Being a spokesperson for the online therapy field, I have, every week for the past several years, received calls from counselors who have recently listed their name and practice information on an online counseling website (such as eCounseling.com), or who are having someone build them an online counseling website of their own. I usually meet these calls with a certain level of excitement: “Great! Super! Excellent! Congratulations! Welcome to the club!” I will say. But I have recently grown to be a bit hesitant with my cheers, “wait a second” I might say, “What are you expecting to happen when you start your online therapy practice?”
Too often, the counselor’s response sounds something like this. “Well, I’m getting fewer new clients at my face-to-face practice, so I was thinking that, with online counseling, I would have 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, especially caseloads of online clients, don’t just happen; they are BUILT with a lot of effort. Being on the Internet is a great start, in some ways it even puts you miles ahead, but it 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 Smaller Pond
In the example above, the counselor is operating under an understandable 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: “As an online counselor, my reach is a million times longer than it is offline. Therefore, even if I don’t put a lot of effort into promoting my practice, I should still get more than enough clients!”
And here’s the flaw. One’s net may be huge, but how big is the pond?
According to Google, in January, 2009 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 the magnitude of the difference: 1,213,400 more searches for “counselors”, compared to “online counselors”. Hence, while an online counselor’s net may be huge, the pond is (for now) relatively small.
Other Nets in the Pond
When it comes to online counseling, there is increasing 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 column is not meant to discourage. All hope is not lost for the therapist considering online counseling! There are some immediate benefits to having online counseling training, and having an infrastructure for efficiently and ethically providing online or telephone counseling. Such will allow you to:
1. Retain clients who relocate (a common problem in college areas like my hometown, 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 company structure. Measure growth. One needs advertising and PR. One needs a marketing plan that takes into account the online audience. I recommend every online therapist create content and publish it on the web in order to begin becoming an active part of the online community 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, office spouses, desperate housewives, Americans living in Japan, Japanese living in the Americas…you get the picture.
Online counseling is not your niche! It is a method of delivering service. It is added value to your in-person clients. Build your practice. Find a target audience and help them. Don’t just be online—be so valuable that people across the country are calling and emailing you to ask—Do you take online clients?