5 Steps of Word-of-Mouth Marketing

Speech Balloons

A physical therapist’s guide to the why and how.

By Michelle Collie, PT, DPT, MS

What’s one thing we all need? It’s quite simple: new patients.

For a practice to be successful, a never-ending stream of new patients is essential. But it’s not quite that simple. The type of patients we see has a significant impact on the success of our practices. Employee recruitment, satisfaction, and retention, clinical outcomes, patient satisfaction, and, ultimately, financial position can all be impacted by the type of patients that come to our practice.

A marketing plan can drive not just new patients to our practices but also the types of patients, or “personas” that will contribute to business success. Personas are fictional characters created to represent the targeted individual a practice or physical therapist would like to see. Personas may include variables such as age, gender, occupation, income, hobbies, payer, ailments, hopes, fears and dreams.1 There is one characteristic that tends to stay consistent among the personas developed for physical therapy practices—the preference to see “active” patients. To clarify, an “active” patient is not an athlete or a person who exercises but rather a person who wants to play an active role in their care. These patients are compliant and follow through with treatment recommendations; they come to their appointments; they engage, ask questions, and are invested in their outcomes. This contrasts with the patient who states, “My doctor told me I had to have physical therapy” or “My MRI shows that I need surgery, but I have to try physical therapy first.” Generally, these people do not, at least initially, understand the value of physical therapy, so may not follow through with recommendations, resulting in less than favorable outcomes. Their lower arrival rates and unique reasons why not to pay their copayments, coinsurance, and deductibles place financial burdens on a practice. Of course, these patients do need and will benefit from our care. However, a physical therapist seeing a full caseload of these patients will become burnt out and dissatisfied, resulting in staffing turnover and further financial challenges.

Patients who come to our practices at the recommendations of friends and family or through word of mouth more often fit into the category of desirable or “active” patients. These are the patients who come to physical therapy with an inherent trust in our profession and businesses. They are compliant, engaged, value our services, get good outcomes—and pay! A robust and strategic marketing plan that includes word of mouth will ensure these desirable patients will come to your practice.

Natural word-of-mouth references occur when a patient talks to other people about their experience. This differs from word-of-mouth marketing, which involves strategically encouraging and influencing satisfied patients to promote our practices, resulting in new and desirable patients. For example, a patient with a shoulder injury has an excellent physical therapy experience, accomplishing their goal of returning to tennis. This patient may naturally mention physical therapy on the tennis court and may even suggest your practice to a friend or family member who asks for a recommendation. Word-of-mouth marketing differs in that this person will have the know-how and desire to promote your practice. Instead of a casual mention on the sidelines of a tennis court, “My physical therapist was great and helped me return to tennis,” this person will have the knowledge and tools to essentially endorse and promote your services. This satisfied patient could do an online review, tell members of the tennis club that you are accepting new patients, or educate friends and family that a referral is not needed for physical therapy. This is free and authentic marketing resulting in desirable, compliant patients who are active in their care.

Physical therapists are in a unique position to generate word-of-mouth patients. We develop relationships, listen, build trust, and get patients back to their lives. Patients appreciate our services. By simply communicating, asking questions, educating, providing solutions and value, we can gain new patients through word-of-mouth recommendations.

Ask patients for online reviews.

“I would really appreciate you taking the time to provide a review on Yelp, Google, or Facebook.” This ask can be further supported by sending emails to patients with links asking for reviews, providing internet access in your clinic, and sharing reviews in the clinic for patients to see. For added impact, engage and comment on reviews made online, share reviews on social media, and add them to your website.

Tell patients you want to see new patients.

“I am still building my caseload so am happy to see any of your friends and family.” Offer to provide free consultations to their friends and family in the clinic or over the phone. When a patient does refer a friend or family member, show your appreciation by sending a thank you note.

Educate patients, and not just on their home exercise program.

A patient you are seeing for an ankle injury casually alludes to their challenges with stress incontinence. This is a perfect opportunity to educate the patient on physical therapy for incontinence and even facilitate an evaluation and treatment for this new diagnosis. A patient mentions their mother’s recent fall or their spouse’s back pain. Each provides an appropriate opening to offer advice, education, and even an appointment, reminding patients that a referral is not necessary!

Stay connected.

An episode of care occurs over a finite period of time, but a relationship with a patient should not. Check-in phone calls, emails, and even old-fashioned handwritten notes will ensure you and your practice stay top-of-mind. Strengthen the value of your relationships by providing meaningful content. For example, send updates to home programs, offer annual physicals,2 or forward subject matter of interest to the patient. Finally, invite patients to follow your practice on various social media platforms in an effort to have them become part of your practice’s community.

Give people a reason to talk about your practice.

Word of mouth can be triggered by creating a unique patient experience, going above and beyond what is considered normal or by exceeding expectations. A distinctive celebration for the patient upon discharge, Monday morning coffee offerings, staff singing happy birthday on a patient’s birthday, interesting clinic artwork or décor, casual Fridays, raising money for a nonprofit or sponsoring a local youth sports team. Go above and beyond or do something unique.

Whether you are a single practitioner who is just starting a practice or are part of a large multi-site practice, strategic word-of-mouth marketing will lead to success in your practice. In addition, growing a larger community of people promoting our practices will help our entire profession.


1Collie M. 5 simple steps in creating a marketing persona. Impact. March 2019.

2Rodia D, Collie M. Incorporating the annual physical therapy exam into your practice. Impact. October 2018.

Michelle Collie, PT, DPT, MS, is the chair of the PPS PR and Marketing Committee and chief executive officer of Performance Physical Therapy in Rhode Island. She can be reached at mcollie@performanceptri.com.

Copyright © 2018, Private Practice Section of the American Physical Therapy Association. All Rights Reserved.

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