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Tuesday, October 1

Private Practice: Adventures in Marketing - Finding Your Niche

Barbara Wahler, MSW, LCSW

The NASW Illinois Chapter has started a shared interest group (SIG) devoted to the issues of private practitioners around the state. To be become involved in this group, please contact the NASW Illinois Chapter office: http://naswil.org/naswil/contact-us/.


While this may seem like Business 101 to any MBA, most social workers in private practice haven’t considered marketing to a specific audience. Between theory, human behavior and the social environment (HBSE), practicum, and administration, we are rarely offered even basic business classes. And the reality is that we in private practice are running small businesses. We are our own boards, CEOs, and employees all in one. In short we are entrepreneurs. But going into private practice, too many of us (and I speak for myself as well) haven’t a clue about how to offer our services.

Many solo practitioners choose to work with insurance companies. This option certainly can offer good opportunities for referrals. However the clinician may find herself at the mercy of changing rules, various rates (and speed) of reimbursement, and clinical concerns about confidentiality, quality of care, and best practices on the part of managed care. Because I was not interested in working with managed care companies, I had to become active in getting the word out about what I could offer to whom. Unlike agency work, in private practice I couldn’t sit in my office waiting for clients to seek me out.

Although I initially resisted the idea of a niche practice (I enjoy working with a variety of clients and didn’t want to limit myself), I grew to see the wisdom of narrowing my focus and marketing to a specific audience. I learned this didn’t mean these were the only clients I would see. Rather, it meant that when a friend or colleague met my ideal client and wanted to refer him or her, I’d be the one they thought of!

Once I identified my ideal client—the one I’d love to have a thousand of instead of the one who leaves me feeling totally drained—I could tell other people who then become additional eyes and ears for me. I could be seen as a specialist in this area (in my case, that’s teens dealing with racial and/or sexual identity issues). Once I named who I wanted to work with, I could be more creative about how to answer the question, “What do you do?” Focusing on a specific type of client helped me to decide where and how to reach out to them.

Having an ideal client to market to also helps me get out in the world more; I am after all a social worker! Marketing, or sharing my passion about my work, allows me to connect with a variety of people and develop possible referral sources like school personnel (teachers, counselors, and administration), doctors, and parents. Anyone who might be involved with youth and their families is a helpful contact. I can create community presentations directed toward those potential clients.

I also felt compelled to begin a local practice-building network for therapists and allied service providers. This group serves as a way for us to learn, teach, share, and support each other in our marketing efforts. Besides connecting with others (something many solo practitioners miss!), we have reviewed our websites, previewed new workshops, brainstormed ideas, and (I hope) found creative ways to make our presence known.

There are certainly as many ways to market a practice as there are therapists to do so. I believe the trick to creating your ideal practice is to discern who it is you want to serve, who challenges you to do and be your best—and then let them know you’re out there!

Barbara Wahler, MSW, LCSW, maintains a private practice in Chicago and works part-time at the Chicago Waldorf School. Barbara is a certified school social worker and spent much of the last twenty years working in inner-city schools in Chicago. Currently she coordinates a practice-building network for therapists and allied practitioners who want to improve their outreach skills. Barbara's role as the co-chair of an antiracism organizing team informs her practice, which focuses on teens (and their families) who are struggling with racial and sexuality identity issues.

Posted on 10/01/13 at 08:14 AM

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