PT practices with limited marketing resources are eager to know where they should focus their efforts—and their dollars. Yet, as with so many other marketing-related questions, the answer to whether you should concentrate your energy on patient marketing or referral marketing isn’t cut and dried. That’s why, in this post, we’re exploring the factors practice owners should consider as they create their marketing plan—and budget. Spoiler alert: There’s good reason to dedicate resources to both building a physician referral network and reaching patients directly. But, how much should you allocate to each endeavor? Let’s find out.

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Who are your ideal patients?

The first step to understanding where you should focus most of your marketing power is getting to know your ideal patient—and that may or may not be the patients you see most often at the moment. Instead, narrow in on the patients you really love to serve—and the patients you feel like you are most capable of helping. Then, get to know them: specifically, pinpoint how they find their providers and pay for their care. After all, if most of your ideal patients use one of three main commercial payers, then you’ll certainly want to focus on marketing to referral sources that also have relationships with those payers. If your ideal patients prefer concierge health care—and perform their own research to find providers—then focusing more of your efforts on reaching patients directly would be ideal.

How competitive is the referral landscape?

You’ll also want to know how competitive the referral landscape is in your region. With consolidation on the rise, smaller practices may have a harder time competing with POPTS and large corporations for physician referrals. As we explained here, “physicians who are part of a large system are, understandably, referring patients to PTs who also are in that system.” If that’s the case for your practice, then you’ll want to consider two approaches (according to referral marketing experts Bruce Watson and Heidi Jannenga):

  1. Market to patients first—before they go to their primary care provider for a referral. That way, they’ll be more likely to take advantage of direct access and either see you first or ask their primary care provider for a referral to see you specifically.
  2. Use outcomes and patient loyalty data (as well as thought leadership and a focus on long-term relationship building) to demonstrate to physicians that “you can address their needs—and their patient’s needs—better than their in-house team.”

Does your state allow for direct access?

This is actually somewhat of a trick question, because all 50 states allow for some form of direct access, which means at the very least, PTs can provide an initial evaluation before they must involve a physician—and that can help establish you as a primary care coordinator for patients with musculoskeletal conditions. So, no matter where you practice—or who your ideal patient is—you really should devote some of your marketing efforts to raising awareness among consumers. After all, more and more patients are performing online research about their providers and healthcare options—and increasing brand awareness is good for the profession as well as individual practices.

What’s working—and what’s not?

Regardless of who you’re targeting, you’ve got to know whether you’re marketing tactics are working. Otherwise, you could end up investing a lot of your budget in strategies that don’t yield many new patients. Thus, you’ll need to track your lead flow (i.e., the path that prospective patients take to become patients). And that’s where software comes in. In fact, the Plus and Premium editions of WebPT Reach include lead management tools that show you exactly which paths are producing the best conversion rates—and which ones aren’t.

Another thing software can majorly help with: your online presence. That includes boosting your visibility (i.e., showing up in search results higher and more frequently) as well as your reputation (i.e., amassing a slew of positive online reviews). And that goes for marketing to patients as well as providers. For that, you’ll want WebPT Local, a tool that helps you manage your practice’s presence everywhere online by not only alerting you whenever there's a new online review or rating of your practice, but also giving you the opportunity to respond directly within the Local platform. (No more constantly checking several different review sites on a regular basis.) Ultimately, the more visible and highly rated your practice is, the more it will appeal to patients and referral sources alike.


While there’s no universal answer to whether you should focus more on patient marketing or referral marketing, most practices will benefit from a combination of both. Where do you put your marketing energy? Share what’s working for you in the comment section below.

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