Blog Post

FAQ: Ditch the Donuts: Referral Marketing Strategies that Actually Work

If you've got some mind-boggling referral marketing questions, this is the FAQ for you. Click here to see our FAQ on referall marketing strategies, here.

Erica McDermott
5 min read
May 30, 2019
image representing faq: ditch the donuts: referral marketing strategies that actually work
Share this post:


Get the latest news and tips directly in your inbox by subscribing to our monthly newsletter

Earlier this week, Dr. Heidi Jannenga, PT, DPT, ATC, WebPT President and Co-Founder, and Bruce Watson, PT, MS, CEO and Founder of 48 Consulting Group, joined forces to discuss the modern referral marketing strategies that actually work—and the ones that should get left in the dust. During the hour-long presentation, we received a bundle of questions from viewers—some of which our hosts didn’t have time to answer. So, we compiled a list of the most common noodlers of the bunch and answered them below. If you don’t see the answer to your personal noodler, feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of the page, and we’ll do our best to find your answer!

Hospital Affiliates and POPTS

I’ve noticed that hospital-affiliated physicians face many difficulties (e.g., complicated paperwork or forgone production bonuses) if they want to refer patients outside of their hospital network. How do I market to these physicians and convince them that it’s worthwhile to refer externally?

In short, you must identify those providers’ needs and pain points—and offer enough value that it’s worth it for them to go outside their standard protocol. To do that successfully, you’ll need solid outcomes and patient experience data that speaks to the exceptional quality of your services—as well as thought leadership and a focus on building long-term mutually beneficial relationships. It may not be the easiest path, but it is certainly possible.

How should I market to hospital-owned physician practices and POPTS clinics?

According to Watson, it depends on your level of resources and time. First, identify where your patients come from currently as well as where new patients could potentially come from, and don’t hesitate to go to those practices directly. View it as a challenge. Better yet, when you get a referral from one of these sources, view it as an opportunity to establish an ongoing partnership. Go into the practice, talk to the physicians directly, build a real relationship, and ultimately, give those physicians a reason to refer more patients to you.

Additionally, you need to know your competition. Find out which insurance plans they take. If you work with the same plans, that’s an advantage.

How can small practices looking to generate physician referrals compete with POPTS and large corporations?

Consolidation has made it more difficult for small practices to obtain enough physician referrals to thrive—especially because (as we explained in this blog post), “physicians who are part of a large system are, understandably, referring patients to PTs who also are in that system.” That said, the best way to convince those physicians to refer patients to you instead is by demonstrating that you can address their needs—and their patient’s needs—better than their in-house team. And that requires solid data, thought leadership, and a long-term focus on building mutually beneficial relationships (basically, everything Jannenga and Watson discussed during this presentation). You’ll also want to expand your marketing efforts to reach patients directly—both to take advantage of direct access and encourage patients who see their physicians to request a referral to you, specifically.

Who should I contact when I want to market to a big organization (e.g., discharge planners, social workers, case managers)—and is there any protocol I need to follow?

The members of a case management team vary a little bit from organization to organization. So if you want to market to a large organization, you first need to figure out who is on the case management team; then, familiarize yourself with their roles and duties. Once you pinpoint the best potential contact, check out these steps for marketing to larger organizations.

Marketing Methods

Should we use contests or incentives to generate referrals?

No! Generating referrals via contests or incentives is a direct violation of Stark Law (a.k.a. The Ethics in Patient Referral Act). The Stark Law prohibits physicians from referring patients to providers with whom they have a financial relationship. If you use incentives or contests, you create a financial tie between you and the referring provider—thus violating the law.

Is it beneficial to use social media for referral marketing? What is the best tool or strategy?

Social media can be a great tool for referral marketing! You can use Facebook or LinkedIn to find and join local (or regional) physician groups and offer your musculoskeletal expertise when the situation calls for it. Keep in mind that you probably don’t want to dive into a service pitch when you post. Oftentimes, the best way to earn the respect of these groups is to position yourself as an expert and offer your advice when relevant—no strings attached. Eventually, you’ll establish yourself as a primary musculoskeletal point of contact. Referrals should start filtering in from that point on.

How would you direct patients to a specific landing page for a particular referring provider?

Ideally, you would give the provider a landing page to provide to his or her patients. That way, it’s an easy referral for the provider to make—and those patients understand immediately how your practice is best equipped to help them achieve their specific goals. Plus, it’s much easier for you to keep track of the new appointments that come in from each referrer’s landing page. To learn more about the benefits of landing pages, check out this blog post.

Initial Meetings

What’s the best way to convince a new referral source to meet with you for more than five minutes?

Lunch and learns are a great way to provide value to potential referral sources—and earn you more than a few minutes with them. This can be a wonderful first step to building a meaningful relationship.

Should you assume a first-name basis with a referral source instead of going through an awkward exchange (e.g., “Can I call you Dani instead of Dr. Smith?”)?

No, it’s not the best idea to address a provider by his or her first name without permission. A good referral relationship needs a solid foundation of respect, and some providers may feel that an unexpected first-name-jump is disrespectful. It may feel awkward, but your best move is to ask for permission before making the switch to a first-name basis.

How do you recommend initiating a relationship with the local physician? What about with front office staff?

That all depends on the physician, the front office staff, and you. You could cold-call the office, sponsor an event that you know the physician or staff will be attending, or invite them to a lunch and learn that will be of value. Regardless of the method you choose to initiate the relationship, heed Watson’s advice: you must make a deposit before you can make a withdrawal. In other words, you must provide value before you can ask for something in return. And always prioritize building a relationship.

Do I need to know about any marketing etiquette when approaching a referral source? Are cold calls or meeting set-ups appropriate—and is one better than the other?

When you approach a referral source, you’re trying to lay the foundation for a long-term relationship, which means you need to make a good first impression. Be professional, but friendly. Be confident, but don’t be arrogant or aggressive. Provide information that’s actually useful for the physician, and leverage your data to prove how your therapeutic services are unequivocally helpful for patients.

Face-to-face meetings are typically more effective than cold calls—though cold calls can be helpful to set up an initial meeting. Keep in mind that if you’re cold-calling clinics, you might have to bypass a front-office person (a.k.a. a “gatekeeper”) before you even get a doctor on the phone.

How should I follow up after I get the initial meeting with a potential referral source?

Follow-up communication is just as important (if not more important) than the initial meeting. It keeps you top-of-mind and helps you really cultivate trust with a provider. Ron Gibson is a big proponent of what he calls “meaningful touches.” Here’s what he says in this LinkedIn article: “It could be a face-to-face meeting (e.g. having coffee) or a phone call. Or it could be an email or text message exchange. A meaningful touch delivers value. Communicating information, insights and ideas that are helpful and useful to the other person is particularly effective because that’s what moves the relationship forward. Touches do not have to be huge. They just need to be regular and authentic.”

How can I build mutually beneficial relationships with physicians in a non-direct access (or a very limited direct access) state?

First things first: Every single state is now a direct access state—although some states do limit the services PTs can perform without a referral. Make sure to read up on your state’s direct access laws so you know exactly what you can do and how you can market to patients. That said, you can still build mutually beneficial relationships with physicians in limited access states. Many of the limited states’ provisions contain a requirement that PTs refer out any condition or issue that is beyond their scope of care. So, if a patient comes to you thinking he or she has a thrown-out back, but you discover that he or she has actually fractured a rib, you can cultivate a relationship with another provider by referring that patient out.

You can also cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship with providers by demonstrating how you can help their patients get better—faster. In the Profitable PT Guide, Jannenga talks about her time shadowing an orthopedic surgeon while he performed a new surgical technique. While she shadowed the surgeon, they discussed post-surgical rehab. Because Jannenga had more intimate knowledge of the procedure, the surgeon started sending her patients who had that particular surgery—and eventually, patients who’d had other procedures.

What are some specific tips for getting past the gatekeepers (i.e., front desk staff)?

Watson suggests, first and foremost, that you change your mindset from “getting past the gatekeeper” to “getting to know the gatekeeper.” Because at the end of the day, gatekeepers are people too, and they’ll remember whether they had a pleasant interaction with you, or if you belligerently tried to mow past them in an effort to get to a physician. Figure out what makes the gatekeepers tick, make them feel good about themselves, and make their day better.

Watson also recommends preparing for your interaction with the gatekeeper. Know as much as you can about the physician, practice, and patients you’re trying to court—and know what your objective is beforehand.


What is NPS?

NPS® (or Net Promoter Score®) is a metric that measures your patients’ loyalty and general satisfaction with your services via one question: “On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely are you to recommend our practice to a friend or family member?” Those who answer from zero to six are called detractors. They are unhappy patients who will make an effort to detract from your business—whether that’s by leaving a bad online review or relaying their negative experience with your practice to their friends and family. Those who answer from seven to eight are called passives. They’re satisfied with your clinic, but they’re not above swapping providers to find a better fit. Those who answer either nine or ten are called promoters. These patients are enthused about your organization, and are generally willing to recommend your practice to friends and family—or even online via a rating or review.

To calculate your NPS, take your percentage of promoters and subtract your percentage of detractors. If you end up with a positive NPS, that’s a good sign—though you ultimately want to take your NPS as high as possible!

How do we leverage the promoters that we’ve identified through WebPT Reach?

One of the best ways to leverage promoters is to ask them to leave online reviews. You can learn more about that in this blog post.

We get lots of positive comments in the open-ended feedback area of the NPS survey, but our patients don’t always post that feedback publicly on review sites, even when we ask them to—perhaps due to the double time commitment. What should we do?

You could try making your request more specific, perhaps by emphasizing that the feedback the patient provided would be very useful to other potential patients, which is why you’d love that patient to write it in the form of a public-facing review. Or, you could offer your promoters the option of giving you a rating rather than a full-blown review, as this would drastically reduce the required time commitment. And getting a slew of five-star ratings can help boost your SEO, online visibility, and reputation.


As a practice representative, how can I get our PTs and PTAs to collect and share outcomes data that I can use for marketing purposes?

That sounds like an opportunity to get your leadership team on board with practice-wide outcomes data collection. That way, every clinician in your practice will collect outcomes data that you can then use to objectively establish your practice’s value and effectiveness with potential referrers. Here are a few resources you can use to sell your bosses on the importance of outcomes data: this one, this one, and

If you don’t have your competitors’ outcomes data, how can you position yourself as a better option to your referral sources?

WebPT Outcomes includes benchmarking functionality that allows you to compare your practice’s outcomes data to the data logged by other practices in your region. And because our database is one of the largest and most robust in the country—and all of our outcome measurement tools (OMTs) are risk-adjusted and widely accepted across the entire care continuum—you have the best chances of delivering meaningful, statistically significant data to potential referral sources. You can learn more about our outcomes tracking solution on our product page.

How do we get outcomes data?

To collect meaningful outcomes data, you and your staff must commit to consistently administering outcome measurement tools (OMTs) and recording the results of those tests. (To learn more about how to go about choosing and administering your practice’s OMTs, check out this guide.) One of the best—and easiest—ways to collect meaningful outcomes data is to use a rehab therapy-specific outcomes tracking software like


What if a patient you refer to an MD ends up getting referred from that MD to a different therapist? Should you follow up to find out why?

Absolutely; this would be a great opportunity to build a relationship with that MD and demonstrate the value you can provide to his or her future patients. That said, there may also be room to improve your rapport-building and value communication with existing patients. Ultimately, you want everyone who has an initial interaction with your practice to be so wowed that they specifically request a referral back to you.

What is the biggest concern or fear PTs have in regards to marketing to physicians?

While this is purely anecdotal, a major fear that PTs have about marketing to physicians is the fear of rejection. Just keep in mind that not everyone is going to be your biggest fan. However, if you follow Bruce’s advice and go in with the intent to build a relationship and offer something of value—as opposed to getting something in return—it can help take some of the pressure off.

What is the most effective way to track referrals?

Ideally, your EMR should include a referral-tracking feature that allows you to generate reports and sort your referrals by physician, clinic, and diagnosis. If your EMR doesn’t include referral tracking, you can track your referrals manually (using spreadsheets, for example).

How should I market to physicians who only refer us patients on occasion (i.e., one patient a month or fewer)?

According to Jannenga, you could get your therapists involved in relationship-building by having them accompany patients to their follow-up appointments with physicians. The patient could then introduce the physical therapist, and the MD and PT could have a discussion about the patient’s progress. This allows the MD to put a face to the name. And all of this would serve to strengthen the referral relationship.

What should I say (or bring to) physicians who don’t refer to us often but have given us referrals in the past?

Watson recommends sitting down with those physicians and initiating an open conversation. Be totally frank and ask them why they’ve tapered down their referral stream. Don’t be aggressive or approach the conversation with anger: be open to their comments and let them know you’re interested in their feedback because you’re a partner in their patients’ care. This is critical, because if they’ve taken issue with the care you provide, it’s in your best interest to learn about the problem and fix it.

How do I get employees involved in generating referrals?

In Jannenga’s practice, PTs would go on rounds with referring physicians. PTs could then use that opportunity to learn about the physicians’ emphasis points—to hear the questions they asked and better understand what information they wanted in their documentation. The PTs used that information to adjust their approach to forming relationships with those specific providers.

You can also encourage your PTs to refer patients to other specialists if those patients have conditions or issues they can’t address. This can help your PTs build rapport with physicians and patients alike. Physicians appreciate the referral, and patients appreciate knowing they’re going to get the best care for their issue.

If you only had enough budget to spend on one type of marketing piece, what’s the best item to focus on (e.g., brochures, online ads, radio, etc.)?

It depends on your goals and the patients you’re trying to attract to your clinic. Want to bring in runners from the collegiate track team? Then paying for a radio ad on an oldies rock station would be a waste of money (especially because the younger generation opts for streaming services), but a Facebook ad could go a long way. Are you trying to find more pediatric therapy patients? In that case, a Facebook ad might not yield the best return on investment—but hosting a group play time or talking to a “Mommy and Me” group could get parents interested in your services.

Ultimately, you need to determine your overall goal, and think strategically about the best way to accomplish it. Also, we recommend checking out this founder letter: 6 Free Ways to Improve Your PT Marketing.

I am a hand therapist. How can I differentiate my small clinic from the few others in town?

Differentiating your practice can be tough—especially when other clinics share your niche. However, it’s still possible to stand out from the crowd by molding your brand to your clinic’s story—in other words: “Why do you do what you do? What do you believe? How do you fulfill what you believe? What do you offer that’s different? How will your patients benefit? What do you want to provide (even intangibly) that no one else has even thought of yet?” Then, make an effort to set your practice apart from your competitors—but don’t feel like you have to match their marketing campaigns or service offers. Finally, ensure your happiest patients are leaving online reviews for your practice.

What are the benefits of referral marketing for a home health agency?

The benefits of home health agency referral marketing are more or less the same as outpatient referral marketing. Referral marketing will help you:

  1. Reliably get more patients; and
  2. Keep your doors open.

However, unlike traditional outpatient therapy practices, home health agencies should consider marketing to hospital discharge planners. After all, according to this source: “In order to meet certain guidelines, hospitals are looking to home health agencies, which can better transition patients from hospital to home.” HHAs might need to look for referrals in different places, but referral marketing can still seriously boost an HHA’s business.

What were those links you shared in the attendee chat during the webinar?

Make Google Do It: How to Use the Internet to Win More Patients

The Profitable PT: 5 Simple Strategies for Private Practice Success

NPS® in Health Care: Leveraging Loyal Patients to Drive New Business and Improve Revenue

Modern Marketing Decoded: A Guide for Rehab Therapists

Have you ditched your donuts, but found yourself stuck with some residual questions? No worries!  Leave a comment below, and we’ll do our best to round up the best answer for ya.


KLAS award logo for 2024 Best-in-KLAS Outpatient Therapy/Rehab
Best in KLAS  2024
G2 rating official logo
Leader Spring 2024
Capterra logo
Most Loved Workplace 2023
TrustRadius logo
Most Loved 2024
Join the PXM revolution!

Learn how WebPT’s PXM platform can catapult your practice to new heights.

Get Started
two patients holding a physical therapist on their shoulders