Not like sexy-controversial or appalling-controversial, don’t get your hopes up. This is going to be nerdy, business-divisive because I’m going to say the opposite of what a lot of practice-builders encourage you to do.
I’m going to start off with: Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I need to get with the times and maybe I’m a little old fashioned. I’m still mulling all of this over and am not quite ready to soapbox this but am ready to ask questions to get you thinking and tell you where I stand 95% of the time I’m thinking about this.
I got a request to write a blog post from a clinician building her practice. She’s a clinician who has done her homework. She follows a number of practice-builders and is not interested in reinventing wheels. I love people who have a voracious appetite for learning. And now I’m going to punish her by confusing her, and probably you if you’re one of those info-hungry people.
The question she very innocently asked was what content would be most helpful for her 5 email auto-responder series. Auto-huh? An auto-responder series is a sequence of emails that goes out to anyone who signs up for your email list. For instance, you signed up for my email list when you gave your email for either the Tasky, Confidence-Building Checklist, the video series available exclusively during the launch of this round of groups, or for the networking infographic I shared with folks who listened to the Practice of the Practice podcast I was interviewed on. When you gave me your email address my auto-responder sent you an email with the checklist, video link, or infographic you requested. Then, depending on when and what you signed up for, you got the second of the autoresponder series which basically just asked if you received your checklist. I then personally respond to those that hit reply and say they did or didn’t. Then you may have gotten an email (autoresponder #3) about what your biggest concerns are with practice-building. I broke “business rules” and got rid of that one because a lot of people unsubscribed at that point, probably annoyed with this woman they didn’t know sending them emails all the damn time.
So this clinician sent this really reasonable question which is based on the encouragement folks get from some other practice-builders about how to build their practice. Email lists are considered gold in the marketing world (so you’re a sweet, sweet nugget). An auto-responder series is a good way to build a rapport with the person who signed up. The idea is that the more great content the people on your list get from you, the more engaged they’ll be and possibly buy your product or service. Maybe they’ll also forward something good on to a friend who will like you and also join your list. This is BIG TIME in the business world, think about the coupons you can only access through your clothing store’s site if you provide an email, or the subscription-only shopping available with Zulily or Dot & Bo.
Dude, how much lead up does one allegedly controversial opinion need before it’s actually stated. So, this clinician asked what quality content she could provide to potential clients in a 5 email series and I wanted to say, “None. Don’t do an email list with potential therapy clients.” This is a very rare opinion. I have clinical and work/life balance reasons for this.
I imagine my ideal client here. Do it with yours too, to see if my opinion fits for you. My ideal client is miserable. She hates herself. She hates her body. She’s a perfectionist and despite her many, many accomplishments and the admiration of others, she never feels good enough. She can fake being okay like an Oscar winning actress. Everyone thinks she has her shit together. Meanwhile she’s secretly restricting her food intake and purging and overexercising when the feelings become too much. She has constant reminders of her short-comings in her perceived physical flaws. She has a hard time asking for help.
Let’s walk through it: She hates her body and she comes across my (now former) email opt-in “10 Steps to Loving Your Body.” It has great content. It provides some immediately actionable steps for quick wins. It gives a realistic look at what it might take to change her mindset and hints at what life could look like if she could maintain body acceptance and possibly even love her body. It’s a much better life. There isn’t a hard sell, but therapy is encouraged. This is good information and she appreciates it.
Now, she may not be an email list savvy person. Her eyes may have skipped over the part about how she’ll get more emails from me. She probably thinks this is just some good advice, like a Huffington Post article or something.
Problem #1: Do you really have informed consent? Yes, you mentioned somewhere that she’ll hear from you again, she gave her email, so legally the onus is on her, but will it be a surprise to her when she hears from you again? Maybe she’s on a date and Autoresponder #2, “How to Avoid a Binge,” pops into her email and lights up her phone.
Problem #2: Are you selling or focusing on helping? If the purpose of the email list is to remind more potential clients that you’re there, how do you walk the line of just helping by providing info and selling sessions? Personally, I don’t want to have to keep telling my therapy clients that I’m here. I want my therapy clients to be motivated and interested in doing their own therapist research to find me with the other marketing tools I put out there. I want former clients/therapy graduates to want to come back if they need it because we did awesome work together and they trust me. Not because I slowly nagged them into it.
Problem #3: I want to protect the safety of our space. There’s something sacred about the work we do. There’s an intimacy and a rawness and a partnership that’s formed in our therapy offices. It feels somehow tainted by “7 Ways to Set Boundaries (and Maintain Them!)” intruding into her inbox. It’s our job to protect that sacred space, clients giving us permission to violate that doesn’t give us leave to shirk that.
Problem #4: What are we communicating about boundaries? If I email her a couple times a week with the autoresponder + newsletter/blog post, is she going to magically understand that it’s not clinically appropriate for her to email me all the time?
Problem #5: This feels more like a coaching approach than clinical work. This is NOT dogging coaching, I’ve certainly appreciated coaches I have hired. Coaching and therapy are really different. They have overlaps, but the evidence-based, peer-reviewed, clinically-licensed, board-sanctioned nature of therapy, especially with someone with impairment in daily living (i.e. anyone diagnosable) holds more responsibility. If you are a coach, yes, build an email list! It’s a really smart move. I get auto-responder series from coaches and consultants all the time and, like a vampire, drain all the good info and then toss the email aside. It’s great! The content isn’t meant for someone crying a few hours a day and contemplating suicide. Ironically, it’s often about how to build my email list.
Did you guys love Natalie’s guest post last week? There are a million ways to market your practice. Like Natalie says, it’s really best to choose what feels right for you. The whole email list/auto-responder thing just didn’t feel right to me clinically, so I’m not going to force it. I took it down several months ago after it being up for quite a while. It was ONE MORE THING I had to manage. I want private practice to be like a vacation compared to agency work. I don’t want it to involve any more busy work than it has to.
Rebuttal #1: But this content is valuable and helpful! Good! Blog about it! Keep your blog rolling if writing fits for you. Remember, I dig a good therapy blog and encourage you to find good ways to fill it. That allows your potential clients to get all that great info on their terms.
Rebuttal #2: You’re kind of a huge hypocrite. I got this in my inbox. And the likelihood of you being my therapy client is infinitesimal. The boundaries are different for consulting and therapy. I’ll grab a beer with my consulting clients. I’ve had people I was already friends with join my group. My group members have seen me disclose some heavy stuff that I’d never share with therapy clients. While my consulting clients are in some vulnerable spaces throughout our work together, I’m not responsible for their emotional lives in the way we take on some clinical responsibility for our therapy clients.
Rebuttal #3: I’m hoping to launch an information product like an ebook or an ecourse, don’t I need an email list? Yep! You do! And I think having a clear indication of what the sign up is for and only emailing updates about that thing is the most responsible way to deal with that. You can scroll to the bottom of my book page for an example.
Lastly, like anything, do what works for you. If you have an email list and autoresponder right now, read this and disagreed, know that I don’t judge. This is what works for me. These are my concerns. And I’m aware that I can sometimes veer towards the clinically conservative sometimes. Email lists may indeed be the wave of the future and I don’t want to slow you down. If email lists don’t sit well with you for reasons similar to mine, know that you aren’t doing anything “wrong” in your business if you don’t have one.
Let’s talk about it! What’s your perspective? Let me know in the comments. (And as an FYI, any comments that are rude or snippy towards anyone else will be deleted.)
Allison Puryear is an LCSW with a nearly diagnosable obsession with business development. She has started practices in three different states and wants you to know that building a private practice is shockingly doable when you have a plan and support. After retiring her individual consultation services, she opened the Abundance Party, where you can get practice-building help for the cost of a copay. You can download a free private practice checklist to make sure you have your ducks in a row, get weekly private practice tips, listen to the podcast, hop into the free Facebook Group. Allison is all about helping you gain the confidence and tools you need to succeed.