As a graphic designer, it was fascinating to read this New York Times article entitled, “Psychotherapy’s Image Problem Pushes Some Therapists to Become ‘Brands’”. In the past 5 years or so, I’ve been telling all my graphic design clients to be as specific and personal as possible in marketing themselves, and it’s interesting to see that the same holds true for psychotherapists. Marshall McLuhan’s famous idea that the medium is the message is useful in understanding why the market craves for specificity now. It is the message of the medium, search engine, that changed our expectations and desires for specificity. Now that the search engines are almost uncanny in their ability to find the exact answers to our very specific questions, we expect to find exactly what we want when we search for any products or services, and if we are not getting exactly what we want, we feel that we are not getting our money’s worth.
In searching for anything, when you get a lot of results, it’s not practically feasible to go through them all, which means people would have to narrow down their search in one way or another. And, they will eventually reach a point where they would see dozens of candidates that are equally good, so they are going to need some tie-breaking criteria, and they tend to be rather arbitrary. Let’s say, I’m looking for a therapist, and search on Google or within the database of Psychology Today. I see that some of them specialize in men, which is a convenient factor to filter out the rest (who see just women or both genders). But I still get far too many therapists, so I figure I could be picky and find therapists near me, and I add my zip code as another criteria. I still get hundreds, and I don’t have time to go through them all. So, I say I’d like to see a therapist who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Suppose, I get the number of results down to about 25. That’s a small enough number to go through. I would probably rule out some just based on how they look. And, I would end up with about a dozen who seem equally good but one of them says he immigrated from Japan when he was a teenager. Bingo. That’s my therapist. This is how we typically search for anything (not just therapists); we keep adding more criteria until the number of results is manageable. This is why a catch-all marketing strategy is dangerous; you would be the first to be eliminated in this process.
One of the reasons why so many therapists are having trouble marketing themselves is because they all try to rely on authority to attract clients. Because the nature of psychotherapy is so elusive and subjective that it is difficult to stand up all by yourself and confidently convince people to buy your service. It’s much easier if you can amass a wall full of credentials like your degrees, years of experience, institutional affiliations, and publications. Associating yourself with a particular school/method of psychotherapy is also a way to piggyback on its established authority because your own unique method wouldn’t have any authority. But the reality from the point of view of your potential clients is that most of these things don’t matter. Most therapists are clinging to these tokens of authority out of their own insecurity. The average people have no idea what “CBT” is, or what criteria are relevant in searching for appropriate therapists. As this article confirms, most people resort to their gut feelings. It is who the therapist is as a person that really matters. Therefore, the therapists who don’t rely on these established symbols of authority have a huge marketing advantage because the vast majority of their competitors all sound the same.
This is exactly the same in graphic design which is also a highly elusive and subjective field. A lot of graphic designers are busy trying to win design awards in order to gain authority but what average clients would know what AIGA is? Most people don’t even know which art schools are supposed to be prestigious. Having worked with Stefan Sagmeister doesn’t mean anything to them because they’ve never heard of him. People tend to get stuck in their own bubble and have no idea how the people outside of their bubble see them.
This article confirms this. “Coaches” or “consultants” are making more money than “therapists” and you don’t even need a license to be a coach or consultant. Whatever tokens of authority you acquire aren’t all that helpful in the end because the average clients have no way of evaluating their value/meaning in any meaningful manner. They are just tools for the therapists themselves to feel confident, just like graphic design awards are for designers. If you can be confident in what you have to offer without those tokens of authority, you don’t need them. And, being free of the established authority makes you unique in a crowded market as everyone else flocks to the authority out of insecurity.
In graphic design too, it all comes down to personal chemistry. My skills and talent are secondary. That is the reality. I think any experienced designers who had their own business for more than 10 years would agree (unless their clients are agencies who are living in the same bubble). If so, why should I bother building a wall between me and my clients to hang framed proofs of my authority and credentials to protect my insecurity? It would make a lot more sense to tear down that wall so that my clients can see who I am as a person.
When I decided to start writing email newsletters, I created a format with two parts to each newsletter. The first part would talk about my personal life, and mainly reported how my daughter was doing. I even included a photo of her in every newsletter. The second part was professional. I offered practical information about graphic design and the Internet. Most people read the first part but didn’t read the second part (a lot of them told me). And, I had to stop writing because I got too many jobs from it (as I’m not particularly interested in growing my business).
Most therapists are taught not to reveal their personal stories. I’ve always felt that the concern about “transference” for therapists was misguided. I think keeping up an anonymous facade has its own pros and cons but I think the opposite has its own pros and cons too, and neither method is superior to the other. One of the reasons why people want therapists is because we now live in the age where we are expected to separate our public and private faces. This expectation is relatively new in history. It mostly came from the corporatization of business where it was convenient for the capitalists to have easily replaceable employees. They didn’t want the employees to be themselves. They wanted them to behave consistently. So, the more they suppressed their own true personality and individuality, the better. But this strategy is no longer working in today’s business. Easily interchangeable cogs can be found anywhere in the world, particularly in China and India. Marketing yourself or your business as an interchangeable cog is pointless because there are far too many competitors. They all inevitably lead to a race to the bottom. The only way to survive in this world is to market yourself as yourself. Let yourself be. Shamelessly reveal everything about yourself whether they are relevant to your business or not. Because it’s all about the chemistry in the end. If you can win clients by being yourself, you have no competition because nobody could be better than you in being you.
What people are craving for today is the old school therapists, that is, true friends. People know how to “network” but they don’t know how to make friends. So, they need to pay therapists to talk about their inner problems. But therapists too separate their public and private faces, so people don’t really get what they want. This is one of the things that shocked me about the book “The Family Crucible”. The authors, Augustus Napier and Carl Whitaker, were completely open about their own personal issues/problems, and they used them to their advantage in their therapies. It was refreshing to me since the popular impression of therapists has always been this objective person that simply functioned as a mirror or a projector screen, revealing nothing of themselves. I think this image of therapist is wide-spread, and I think it’s part of the reason why people are seeing less “therapists” and more “coaches”.
As shallow as “marketing” seems, to be successful at it, you need to be in tune with what people are feeling out there. In this sense, both graphic designers and psychotherapists should be good at marketing their own business since knowing and understanding what people are feeling and thinking in our current environment is also what they need to be good designers or therapists.