Every week, for the past several years, I’ve received calls from counselors who’ve decided to begin offering online therapy. I used to respond to these calls with excitement: “Great! Congratulations! Welcome to the club!” I would say. However, more recently I’ve become a bit hesitant with my cheers, “wait a second” I might say, “What are you expecting to happen when you start offering online therapy?”
Too often, the counselor’s response sounds something like this. “Well, I’m getting fewer new clients in my face-to-face practice, so I was thinking that online counseling would provide a much larger pool of potential clients.” Then the counselor will ask me, “How long do you think it will take for me to have a full caseload?”
“Well, that’s the thing,” I’ll say, “Caseloads of online clients don’t just happen; they take a lot of effort to build. Being on the Internet isn’t the solution to all your private practice woes.”
And then, I will tell them what I’m about to tell you.
Online Counseling is a Small Pond
In the example above, the counselor is operating under an misconception—the syllogism is as follows:
Major Premise: Big Nets Catch Fish
Minor Premise: With Online Counseling, I Have a Big Net
Conclusion: With Online Counseling, I Will Catch Fish
Brings you back to undergraduate philosophy, doesn’t it? In less philosophical terms, the reasoning sounds like this: “There are millions of people online who want counseling. I should have no problem finding lots of clients!”
And here’s the flaw. An online counselor’s net may be huge, but the pond is small.
According to Google, in a recent month there were 1,220,000 web searches for the keyword “Counselor.” In the same month, there were 6,600 searches for the keyword “Online Counselor.”
Note huge difference: 1,213,400 more searches for “counselors”, compared to “online counselors.” Few clients are looking for online counseling (I wonder how many of those 6,600 searches were from counselors themselves!).
Other Nets in the Pond
When it comes to online counseling, there is more competition every day. While it is true that most counselors in the USA have no Internet presence what-so-ever, there are still thousands of therapists providing online services. In addition, the growing field of life coaching creates competition for counselors—and life coaches customarily provide services via telephone, or online.
Make no mistake, competition for online (and telephone) clients is strong, and any new online counselor is entering a competitive arena.
Immediate Benefits for Online Counselors
This article is not meant to discourage. All hope is not lost for the therapist considering online counseling! There are some immediate benefits to having an infrastructure for efficiently and ethically providing online counseling. Such will allow you to:
1. Retain some clients who relocate (a common problem in college towns like mine, Boston, MA)
2. Help clients who can’t make it to all of their appointments (stuck at work, stuck in traffic, traveling, etc.)
3. Attract a small number of new clients (your net will catch some fish)
The Competitive Online Counselor
Build a Business
Going online is not an alternative to the arduous task of building a counseling business. Therapists need to develop a solid strategic plan. Develop a brand. Become a thought leader in the field. One even needs advertising and PR. For starters, I recommend that every aspiring online therapist should become an active part of the online communities where they are hanging their virtual shingle.
Find a Niche
Client X needs counseling. What makes you the best choice?
One way to attract online clients is to specialize. Focus your efforts on a specific type of client: clients with liver cancer, clients with pregnant teens, clients who have lost a child, desperate housewives, Americans living in Japan, Japanese living in the Americas…you get the picture.
People are more likely to try online counseling if they feel they will be able to talk with the expert in the exact area that they need help.
Online counseling is not your niche! It is a method of delivering service. Don’t just be online—be so valuable that people across the country are calling and emailing you to ask—“Do you see online clients?”
Anthony Centore is a counselor, and helps other counselors build successful practices. For more information on private practice and insurance panels go to http://thriveworks.com .