Please note: This article is location-specific to the Australian culture, however the marketing principles of what you need to do to build a successful private practice apply internationally.

I received an interesting email from a new Australia Counselling member recently. This member told me about her struggle to make a living in Australia as a counsellor. She told me she felt she couldn’t compete with psychologists who can offer Medicare rebates and private health fund rebates.

She was currently working with students and young people who already couldn’t afford her fee. She asked me why anyone would pay her full fee when they could see a psychologist and often pay less than $50 a session after they received a rebate.

I was perplexed by her difficulty and interested to see what she was doing online to market her business. I had a hunch about what might be happening, and my hunch was right- she was positioning herself as a generalist. Her website was targeting many different issues in the hope that she would attract a broader range of clients.

The challenge of being a generalist in a saturated market of therapists

You see, when you market your counselling business online and offline as a generalist, you’re casting a wide net and trying to capture as many possible demographic markets as possible.

You know the type (perhaps you are one) where they work with anxiety, depression, borderline, anxiety disorders, sleep problems, couples counselling, ADD/ADHD, developmental and learning disorders, family issues, adolescent issues, parenting and child rearing issues- I could go on and on.

The problem with this ‘scatter-gun approach’ is in your efforts to target lots of clients, you actually end up targeting very few.

If anything has changed radically in the online world, it’s been the way that businesses need to drill down to target very specific audiences and markets.

No longer can you be a jack-of-all-trades and hope to create a thriving business. The search engines don’t want it and today’s consumers don’t want it.

How the search engines changed the game

This all began with the powerful development of search engines like Google.

Google is now the modern-day ‘Yellow Pages’. No one goes to that tired old book that you use to prop up your computer screen anymore (and most end up in the recycling).

People all over the world go to Google to find a solution to their problem. Just look at your own behaviour on Google- it’s likely it will tell you a lot about how many people use search engines today. Primarily, people go to Google to get answers to their questions.

And Google spends millions of dollars every year to develop its search engine to make sure you get the best and most accurate search results, so you keep using Google and they keep making money from advertising.

As a result, Google is looking for specialists not generalists. The more specific and niche-focused your website is, the greater the chance you have of Google taking your website and putting it in the search results, so that people can click on your site and find it.

This is a win-win for Google; the consumer gets exactly what they are looking for, you get more business and consumers keep using Google for their search results.

Why consumers don’t want generalists

The other shift that has happened is that consumers are now very savvy online. When they have a problem, are experiencing pain or want resolution to some difficulty, they want to work with a specialist- someone who has specific skills, knowledge and talents in a particular area.

It’s worked this way in the medical profession for decades that consumers seek out specialists in the medical field to get the best possible help for their medical problem. I think this is now the case in mental health field.

If you’re kid is suffering from ADD/ADHD, would you really risk taking him to a mental health professional that is saying they work with 5-10 other areas of practice? Not likely. You want the best, most specialised help for your child.

This is my other point- consumers know they can work with specialists in the mental health field and they are looking for them. So who do you think Google is going to send them to when they do their search online? Yep, the therapist with the niche-focused website that specialises in working with that problem.

Let’s break some therapy myths

When I have this conversation with therapists, I invariably hear objections such as:

  1. I don’t want to only see those clients.
  2. I’m worried my business will collapse if I specialise.
  3. Clients won’t contact me if they have a different problem.
  4. My colleagues will stop referring to me.
  5. I don’t want to be locked into being seen as that type of therapist.
  6. I’m worried it will be boring to only focus on one speciality.

So here are my responses:

  1. You specialise for marketing purposes only- you can still choose to see as many different clients as you want.
  2. This is a myth and the opposite is true- you will have more clients than if you’re a generalist.*
  3. There’s something called the ‘halo effect’, which is when someone perceives you as a specialist in one area, they will also assume you’re a specialist in other areas.
  4. Being a specialist makes it easier for your colleague to refer to you because they understand who your ideal clients are.
  5. Again, it’s for marketing purposes only, and your current clients will continue to send you all sorts of referrals, because they know how wonderful you are, and you can choose to see them, or not.
  6. When you start diving into a speciality, you begin to discover how much there is to learn about the area, which makes you a better therapist with honed skills and specialised training.

*One caveat: If you work in a small town or community, you can do better to market yourself as a generalist.

The silver lining of Medicare and private health funds

Maybe I have a warped perspective, but I actually believe there’s a silver lining to the rebates discussion in Australia.

The silver lining for counsellors and therapists that I see is that you are being called to use the power of online marketing to tell the world about your passion, to refine your skills as a therapist and to own your power as an authority in your chosen area of expertise.

When I chose to specialise in relationship counselling, I never imagined that I would be able to create such a thriving practice by choosing one niche. And many years on, I can say that I enjoy marketing myself and sharing my passion and knowledge for this area to my community. It was one of the best decisions I ever made in my business.

The other silver lining, is it’s much easier to communicate online about your niche to your ideal clients, thanks to the power of the Internet and social media.

So my challenge to you is to take a risk, step out of your comfort zone and start to market your counselling services in a highly specific and targeted way, so you can attract your ideal clients and continue to do what you love with the people you enjoy.

To your success,

Clinton Power Australia Counselling Founder
Clinton Power
Founder, Australia Counselling

P.S. Did you get here via a link from a friend, or Twitter? If so, you can sign up for our free 5-part  eCourse called 5 Ethical Practice-Building Strategies for Counsellors by signing up here.