A school of codfish glides through the water, trying to outswim the dreaded catfish nipping at their tails. This vignette of meandering marine life has spawned a term that’s swum its way into the cultural zeitgeist within the last decade: catfishing. If you’re not familiar with the concept, here’s the gist: catfishing is when people or entities create online personas that aren’t representative of who they really are and thus, reel in interest from connections who aren’t compatible. The catfish parable is relevant to this scenario because, much like the catfish keeps the cod on their toes—er, fins—entities who don’t portray themselves accurately keep people on their toes, as well.

Catfishing can occur in a variety of scenarios, whether you’re trying to find a date online, job hunting, or searching for the right healthcare provider. In the latter instance, when a patient gets catfished by a health professional—whether or not it’s intentional on the clinician’s part—it doesn’t just break the bond of trust between the two of them; it can seriously damage the provider’s reputation. This is why it’s absolutely imperative that physical therapists market themselves accurately and to the right patients—as well as keep an eye out for red flags indicating that they may be marketing to the wrong patients. To that end, here are 10 major signs that your marketing efforts are reaching the wrong audience:

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1. Many of your patients drop out before completing their course of care.

To be fair, patient-provider mismatch isn’t the only reason patients leave therapy before the end of their established plan of care. Sometimes, they simply improve quicker than the provider expected—which is great. However, as WebPT President and Co-founder Heidi Jannenga mentioned in her most recent founder letter, “two out of every 10 patients drop out of care during the first three visits—and seven in 10 don’t make it to a formal discharge. As a result, practices lose an average of $150,000 a year from patient dropout alone.” And if your patients frequently self-discharge before they achieve their goals, that’s a pretty good indication that something’s not quite right.

2. You’re struggling to get new patients through the door.

The stream of new patients coming to your practice will naturally ebb and flow like the tide, but if there’s more ebbing than flowing, then that could be a red flag. It’s possible your marketing campaigns aren’t reaching an audience that needs your specific set of services. Alternatively, it could mean you’re not adequately positioning your services or specialties to your referring physicians, thus leading them to send you the wrong patients. To correct this, you’ll need to:

  • take stock of your offerings and assess your strengths (which you can easily do by tracking patient outcomes),
  • incorporate that information in your marketing materials (e.g., website, social media, and brochures), and
  • share these details with your referral sources.

3. You have very few positive online reviews—or a plethora of negative reviews.

They say no news is good news, but when it comes to patient reviews, that couldn't be further from the truth. Feedback is essential to knowing where you stand with patients, and if very few patients are ready and willing to leave positive feedback, you should take that as a sign. Alternatively, if you have many positive reviews—but you also have a slew of negative ones—that might mean that when you hit the mark, you hit it well. But when you miss, you really miss.

Either scenario could also indicate you’re not approaching the right patients and asking them to leave you online reviews—if you’re approaching any at all. To counter this, practices should track patient happiness and loyalty using metrics like the Net Promoter Score® (which we’re big fans of at WebPT) and then approach their most loyal patients to request online feedback. As we explained in a recent webinar FAQ, “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.”

The more five-star reviews you get, the more your search engine ranking and reputation will improve. And as a result, the right patients will find you more easily.

4. Patients report low or mid-range NPS® scores.

Speaking of feedback, patient reviews aren’t the only place you can find honest feedback. As I mentioned above, we at WebPT recommend tracking the patient experience using Net Promoter Score (NPS) surveys. (In fact, we use NPS to track our Members’ experiences as well as our employees’.) We like it because it goes beyond measuring mere satisfaction, and instead, tracks loyalty by assessing how likely someone is to recommend your business or service to a colleague or friend. As WebPT’s Director of Demand Gen Charlotte Bohnett explains here, “NPS is a solid indicator of customer (i.e., patient) engagement and retention, because people typically only recommend brands, products, or services they feel are truly deserving of their love and loyalty.”

So, even if your patients achieve their outcomes, if you find you have very few promoters (or a high number of detractors), you’re probably not well matched.

5. Patient outcomes aren’t as good as they could be.

That said, patient loyalty isn’t the only metric worth tracking. Tracking patient outcomes is like a one-two punch for effective patient marketing. Not only does it help practices keep tabs on the effectiveness of their treatment, but also (as I mentioned in the second point) clinics with strong outcomes can leverage them as a powerful marketing tool.

During an interview with WebPT, Dr. Brian Rodriguez, PT, DPT, OCS, owner of Utah Physical Therapy Specialists in West Jordan, Utah, explained how tracking therapy outcomes helped his team strengthen relationships with their referral sources: “Our benchmarking data showed that we’re really good with upper extremity conditions, so I have used that to market to local physicians.” Rodriguez also mentioned his intention to use this data to negotiate better payment rates with insurance companies.

6. You have high staff turnover.

When things are amiss in your practice, you risk losing more than just your patients; there’s a good chance your employees will eventually hit the road as well. Of course, a practice could lose employees for any number of reasons. However, an unusually high turnover rate can point to issues like a high volume of unhappy patients, consistently below-average outcomes, and overwhelming patient loads. For that reason, giving employees an opportunity to honestly (and anonymously) provide feedback at regular intervals is absolutely crucial to catching these snafus before they become pervasive issues. This is also why conducting an exit interview whenever an employee leaves your organization is an absolute must.

7. You don’t engage with potential, present, and past patients outside of the clinic.

There’s a lot to be said for digital and print marketing, but let’s face it: a sure-fire way to know you’re marketing to exactly the right patients is to get out in the community and interact with them face to face. And the best way to do this is to meet your patients in spaces they already inhabit every day. Here are a few examples:

  • If you specialize in fitness and sports medicine, attend and sponsor local sporting events.
  • If you wish to work with student athletes, consider reaching out to local schools or gyms to work out a partnership.
  • If your main focus is geriatric care, work with local senior living complexes or senior centers and offer a class on maintaining mobility.

8. You rely solely one type of marketing.

These days, it seems like people are touting the importance of digital marketing everywhere you look—and for good reason. After all, according to Pew Research Center, “77% of online health seekers say they began their last session at a search engine such as Google, Bing, or Yahoo,” and that number will probably only increase as seniors become more and more tech savvy. However, the best marketing plan employs a combination of the following strategies:

  • Digital Marketing
    • Digital marketing encompasses everything from email to search engine optimization to social media. And in the age of the Internet, these tactics are must-dos. However, if you only market online, you may miss opportunities to reach people with less access to the Internet—such as seniors, lower-income individuals, or people living in rural areas.
  • Print Marketing
    • This strategy includes brochures, flyers, and ads in local publications or newspapers. While digital marketing is king these days, print is still an effective way to reach those folks mentioned in the previous section who may not necessarily use the Internet on a regular basis.
  • Referral Marketing
    • Even if your practice is entirely cash-based, marketing to physicians is crucial because it helps you reach patients who rely on their doctors for referrals. But physicians aren’t the only ones who can send patients your way. Consider reaching out to businesses that work with the kind of clientele you want to attract. For example, if you’d like to bring in more workers’ compensation patients, you should reach out to employers in sectors where the risk for musculoskeletal injury is high (e.g., warehouses, construction companies, or hair salons) and offer free educational classes or complimentary assessments.

9. You can’t describe your ideal patient.

Before you even attempt to market your practice, you’ve got to build a buyer persona—or in this case, a “patient persona.” If you don’t have one yet, grab a pen and paper and write down the answers to the following questions:

  • How do your ideal patients they spend their time?
  • Why would they seek physical therapy?
  • What kinds of physical therapy services do they need?
  • Where do they go to get information about PT services?

This information will tell you exactly how—and where—to market your services. For instance, if your ideal patients are teenage and adult athletes, you know they probably:

  • spend time at local gyms, athletic facilities, or schools;
  • seek therapy to address injuries or stay in optimal shape;
  • need services that won’t take too much time out of their busy schedules; and
  • are very comfortable using Google and social media.

For these types of patients, you’ll want to (1) stick primarily to online and social media marketing, (2) seek opportunities for gym and athletic club partnerships, and (3) emphasize how therapy can help them bring their A-game in your marketing messaging.

10. You don’t have a search engine strategy for local searches.

As I mentioned earlier, the vast majority of people seeking a new healthcare provider online start at a search engine (with Google being the most prominent). In order to grab the attention of these scrupulous healthcare consumers, you have to rise to the top—of the search engine results pages (SERPs), that is.

And being at the top is a big deal because, according to this study from Advanced Web Rankings, “more than 67% of all clicks on SERPs go to the top five listings.” Furthermore, research from Chitika (referenced here by the marketing experts at Brafton) found websites on the first SERP receive almost 95% of web traffic. With that in mind, here are a few SEO strategies to help you rank better for local searches:

  • Make sure your clinic’s name, address, and phone number are consistent everywhere they appear online. (e.g., social media profiles, Google listing, clinic website, and review sites).
  • Keep your page titles 50-60 characters long so that Google doesn’t cut them off in the results page.
  • Try to include the keywords you want to rank for in your page titles, URLs, and meta descriptions.
  • Leverage pay-per-click (PPC) ads on Google search results pages.

Furthermore, make sure your clinic’s website properly communicates the type of conditions you’re equipped to treat and the modalities you specialize in. Not only will this help you rank better for those keywords (e.g., talking about aquatic therapy on your site will help you show up when people search “aquatic therapy [your city name]”), but it’ll also ensure that the people who land on your website can determine for certain whether or not you’re the right provider for them.


If you’re catching a lot of patients—but throwing back more than you keep—then it’s probably time to rethink your marketing strategy. In addition to the advice above, consider leveraging technology like Reach (WebPT’s physical therapy marketing software) and Local (WebPT’s online visibility and reputation management tool). By combining these powerful marketing tools with the strategies above, you’ll be reeling in the right patients in no time—hook, line, and sinker.

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