By Ben Dean, Ph.D.
Coaching virtually (working by phone with fax and E-mail back up) in a coaching practice effectively opens up all of the United States and Canada as a market. The more experience I have had with accomplished psychologists adding virtual coaching as a practice specialty, the more convinced I have become that we already possess most of the skills necessary to establish powerful relationships with individual or group coaching clients (Dean, 1999b). The key question then becomes how do you get those clients? It is one thing to market on a local basis using traditional marketing approaches in your community. But how do you market when your niche extends throughout North America? Here are some thoughts that have helped me address these issues.
Start with a Niche
Most seasoned psychologists would agree that there are major advantages for marketing a clinical practice if you present yourself as having a specialty, as opposed to offering yourself as a general purpose therapist who can work with any disorder. This is true in spades when you expand from a local to a national or international market (Beckwith, 1997; Ries, 1996; Ries & Ries, 1998). It is much more effective to market yourself virtually within a tightly defined coaching niche than as a utility infielder who can coach anyone.
Even if you want to coach generally, it is useful to emphasize a market niche in your virtual marketing. If you don’t know what niche to start with, one of my basic axioms is that it is better to learn how to do virtual marketing with a less-than-perfect niche than never to start, waiting for that perfect niche to hit you like lightning.
What are some examples of great market niches? Not working with all corporate executives but with executives in the banking industry or with female executives at midlife in the insurance industry. Not working with adults who have ADD, but with some subset of that group, such as professionals with ADD within a given industry. The more focused the niche, the better.
The Funnel of Trust
Let’s assume you have chosen a tightly focused market niche. For me one of the most useful ways to think about a marketing strategy is illustrated in Figure 1. Imagine a funnel in which the top represents the universe of prospects in your potential niche, either throughout North America or globally, and the bottom represents those people who trust you, refer clients to you, and know that you will give excellent service to anyone they send to you.
Imagine a dimension of trust running from the top of the funnel to the bottom. At the top of the funnel there is no trust; at the bottom, great trust. People at the top of the funnel are regularly besieged by thousands of advertising messages a week, screening out most of them. With very little time, they are often overcommitted, and have no reason to believe that even a trial coaching experience with you would be a wise investment of their time. The vast majority of them have never heard of you. They have no reason to trust you, and good reason to be skeptical and suspicious.
By contrast, people at the bottom do know and trust you. This group includes current, satisfied clients. Some of these clients will have experienced your professionalism, expertise, and caring for an extended period of time. Perhaps they feel you have helped them transform their professional or personal lives. Or they may be colleagues or referring professionals who have repeatedly seen evidence that you do exceptional work in a compassionate, caring manner. For these individuals, their trust in you is deep and enduring.
So your marketing task is clear. It is, first, to begin to develop a relationship with as large a percentage of the people at the top of the funnel as possible. It is, then, to bring a subset of those people down that dimension of trust — slowly and incrementally.
If you move even a small percentage of individuals down that continuum, you will have more clients than you can handle in two lifetimes. But how do you develop trust with an extremely large national market? And how do you do this cost effectively when you don’t have the deep pockets of say, Mercedes Benz, for regular television advertising?
Well there are many ways. Perhaps the most powerful would be to have a regular daily television show or nationally syndicated radio program. Oprah Winfrey has an opportunity to develop relationships of trust with millions of people. If you could even regularly appear on her program you would have a huge advantage. Also effective would be writing a popular syndicated newspaper column. Or writing a respected bestseller within your market niche.
But what if these methods aren’t open to you? What if you have very little money and less time? How can one market a coaching practice nationally?
The most effective approach is to find a way to get the permission of a large proportion of your target market to send them free, valuable information on a regular basis. The word “permission” is key. If they choose to receive your message, they are less likely to screen it out; much more likely to actually read and be influenced by it (Dean, 1999b).
One of the ideal ways to transmit this free information is through a regular E-mail or fax-broadcast newsletter. This newsletter can be only one or two pages long. Even if it is published no more frequently than monthly, if it speaks to major concerns of your prospects in a clear, compelling, from-the-heart manner, it can be extraordinarily effective. Especially if you take the approach that you are serving the entire universe of your potential prospects as if they were already your clients. If you don’t hold a lot back from them. If you give them valuable information that helps them solve their most important problems. And if you do it month after month after month.
Advantages of an E-mail Newsletter
The primary advantage of a regular E-mail newsletter is that it offers you a cost-effective way to develop a relationship with your universe of potential prospects so that over time, step by step, they can come to know and trust who you are.
Among the advantages are reach, efficiency, cost, and speed. You can send a newsletter as easily and as cost effectively to 10 million readers as to one, once the mechanism is set up. You can inexpensively set up software that will automatically handle all subscriptions and unsubscriptions to your newsletter with no attention or time required on your part. The cost and effort needed to add more and more subscribers is virtually zero.
And, of course, the speed with which you can dispatch a large E-mailing is striking. In terms of time expended, a mailing, whether to one person or broadcast to millions, requires only the second it takes to press the “Enter” key.
Another advantage of the E-mail newsletter is that it is so easy for people to forward to friends. Thus the reach of a good newsletter can be much greater than its actual subscribers. I have discovered that readers frequently forward my newsletters to colleagues, rebroadcast them on listservs, and post them to web sites. So, especially when compared to newsletters sent in hard copy by surface mail, E-mail newsletters are constantly forwarded to new readers, many of whom then subscribe.
There are many examples of writers of E-mail newsletters who have benefited greatly. Let me give you one example from my own experience about its power as a promotional vehicle.
Several years ago when I was moving into the virtual coaching arena I wanted to get experience leading a virtual workshop, a workshop for geographically dispersed members united by audio teleconference (see Dean, 1998) . And to make it safer for myself, I chose a subject with which I’d had a lot of experience: strategies for overcoming writer’s block. I had presented on this topic nationally and had often received a strong response when this workshop was offered in graduate institutions to ABD’s and faculty.
So I decided to offer a workshop on two successive Monday nights for an hour. I placed ads in the student newspapers at Duke, Michigan, and Berkeley asking for students who would be willing to put flyers up advertising the free workshop. I hired students in each of these places. I had a professionally designed flyer put together. And I Fed Ex’ed the students hundreds of flyers to put up.
Six months previously when I had offered this workshop at the University of Maryland, more than 400 people had attended. So I was anticipating huge numbers of people. In fact, I only got three. Two people from Duke, a visiting professor from Russia at Michigan, and nobody from Berkeley. I was nervous during the call and perplexed at the turnout.
Contrast this with my experience ten months later.
I decided to get the experience of writing an E-mail newsletter for doctoral candidates even though I knew it was a fatally flawed coaching niche because most of these ABD’s do not have the discretionary income to hire a coach.
I mentioned my newsletter, “The All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide” (Dean, 1999a), at a workshop in October, picked up about 70 or 80 subscribers and started sending it out periodically that December. By the following March I had 250 subscribers. I announced the newsletter on the NEW-LIST (details below) and picked up 1000 subscribers in one week, including subscribers from all over the world and most major American universities. By August, the subscription had grown to about 1900.
Almost none of these people had met me or known who I was at the beginning. But month after month they were receiving (at their own request) a one or two page newsletter that was simply written, from the heart, and very focused on practical strategies to help them make progress on their most important issue, completing the dissertation. So over time I was developing a relationship, I believe, of increasing trust with many of my readers.
The following August, on a Tuesday, I sent out a half-page E-mail offering a free workshop that would take place within 48 hours at 9 PM Eastern time. That single E-mail brought over 200 readers immediately requesting information about the call. And 48 hours later, between 75 and 100 participants from throughout the United States, Canada, and Hawaii showed up for an intense, action packed, interesting one-hour virtual workshop.
What was the difference? Why would this simple E-mail generate such a response in 48 hours, whereas all the time and money I spent getting flyers put up on campuses only attracted three people? The obvious answer is that over time, through the newsletter, I had developed a relationship of increasing trust with these readers who were willing to take a chance on me, and experience my one-hour virtual workshop.
While an E-mail newsletter is only one of a number of ways to build trust with a large group of geographically dispersed prospects, it is powerful and especially relevant for marketing in a national or international arena. As the number of E-mail users continues to expand exponentially, its importance in virtual marketing will only grow.
If you’d like some low-risk ways to explore further whether an E-mail newsletter makes sense for you, here are some initial steps:
Subscribe to Five or Ten Free E-mail Newsletters. By subscribing, you can begin to see what you like and don’t like in a newsletter, and later this will help you decide on the format for your own. An excellent place to find an archive of hundreds of E-mail newsletters is the NEW-LIST mailing list (available on the web at http://scout.cs.wisc.edu/ scout/caservices/new-list/). Further, by subscribing to the NEW-LIST (at http://scout.cs.wisc.edu/), you’ll receive each week dozens of announcements of brand new newsletters that are just debuting.
Check Out Your Competition. When you are considering potential niches, see if anyone else is using an E-mail newsletter in your niche. Check out the NEW-LIST archive and search by key word on the web. But even if you find an existing newsletter, don’t fold your tent too quickly. Check to see if they offer coaching, especially virtual groups via audio teleconference (Dean, 1998). If they do not, they are probably not a serious competitor. And check to see if they have seriously penetrated the niche. In most cases, that will not be the case, and there is still plenty of room for you.
Choose Potential Titles. A good newsletter title is succinct and self-explanatory. It does not have to be flashy or cute. And its purpose can be amplified by its tag line.
Choose Potential Tag Lines. Ries argues that a key marketing goal is “to own a word in the prospect’s mind” (1996). There is limited available real estate there. And your goal should be to have no more than a single idea associated with your coaching practice in your prospect’s awareness. A key way to do this is through a tag line that is driven home on every communication (business cards, letter head, web site, etc.). A tag line often appears under the company name and typically captures your most important benefit or unique characteristic. Mine, for example, is “Helping accomplished clinicians become extraordinary coaches.” An important place for your tag line will be just below the title of every newsletter.
Decide on Frequency. While the optimal frequency is probably daily or weekly, a monthly newsletter works well and, for a busy clinician, is often best.
Understand the Relative Value of a Web Site. What most web designers won’t tell you (or don’t understand) is that an E-mail newsletter is much more effective than a web site. If I had to choose, I’d go E-mail every time. Why? Because most members of your universe of prospects will not revisit your web site over and over. And repeated contact is how you build a relationship. But your E-mail newsletter will go directly to them, and they’ll be much more likely to read it. Again and again. Certainly the best combination is to have both. But don’t assume you have to have an expensive web site before you can start marketing virtually. You don’t. You can either do without or have one that initially does nothing more than take subscriptions to your newsletter.
Decide How You’ll Handle Subscriptions. While you can handle them manually, I wouldn’t recommend it. Far better is software that automatically handles all subscriptions and unsubscriptions. If you have a web site, your web host should be able to set this up for you, usually at no cost. Or you can use one of the excellent, free services available on the web (see www.onelist.com or www.listbot.com, for example). A very useful exercise would be to go to one of these sites, for example, www.listbot.com, and set up a simple mailing service for your friends or family. You’ll see how easy it is.
Draft the Boilerplate. Parts of your newsletter will stay the same regardless of the issue’s content. This includes items such as your title, tag line, index, bio, information on subscribing and unsubscribing, whether and how the newsletter can be reprinted, etc. See how others have handled these items and then draft your own.
Begin to Pay Attention to the “Form” of E-mail Newsletter Writing. It’s very different from writing for paper publications. The writing must be scannable. Use short sentences, short paragraphs, subheads, bullets, numbers. Keep line lengths under 66 characters. There’s an art to writing for a computer monitor. So start by just paying attention to it.
Start a File for Potential Newsletter Topics. Include everything that might be useful here. And jot down possible topics for your first five to ten issues. Think in terms of the most important problems of your potential readers. Also understand that a secondary use of your newsletters will be to send relevant back issues to prospective clients at the point they first seriously contact you. One criterion for topic selection, then, is what would be most useful to send to such a prospect.
Draft a Trial Issue. Try your hand at one. Send it to friends for margin comments. Revise it a few times. Consider keeping it brief. As little as 700 to 900 words can work.
Get Your Canoe in the Water. The first 11 steps are exploratory and low-risk. If you decide you want to go ahead, a next step might be to announce your newsletter on the NEW-LIST. Within days, you’ll have some global subscribers. (A special note: it’s unusual to pick up 1,000 readers as I did with my NEW-LIST submission. More typical are 25 to 200 new subscribers.) Also subscribe your colleagues and friends. Getting readers, knowing you will be read, often receiving appreciative comments from around the globe—all these will start to pull you along, making this process easier and more fun.
A Final Benefit
The E-mail newsletter is, of course, not an end in itself. It is one of a number of powerful strategies for developing a relationship with as large a percentage as possible of the universe of prospects in your niche. Again, you will need only a small portion of these prospects to journey down the dimension of trust for you to develop a huge practice.
Yet in writing your newsletter, your focus should not be on your paying clients, but on the universe of prospects, most of whom may never work with you directly. A major key—at least for me—is to attempt to serve the entire universe of readers as if they were my clients. This will free you to give away rich, valuable information. And it will allow you to have a positive impact on many more people than you could ever serve directly.
One of my East Coast colleagues, just getting established in a niche, recently received an E-mail which said, “Thank you so much for the wonderful work you are doing. We read your newsletter every month. I have taken your newsletter to my church. We have discussed it in our support group, and we are using many of your ideas. Your work is so helpful in helping us confront the problems of making the transition from a divorce into a new life. Please keep up the good work. God’s speed to you.” This letter was from South Africa.
I, myself, now have readers on six continents, in 51 countries, a not uncommon experience for an E-mail newsletter publisher. You can too. Increasingly as the digital revolution continues, we have the opportunity to help people throughout the world. For me, this is one of the most rewarding aspects of working virtually.
Beckwith, Harry. (1997). Selling the invisible: A field guide to modern marketing. NY: Warner.
Dean, B. (1998), The psychologist as virtual coach. The Independent Practitioner, 18 (4), 188-189.
Dean, B. (1999a). The all-but-dissertation survival guide (A free, monthly E-mail newsletter available on the web at http://www.ecoach.com or by calling 301.986.5688.
Dean, B. (1999b). The therapist as coach (A free, monthly E-mail newsletter available on the web at http://www.mentorcoach.com or by calling 301.986.5688.
Ries, A.. (1996). Focus: The future of your company depends on it. NY: HarperCollins.
Ries, L, & Ries, A. (1998). The 22 immutable laws of branding: How to build a product or service into a world-class brand. NY: HarperCollins.
Ben Dean, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Bethesda, Maryland and may be reached at 301-986-5688 or on the web at http://www.mentorcoach.com