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Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Developing an Integrated Digital Strategy for Behavior Health Agencies

marketing has moved on has your hospital

Klaas Schilder, M.A.
Michael Gordon, Ph.D.

The world of behavioral health is steadily following the rest of the marketplace in promoting and transacting its services via the web. The signs of that trend are everywhere: the growing acceptance of telepsychiatry, the proliferation of websites that offer screening services for mental health disorders, and the vast number of digital platforms or portals that provide referral information or appointment registration.

Consumers of mental health services are also coming to expect that agencies provide web-based services and opportunities. They’ve become used to the internet engaging them, tracking their progress, and serving as the easiest route for managing daily activities.

Practices that provide ACT must follow certification and billing procedures to maintain compliance and avoid reimbursement rejections. For example, ACT often requires the client’s chart be in compliance prior to billing. If the clinic bills for a client who is out of compliance, the clinic would fail an audit.

Agencies are discovering that implementing a digital strategy involves much more than posting a simple web page with contact information. The process forces administrators to consider all the ways they can engage and serve clients via the web. Considering an integrated digital strategy involves addressing the following questions:

  1. What services can we offer via the web that will benefit our current and new clientele?
  2. How should we design those services to maximize their effectiveness?
  3. What options do we have for marketing those digital services as well as our traditional formats in a way that will make them most visible and appealing to people who seek help?
  4. What can we learn from the experience of others in terms of how we design our digital world?

Guiding Principles

  • Create websites that consider the search behavior and special needs of potential clients.

Research institutes and governmental agencies such as SAMSHA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) have investigated the development of digital infrastructures, platforms, and apps relevant to behavioral health. One surprising outcome they reported is that people seeking mental health information tend to be males between 45 and 54 years of age who search on their smartphones. They also tend to pursue information about a disorder rather than seek services, per se. In other words, individuals who pursue information on the web are more likely to type, “Do I have depression?” than “Where can I get help in my area for depression?”

People who search for mental health information also turn to online communities that allow participation without providing personal information. The anonymity of web-based interactions free many individuals from embarrassment about broaching certain topics and asking questions. More importantly, these individuals do not show up in online search statistics or demographics. At the same time, an agency website must commit to creating the same sense of privacy and intimacy that comes from global, community-oriented websites.

If you want potential clients to see your page, you have to work at it systematically, using all the modern tools associated with digital marketing. That means advertising on the full range of platforms. Google Ads, Facebook postings, and LinkedIn advertising focus on making sure someone will find your agency’s webpage in a search. The beauty of these tools is that they provide a vast array of statistics regarding your site’s rankings, including who tends to respond to ads and which content is most effective. It takes ongoing effort to maximize the campaign, but the potential success is worth it.

  • Potential clients look for providers who actively work to engage them.

While all websites should be designed to engage the viewer’s attentions, those that target individuals seeking mental health services have to work at it even harder. The look, feel, functionality, and content of the site has to convince people who may be uncommonly wary of others (and of seeking help) that your agency “gets” their concerns. You want them to think, “OK, these people will work to meet my needs in a way that makes it easy for me to get help from people I trust.” You want them to see your site not only as a resource, but also as a portal to a community of support and services.

How can you communicate your dedication to engagement? You can find clues in how successful companies entice customers: live online chats, constantly changing content that’s meaningful to prospective clients, “one click” pathways for showing interest in a service, and much more. Simply having a link on the main page that lets the visitor schedule an intake online is a powerful way of saying, “Hey, it’s not complicated to come see us. Just click this button and tell us who you are and what kind of help you might need.” The easier you make it for someone to “buy” the product, the more likely you’ll find success.

Another example of an engagement-oriented approach: Some clinics use advertising that directs viewers to participate in a live interaction with a staff member. The promotion might start: “Wondering whether you’re depressed? You can ask one of our staff Tuesdays from 8 to 9 a.m. or Thursdays from 3 to 4 p.m.” The providers who are assigned to those Q&A sessions would be trained to go beyond just offering information, to actually forming a relationship with the client. The goal, of course, is to encourage ongoing participation in actual treatment.

  • Explore which services you can “webinize.”

The more you can engage someone without having them come to see you first (if at all), the better off you’ll be. For example, you can offer “warm-line” services via SMS, chats, or video conferencing. The website can present screening surveys that provide a score/feedback. You can also give the viewer the opportunity to sign up to receive regular articles about one topic or another. Again, your goal is to make your web page a place someone wants to visit because it represents a source of information and support.

Of course, which strategies will be effective depends heavily on the nature of your services and the clientele you treat. Adolescents might be especially drawn to online interactions with a provider or through Facebook-type messaging. Patients with chronic and persistent mental illness might be attracted to peer-to-peer communications that allow them to feel connected to others in a safe and convenient way. We have found that focus groups help organizations develop a more precise idea of what will attract, engage, and maintain the interests of people in various circumstances.

  • Digital communities have no borders.

Keep in mind that everything you generate via the web transmits to the world at large. That reality represents an opportunity to extend your catchment area, should that be a strategic goal. But remember that it also poses more competition for the services you offer, especially when it comes to those you offer online. Our sense is that an effective website will become a necessity for survival in a clinical marketplace that is bound to depend more heavily on web-based strategies for marketing and service.

With the proliferation of websites about mental health and substance abuse disorders, agencies must establish themselves as local experts who are fully versed in global trends. You want prospective clients to feel that their local options for services are part of the same fabric of care they experience with international sites.

  • Make sure you have a digital infrastructure that can handle your growth both in terms of numbers and services.

As you expand beyond office-based initiatives, you’ll need an agency-wide system that can handle new demands for accessibility and efficiency. For example, you’ll want a high-end patient portal that is fully integrated into your EHR and practice management system. When a viewer clicks on a link to schedule an appointment, the information should flow directly into the scheduling system. You’ll also want to exchange various forms and questionnaires over the portal, with the information also going directly to the patient’s record. The easier you make it for all involved, the more likely you’ll see positive results.


We have found that helping agencies enter the digital world is a fascinating process. It’s one of those projects that gives organizations an opportunity to rethink how they operate and move forward. The groups that are most successful are those who indeed embrace that challenge to make the most of all the web has to offer.

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