Getting the Word Out


Define and implement your marketing strategy.

By Sturdy McKee, PT, MPT

Merriam-Webster defines marketing as “the activities that are involved in making people aware of a company’s products, making sure that the products are available to be bought, etc.” But to what end? How do you fit that into your business or practice? How do you know where to spend your money, time, and effort? And how—with that definition—can you measure results?

Marketing is not just information sharing and improved awareness. Successful marketing should result in lead generation, not simply education. It should drive behaviors that result in people calling your office, booking appointments online, visiting your website, and sharing your story with their friends, families, and patients. Great marketing results in warm leads, which converts to paying customers. Otherwise, what is the point? When we spend time, money, and preparation to go to a health fair, do a seminar, write a blog post, or buy advertising, what is the desired result? Is it more incoming inquiries and ultimately more patients? If so, and if that effort does not achieve the desired result, then was it worth it? Should it be repeated?

People are looking for solutions to their problems. In our case as physical therapists, that is often real pain and lack of function, or not being able to run, walk, lift, bike, swim, or participate in their desired activity. They will look for tools that serve to achieve their solution. So, awareness is certainly a component, just not the whole thing. And most people do not want to buy more tools for the sake of buying tools. In other words, nobody wants to buy “physical therapy.” However, that is what our marketing efforts entail. We are often educating people about physical therapy. Yet people are only interested in the services of a physical therapist insofar as it helps them overcome their problem.

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To test how effective our approach has been so far, let’s use low back pain (LBP) as an example. This is a population that the right physical therapist can help the vast majority of the time. Low back pain accounts for 2.5 to 3 percent of all physician visits in the United States.1 Yet only 7 percent of people who consult their primary care provider for LBP are referred to a physical therapist in the first 90 days of an episode.2 There is varying data on how many people skip their primary care physician altogether and go instead to a chiropractor, acupuncturist, massage therapist, or do not go at all. However, we know more than just “some” do. That means that fewer than 7 percent of people with LBP each year avail themselves of the services of a physical therapist. Since we know that not all people with LBP go to their primary physician, 5 percent seems to be a very conservative estimate of our market penetration.

The tragic component around how we, as a society, are treating LBP is that opioids are “now the most commonly prescribed drug class” for this population.3 Many more people are taking opioids for LBP than accessing a physical therapist.

So, is what we are doing working? Why are we only helping less than 5 percent of the LBP market, when we are often by far the most effective and least expensive option to help them solve their problem? And what is our responsibility to the public and society to educate them around how we can help when many of them are taking opioids to mask pain and thus are not moving closer to the solution of their actual problem? And this brings us back to marketing.

Bill Bishop, author of The New Factory Thinker, says that physical therapists “need to differentiate themselves from the competition.” The competition, in this case, being everything the other 95 percent is seeking and using to (ostensibly) solve their problem. He goes on to say that through the use of “articles, blogs, videos, podcasts, webinars, and presentations, physical therapists need to market themselves as experts, instead of simply promoting their services.”

Chad Madden of Breakthrough PT Marketing agrees. Chad says, “When I first started in private practice, I thought marketing was branding . . . my logo . . . my slogan . . . my website. What I found was branding alone does not work. What does work is ‘content marketing.’ Content marketing allows us to position ourselves within the marketplace as experts by providing value through videos, reports, books, or workshops.” Chad goes on to say, “Content marketing allows us to be scientific, or evidence-based, with our marketing spend.” Again, he is focusing on results.

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And to further expand our lack of market penetration, 51 percent of males and 56 percent of females in the United States report having “musculoskeletal conditions.”4 What percentage of those people is accessing a physical therapist? How many of these people can we help and how many know that? What if even a quarter of these people wanted to schedule with a physical therapist? Will you be able to fit them all in?

So what do we do?

Eric Keiles, founder of Square 2 Marketing, emphasizes “strategy before tactics.” Content marketing may sound great and positioning yourself as an expert is fine advice, but how? “Like anything else in life, a good plan is essential,” says Keiles. “Most practice owners do not take the time to develop their unique message before they build a website, start a blog, or do email marketing.” He explains that your unique message should answer the question, “Why should I do business with you?”

“When you develop a great story, it is easier to create the tactics and, as a bonus, patients share your story,” says Keiles. “That leads to referrals, which are the best kinds of leads by far!”

This is an important point. Many physical therapy practice owners have based their businesses on referrals, many successfully so. If you look not just to your top referrers, but to the new ones popping up from time to time, ask yourself (or better yet ask them) why did they begin referring to you? What is your story that they understand and are telling? Is it their patients’ stories and how you played a role in their success? Is it something about your vision, mission, and values and why you started and grew your practice? Can you take that same story and begin sharing it with others?

“Perspective matters more than anything else,” shares Bill Gallagher, a serial entrepreneur and founder of Humanisteq, business coaching. “We tend to think about what we are building, what we can do, what we need, and what we have,” our practice. “It is all from our own perspective. But our clients and prospects do not really care about us. They are worried about themselves.”

“So, try to think from their perspective, and try to get into their mindset. When will they look for you, how, and where? What matters to them? What will they trust and what will they question?” asks Gallagher. “What is it really like to work with you, for them? What is it like for them to deal with your practice? What do they love, and what are they sick and tired of? What could they care less about? Who else do they buy from and work with that is not in competition with you?”

What could you accomplish if you took the time to sit down and answer Bill’s questions? Would it help you in your new marketing strategy and planning?

Jim Neumann, vice president of marketing at Clinicient, agrees with having a strategy, differentiating your practice, and telling your story. How you get your story out is also an important part of your strategy. “Social media—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.—can be an incredibly valuable tool,” says Neumann. “If satisfied patients are willing to send a post to their friends celebrating their speedy recovery, the ‘endorsement’ power of such posts can be very effective.” And while setting up and maintaining a Facebook page takes time, it is free. So, there is a huge potential return on your investment.


Marketing needs a plan. Your plan should include audience, story, messaging, channels, and goals. The more specific you are at each point, the more consistent you will be in your delivery and the more fidelity your message will carry forward when it is your staff, your patients, and your referring providers sharing your story and message. Just like treatment, you will want to set clear and specific goals, and track them. When you are not achieving your goals, again just like treatment, you will want to revisit your plan and interventions, and adjust them to more effectively reach your goals. Above all, reach out to an expert for help. You are an expert in your practice and your particular niche. You have spent a great deal of time, energy, and money becoming the expert you are. There are people who have spent just as much time, effort, and money as you have becoming experts in their fields. And many of them are happy to help.

Sturdy McKee, PT, MPT, is a chief executive officer, entrepreneur, physical therapist, and business coach who can be reached through and on Facebook @ Sturdy.Coaching.


1. Deyo RA, Mirza SK, Martin BI. Back pain prevalence and visit rates: estimates from U.S. national surveys. Spine 2006;31: 2724-2727.

2. Fritz JM, Childs JD, Wainner RS, Flynn TW. Primary care referral of patients with low back pain to physical therapy: impact on future health care utilization and costs. Spine 2012;25: 2114-2121.

3. Deyo RA, Von Korff M, Duhrkoop D. Opioids for low back pain. BMJ 2015;350: g6380.

4. Accessed March 2016.

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