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Chasing Leads

July 15, 2011
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Few treatment centers are limiting themselves to one method for gaining referrals

As multifaceted as today's strategies for treating the addicted patient can be, the process of getting that patient to your door might have even more dimensions. If there is a Wild West-like scenario playing out in the substance use treatment field right now, it might reside in a referral process that has become more nuanced and greatly more competitive.

Lynn Sucher, who works with a number of treatment centers as president of Treatment Consultants, still advises organizations that if they refer a client who is not a great fit for their center to another organization, that gesture eventually is likely to come back around in a reciprocal action. But these days, that message can constitute a tough sell to many centers.

“People really want to hold on to their clients now,” says Sucher. “In terms of treatment centers communicating with other treatment centers, I've seen that disappear over the last 10 years.”

Instead, more centers are trying to become-or at least are claiming to have become-full-service operations, taking away the traditional purpose for establishing close referral relationships with other treatment facilities.

“More centers are doing more,” says Sucher. For example, “In the past you would refer out for transitional housing after someone completed primary treatment. Now there is a realization that you need to have this as part of your care continuum,” she says.

What really has changed the game has been the emergence of Internet tools for referral. Like much about the Internet, the quality of the offerings can be all over the map. There are reputable companies out there that can assist treatment centers with search engine optimization (SEO) and other tools to enhance referral. Yet on the other end of the spectrum there are sites that sell themselves by claiming to match treatment-seeking families to an appropriate facility but that actually exist solely to benefit no more than a small handful of centers.

Some treatment center administrators educate themselves about the pros and cons of these options, while others simply jump in, Sucher says. These options might not always generate the optimal matches for an organization.

“You get a lot of unqualified calls,” says Sucher. “You might get people with no money, or people just looking for an AA meeting. It's very broad.” Names identified through these processes might become actual clients only about 10 percent of the time, Sucher says.

Internet perils

Jim Peake, a Massachusetts-based marketing consultant whose firm is Behavioral Health Technologies, Inc., says that while the Internet has become an attractive referral resource to most treatment centers in the past three years, its use can prove to be a daunting experience for centers that are unprepared.

“A lot of these guys have a plan in their head, and they want to go SEO come hell or high water,” says Peake. “But a lot of them don't have the bandwidth or the understanding of what it takes to do it right. You have to set aside money for an entire year, and you won't see a return for a year.”

Peake quickly points out that facilities should not consider the Internet to be the only game in town, and sometimes centers simply should consider refining other referral strategies that have worked well for them in the past. This can mean building on already existing relationships.

“We all have groups of folks who help our businesses,” says Peake. “You want to make it easy for those people to refer to you.”

Peake believes that a formal mechanism for program alumni to assist in the referral process might become the next key development for many facilities. “Programs are starting to pay a lot more attention to their alumni,” he says, adding that a handful of nonprofit programs already have become heavily dependent on alumni for recruiting.

Peake says treatment centers also should make a point of it to position their key staff as authorities on issues involving addiction, through strategies such as commenting on topics in the media and periodically updating the community on developments in the program. Being considered an authority on a particular issue might lead to a referral from another center, he says.

Fast-paced change

The emergence of social media as a tool for referral in the past couple of years reflects how quickly the landscape is changing, Sucher says. While all available strategies have their advantages and disadvantages, Sucher believes that centers ignore any one of them at their peril.

“Social media has to be part of your marketing plan,” she says. “It's also a way to get the word out about the population you serve.”

Sucher believes it is important for facilities to nurture a sophisticated marketing team that can work in a variety of media. The traditional strategies of networking and attending events in order to fuel the referral process have largely been eclipsed as the Internet's influence has exploded.

“A lot of organizations don't want to spend money on this,” Sucher says. “That can be a real mistake.”

Addiction Professional 2011 July-August;9(4):76-77