When it comes to building a thriving referral base, there are two words every private practitioner’s marketing plan should include: niche and networking.

Niche marketing is the opposite of mass marketing in that counselors target a specific segment of the population. Deliberately narrowing the client field sounds counterproductive, but successful private practitioners have done just that. By serving a select group or population, counselors can focus their marketing plans and network with people who are the “gatekeepers” to that population.

Lucy MacDonald, author of Start and Market a Successful Private Practice, recently shared these strategies in a packed Learning Institute at the American Counseling Association/

Canadian Counselling Association Convention in Montréal. “Not having a niche is often the mistake that new practitioners make, myself included,” she said. “I think underlying that is the fear that you will be turning away clients. However, the reality is as practitioners, we cannot be qualified to offer counseling in all areas.”

Having a counseling niche is important for a number of reasons, MacDonald said. “First, it will help set you apart from the other private practitioners, and it allows the consumer to find you more easily. It helps you find your ideal client or the person whose needs fit with the services you are offering and, most importantly, it helps you to focus your advertising efforts and your advertising dollars.”

To illustrate her point, she used a typical networking situation in which several individuals are introducing themselves and describing their work. “Nine people say, ’I’m a counselor working with individuals, families and couples,’ and one person says, ’I work with newly divorced fathers.’ When someone asks you about a counselor for a divorced father, who are you going to remember?”

MacDonald asked. “That doesn’t mean the other nine counselors can’t offer that service, but because they didn’t highlight it, chances are when it comes to making referrals — even among ourselves as counselors — who are you going to go to? That is the benefit of niche marketing. Is it counterintuitive? You bet! Does it work? Almost always.”

When people start out in private practice, MacDonald said, it’s very important that they take some time to consider where their passions lie and to examine their potential niche. Private practice niches can be based on:

  • Geography (serving clients in a rural area, for example)
  • An age group (women 50 and older who are considering a second career; teenagers)
  • Professional groups (lawyers who are struggling with burnout; first-responders at risk of suffering post-traumatic stress disorder)
  • Special interest groups (grieving pet owners)
  • Life stages (marriage, pregnancy, retirement)
  • Specific industries (entertainment, technology)
  • Demographics (divorcees, singles, single parents)

Often the niche is based on something the practitioner feels passionate about, but a specific passion doesn’t guarantee a successful business. Before choosing a niche, consider the following questions:

  • Is the niche large enough to support a flourishing client base?
  • Will the niche continue to grow?
  • Do you have the skills, knowledge and experience to work with the specific population you want to target?
  • Is the niche already overserviced by other practitioners?
  • MacDonald pointed out that counselors considering the move to private practice should do some market research before selecting a niche to learn who else is working with those clients. “If it’s overserviced,” she said, “then by definition it is no longer a niche. As a private practitioner you have a choice — you can be one of hundreds of practitioners or one of a kind.”
  • But there are several other benefits and values to selecting a niche aside from simply standing out from the crowd:
  • A niche sends the message “I’m an expert in …”
  • A niche will increase referrals from colleagues
  • Working in a niche demographic makes it easier to develop long-term relationships with clients
  • In some cases, a niche will allow the practitioner to charge more for services
  • A niche allows the practitioner to focus marketing messages and efforts
  • Finding a niche that you’re passionate about makes it more likely that you’ll find fulfilling and meaningful work

“It’s also important that the people in your niche have the financial resources to pay for your services,” MacDonald advised. “For example, if you have a passion for helping young single mothers, you may find that this group may not have the financial resources to pay.” In that case, she said, private practitioners may have to look at other ways of supporting that work, such as getting corporate sponsorship or pursuing another niche that keeps their practice stable while at the same time allowing them to remain involved in the niche about which they feel most passionate.

On the other side of the coin, MacDonald said counselors shouldn’t choose a niche just because it’s lucrative. “You have to have a genuine interest and passion for your niche,” she said. “Otherwise you won’t survive emotionally and psychologically. The satisfaction won’t be there for you.”

On occasion, a counselor can walk backward into a niche that proves to be just as beneficial. ACA member Pat McGinn is a perfect example. When she started her private practice on the South Side of Chicago, she visited many of the local churches and seminaries. Having been a Roman Catholic nun for nine years, she thought her religious background might help her attract clients. She met with rabbis, ministers and people in charge of student life at seminaries to talk about her past experience and to discuss her counseling practice. She left a few business cards and hoped for the best. Today, more than 20 years later, she is still receiving referrals from those sources.

“My experience turned out to be very useful in the fact that I understand what these young people are going through in terms of getting prepared to be ministers and that I have studied theology and church history,” McGinn said. “I know the background, Scripture and theology. And once you’ve taken two or three people through their ordination process, the technicalities and emotions, you know the system.” Her familiarity with the process put many of her clients at ease, she said, because they realized they didn’t have to explain every detail. “I didn’t set out for that to be my marketing niche,” she said, “but it did evolve that way.”


The gatekeepers

Once private practitioners have selected their niche, they must identify important “gatekeepers” — people who have access to that specific population. “Gatekeepers are able to refer clients to you that you normally wouldn’t have direct access to,” MacDonald said. “For example, if your niche market is parents of special needs elementary school children, then you would connect with school principals, school nurses and counselors about your services.”

After meeting and forming a professional relationship with these school officials, MacDonald suggested taking it a step further. For instance, offer to attend a parent-teacher night and give an informal presentation on reducing homework stress or improving study skills. She also advises practitioners to partner with gatekeepers for continued referrals.

The number of gatekeepers depends largely on the niche. Keep the following examples of gatekeepers in mind as you look to build your referral base:

  • Clergy members
  • Physicians
  • Attorneys
  • Employee assistance programs and human resource managers
  • Members and administers of academic communities
  • Social service agencies
  • Family support centers
  • Professional organizations and
  • associations

Peer and social networking

Many counselors, especially those in private practice, cringe at the thought of networking, afraid they will come off as the cheesy car salesman type. However, networking can be not only the best but also the cheapest way of getting the word out about a new private practice.

“Networking is a great way to advertise, especially when first starting out, because you usually have more time than money,” MacDonald said. “When you are in private practice you are your business, so wherever you go you are networking and marketing, whether you like it or not.”

MacDonald encourages counselors to network with their fellow counselors as well as other individuals outside the mental health professions. “Networking with your peers is often an overlooked area,” she said. “Many people just starting out avoid networking with their peers because they believe there is competition. However, if you have a niche you don’t have to worry about that. We want to set each other up in having areas of expertise. It’s a two-way street. Don’t neglect networking with peers, especially if you have a niche and you are able to articulate what that niche is in a very clear way.”

To help counselors do that, MacDonald suggests that they develop a “verbal business card” — a brief marketing message that explains what they do. The sound bite serves to highlight the practitioner’s niche and will help others to remember the counselor’s specialty. She tells counselors to practice presenting the verbal business card aloud with people they know and with others who are unfamiliar with their occupation. Counselors should then ask these individuals what they think the sound bite means and use the feedback to make changes accordingly.

An effective verbal business card will create a good first impression and make it easier for newbies to get over their fear of marketing, MacDonald said. “Because part of creating a good verbal business card is putting something in writing, practice it until you feel comfortable and confident saying it,” she said.

When networking in social situations, counselors should remember to avoid using mental health jargon and terminology, MacDonald said. She suggested that counselors develop a layman’s version of their verbal business card to answer that most common of cocktail party questions: “So, what do you do?”

MacDonald also encourages counselors to continue networking even after their practice takes off. They should set aside regularly scheduled time to attend a networking function or meet one-on-one with referral sources, she said. “It’s important to have networking incorporated into your weekly and monthly work cycle,” she said. “This is part of the work that you do.”

Seminars and workshops

One way to network on a broad scale, gain the public’s trust and avoid the sales pitch is to present free seminars or workshops. “It’s a fair exchange,” MacDonald said, “and everyone walks away feeling win-win instead of that you have hoodwinked them into something. It’s an ’attraction approach’ as opposed to a ’pursuing approach’ in marketing.”

Look for free space to present seminars in local churches, community centers, libraries or schools. Hosting free screenings or workshops will help private practitioners not only to present themselves as experts but to attract ideal clients as well.

Follow these tips for holding a successful seminar:

  • Keep it under an hour
  • Bring plenty of business cards
  • Provide handouts with tips, facts, answers to frequently asked questions and contact information
  • Collect contact information from attendees (“Would you like to subscribe to my monthly newsletter or
  • e-mail list?”)
  • Take seating reservations so you will know how many people plan to attend, and then prepare accordingly
  • Create an easy-to-follow presentation
  • Don’t worry about giving away too much (or not enough) information
  • Don’t be afraid to start off with the basics
  • Always hold the event at the beginning of the week instead of later in the week or on the weekends
  • Advertise by placing announcements in the free community events listings of local newspapers, posting fliers on bulletin boards, etc.

But what if you’re a bit shy around new people or still have nightmares about giving your valedictory speech in your underwear? Public speaking is daunting to many people, so MacDonald suggests that counselors attend Toastmasters or some other public speaking skills workshop.

“We aren’t trying to sell something that people don’t want, nor are we selling something with an inflated dollar amount,” she reminds counselors. “As a private practitioner, you can legitimately take the approach that you have expertise in a specific area and you are offering a valuable service.”


Once referrals start coming in, practitioners can do several things to make sure they don’t stop. Most important, MacDonald said, is to make good, appropriate referrals to fellow counselors. They will remember and reciprocate, she said. When making referrals, give the client the referred counselor’s business card with your name on the back: “Referred to by …” Thank-you cards may be appropriate in the beginning, but after a referral network has formed between two practitioners, a quick e-mail will do.

MacDonald also suggested that private practitioners strive to become the go-to resource for other counselors. “People may know that you might not be able to help (a specific client), but you know who can,” she said. MacDonald described herself as a hub (“with many spokes”) within her community. “That’s a very valuable position to be in,” she said. “Colleagues will want to return the favor, and the work will come back to you.”

For more information about niche marketing and networking, or to purchase MacDonald’s book, visit www.lucymacdonald.com.