotherapists to go out on their own, working from home without even paying for an office. Spending $29.95/month for a Psychology Today ad was all that many practitioners needed to fill their schedules with new clients.

For group practices, the tricky balance of referrals, therapists and office space has been turned on its head by the pandemic. Referrals have been plentiful, but a significant number of sessions are still being conducted virtually, making decisions about future office space a guessing game. Availability of therapists has been the scarce resource of late, fueled by the sheer number of group practices and the deep advertising pockets of numerous online providers such as BetterHelp and TalkSpace.

But now there are signs that the glut of referrals is slowly diminishing for many private practitioners. As part of my business coaching service, I set up and maintain Google Ads campaigns for psychotherapists. The common refrain in the summer of 2020 was, “Turn the ads off! We can’t handle the inquiries we are getting!” That was great news because everyone could save a lot of money on marketing and still have plenty of referrals to fill caseloads. Suddenly, however, I have begun hearing the opposite from quite a few people: “Hey Joe, can you turn my ads back on? My waiting list is finally down to nothing.”

This trend is especially true for fee-for-service practices with rates over $200 per session. The combination of inflation, higher interest rates, and perceived easing of the pandemic may be leading more people to forgo therapy—especially expensive therapy—and return to other satisfying pre-pandemic activities such as indoor dining, music, travel, and visits with family and friends. Such activities may be serving as a natural antidepressant compared to the stark isolation and Zoom life during the peak of the pandemic.

So what’s a practitioner to do if a few holes suddenly appear in their caseload? As always, it’s wise to prepare for a storm when the first few clouds appear on the horizon. Interest rate increases and inflation are here to stay for a while, and fee-for-service providers are most at risk when consumers tighten their belts. To get ahead of these challenges, here are some of the time-tested methods for attracting new referrals:

     1. Improving Your Search Engine Optimization (SEO): Google is still the biggest source of referrals for most private practitioners, and nothing beats showing up on page one of Google for free. The bad news is that page one is more crowded than ever, and newer websites have a harder time competing against sites with years of immersion in the Google system. A good overview of best SEO practices you should follow can be found in numerous free resources online which can give you an idea of how to improve your ranking in Google’s search priority.

     2. Using Google Business Profile: Google still offers a wonderful free resource, the Business Profile, which includes a description of all your services, displays for photos and videos from your site, free messaging, opportunities to show up on the top half of page one with a Google Map link, and the ability to make free posts with links to your website. Note that managing individual Business Profiles will be moving to Search and Maps in the near future.

     3. Enabling Google Ads: This is still the best and easiest way to show up at the top of page one in Google search, but you’ll have to pay for the privilege. Recent improvements in automated bidding have reduced cost-per-click in many locations, and the ability to have potential clients call your office directly from an ad on their cell phone makes conversions easier than ever.

     4. Posting an Ad in Psychology Today: This grandparent of online directories for therapists still generates consistent referrals for many practitioners, and spending under $30 a month almost guarantees a positive return on investment even if you only get a few referrals a year.

     5. Community Networking: Now that more people are back in offices, marketing to referral sources in the community can offer a unique, inexpensive way to build a practice. Connect with medical professionals, educators, attorneys, and others who often need referrals for psychotherapists in their work.

     6. Creating Email Newsletters: Connecting (with permission) to past and present clients can be a wonderful way to get the word out about your services. Programs such as Constant Contact and MailChimp offer inexpensive ways to generate attractive email newsletters.

     7. Offering Lectures and Workshops: Offering lectures and workshops is a great way to attract people who may initially be resistant to psychotherapy. In my group practice, we have consistently found at least 20% of workshop attendees follow up with a therapy appointment. These can be offered in a variety of settings in the community, as well as in your own office if you have the space. And of course, if you can stomach it, you can also do them on Zoom.  


Attempting to read the tea leaves of psychotherapy practice is always a risky and imperfect task, especially in volatile times when unexpected events can quickly change the trajectory. Nonetheless, it seems clear that the peak of mental health referrals for some practitioners has passed. Preparing for this now will never hurt, and in fact will help to smooth out the transition if referrals drop to pre-pandemic levels.

 Questions for Thought

  • How did the pandemic challenge you to think differently about the way you practice?
  • What is your strategic short and long-term plan for building and maintaining referrals?
  • What can you do to revitalize your brand through internet marketing, pro bono workshops, and podcasts?
  • What is the feasibility of consulting with a marketing expert for you?
  • What about this article challenged you to do or think something differently to increase the client flow in your practice?  

File under: Musings and Reflections, Business & Marketing