3 Essential Skills for Establishing Thought Leadership

Line of lightbulbs with one lightbulb lit

By Peter Decoteau

If you were to survey a cross section of private practice physical therapists on the primary challenges facing them and their clinics today, you’d likely find a lot of similarities in their answers.

Chief among them might be a broad challenge the industry has historically struggled with: How do we educate the general public on the benefits of physical therapy to position our services as a primary choice for care?

Given the unpredictable nature of payer rates and doctor referrals, it benefits us as an industry to push for self-referrals as a much more significant source of new and returning patients. Daunting though it may seem, within this challenge lies an opportunity to craft the narrative about who we are and what we do in a way that repositions the field of physical therapy as a positive lifelong approach to proactive self-care. One of the leading ways we can do this is by establishing ourselves as the preeminent experts on all things related to the musculoskeletal system through strategic thought leadership.

Thought leadership is, broadly, asserting yourself, your company, or your brand as a leading authority within an industry through messaging and content. Many approaches to thought leadership come from the perspective of business-to-business relations or professional development, but there are ample benefits to using it as a means to market your services to consumer audiences. This is especially true for something as widely misunderstood as physical therapy, where intra-industry expertise and authority rarely seems to make its way to the general public.

In his book Thought Leaders, Matt Church outlines what he sees as the nine essential skills of thought leadership.1 While we don’t have the space to cover all of the skills in detail here, I wanted to highlight some key ideas I believe are most important in using thought leadership to market to prospective patients.

“Perspective—see what’s really going on”

As Church puts it, perspective allows you to “future-proof your ideas” by resisting the urge to chase passing fads and trends and instead focus on foresight and reflection. While it’s unfortunate that pain and injury is a universal experience for all of us, it does make the need for physical therapy essentially “future proof.” The perspective, then, is in the ability to see the big picture—the patterns, forces, and other factors that impact the delivery of our messages and services. In execution, this often means taking advantage of new technologies, shifting cultural attitudes, and ever-changing political climates around health care to more effectively package and serve these messages and services to the public. This doesn’t mean jumping into every new social media platform or shiny new treatment method, but rather anticipating the approach you can use to most effectively educate the public on the benefits of physical therapy, and breaking down barriers to getting people into treatment. In short, it’s having a high-level, flexible, and strategic approach to marketing while keeping in mind the core value of what we do.

“Expertise—know what you know”

Church says that “the core of your thought leadership is your intellectual property (IP) … the ideas that form the basis of what you share.” The field of physical therapy has an abundance of IP in the way of our clinical experts, and yet the majority of people tend to defer to primary care doctors, surgeons, and others with questions about musculoskeletal problems. We as an industry need to do better to prove to the general public that we are the experts!

Once your perspective is established, you should have a better idea of how to capitalize on the platforms, external developments, and other opportunities that will get your expertise out in front of the right audiences. The next step is to tap into that expertise to create relevant, engaging content.

Your most effective content will vary based on things like specialization, target demographics, and payer relationships, but a few examples of content that can help to establish thought leadership include:

  • A series of brief (1–2 minute) videos explaining causes of pain and how PTs might approach treatment, shared on social media and potentially as targeted YouTube advertisements.
  • Sponsored informational segments in your local newspaper or on your local news station, preferably with a unique URL (a standalone website name) to track website traffic.
  • Seasonal infographics about how to prevent common sports and activity injuries shared on social media, relevant organizations, and blogs.
  • Presentations to community groups and organizations covering relevant topics such as vertigo and imbalance treatment for senior centers, running pain and injuries for local runners’ groups, and injury prevention for local gyms.
  • An “Ask the PT” video series covering trending topics such as recent injuries to sports stars, seasonal activities, and other news events.

“Advocacy—build a movement”

In marketing, it’s rarely enough to simply tell the facts, you have to find the best way to convey the value of your service to others. Physical therapists are no strangers to advocacy; oftentimes we are evangelizing on many different fronts at the same time. Still, we tend to exist in an echo chamber of our own making, in which the benefits of PT are obvious to us, but perhaps less so to everyone else. By communicating this value through evangelists—enthusiastic employees, grateful patients, social media influencers, etc.—we can amplify our messaging in a way that is trustworthy and broad in reach. This is where a true “movement” around physical therapy in general, and your physical therapy practice in particular, is created.

Building advocacy always starts with doing what we do best: providing positive experiences, either for patients or for employees. Unfortunately, it also often ends there, with the expectation that these positive experiences will naturally translate into word-of-mouth referrals and reputation growth on their own. Sometimes this is true, but without proactively tapping into your biggest fans, you’re likely losing out on countless opportunities for others to advocate for you, and without guiding their messaging, you’re losing out on the chance to reinforce your expertise and establish thought leadership. It is crucially important that you not only encourage your community to spread the word but also provide them with the right language and resources to do so.

Examples of this type of advocacy-building can include:

  • Onboarding all clinicians with key talking points about your clinic. Make sure to make these points clear and concise so they can be easily remembered in conversation, and focus on specifics like treatments and specializations, differentiators like your culture and approach to PT, and other facts that establish your clinicians as the primary resource for treatment for pain and injury.
  • Creating referral cards to be given to patients upon discharge. These can include information about self-referral, services offered at the clinic, contact information, and even offers for complimentary injury assessments to encourage patients to pass along to family members and friends in need.
  • Coaching patients on how to leave reviews on Google, Yelp, Facebook, and other platforms, making sure they include specifics like why they needed treatment and how physical therapy helped. As a bonus, these reviews will strengthen your search engine optimization (SEO) so your clinic appears higher in online searches!
  • Most importantly—ASK! Satisfied patients are looking for ways to show their gratitude and reciprocate in a meaningful way, and simply asking that they tell their friends, family, and colleagues about your services, or that they leave reviews, participate in testimonials, and share social media content; along with handing out things like referral cards or business cards will make a big difference in how you’re able to amplify your messaging.


1Church M, Stein S, Henderson M. 2011. Thought Leaders: How to Capture, Package, and Deliver Your Ideas for Greater Commercial Success. Auckland, NZ; HarperCollins.

Peter Decoteau

Peter Decoteau is the director of marketing at Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine Centers (PTSMC), Connecticut’s largest private practice physical therapy company. He can be reached at peter.decoteau@ptsmc.com.