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Dear Rehab Owners: Beware of Shady Marketers and Lead Generators
I am part of an ethics in addiction treatment group on Facebook. Some of the members are marketers, like me, but most of the members of the group seem to be treatment providers. What they have to say about the shady practices is pretty disturbing, and it goes well beyond digital marketing.
One member asked about the ethics and legalities around addiction treatment marketing, and after reviewing the comments, it was clear that there is still a lot of gray area.
Some acted like all marketing is bad. Others implied that it was how the marketer was paid.
Can You Legally Market Your Addiction Treatment Center?
Marketing is an umbrella term for so many tactics and channels. You’ve got ground marketing, referral partnerships, online advertising, lead generation, traditional and digital forms. You’ve also got branding, content development, local, paid ads, organic, etc. etc.
The problem is all of these are legitimate forms of marketing, yet all can also be easily distorted and manipulated. So, when the law gets involved, they’re not always sure where to draw the line. There is a lot of gray area and the people writing and enforcing the laws don’t always understand the full scope of what’s going on. This leaves a lot of loopholes for anyone looking to scam the system.
Unfortunately, with technology and the law changing so fast, rehab owners can’t keep up with it all. Think about the implications of even owning and operating your own website. Is it safe and secure? Can you be sure your content is medically accurate, even blog posts from years ago? Do your leads go to a HIPAA compliant tool?
Don’t think this matters? Think again.
If you’re making claims and can’t back them up, you’re going to be in trouble. Not just with generating leads, but with insurance companies and, yes, the law.
Certain aspects to what falls under ‘marketing’ can be looked at as illegal. You can’t lie and manipulate. You can’t patient broker, fee split or take kickbacks. If you violate HIPAA compliance, they’ll be coming for you.
Defining Ethical Addiction Treatment Marketing
So, what defines addiction treatment marketing and how can you ensure you’re doing it ethically?
Most will agree that “marketing” is neither illegal nor unethical. To further clarify, addiction treatment marketing is when a treatment business hires an agency or salaried employees to:
- Create a website with proper SEO and messaging.
- Perform outreach and networking tasks on behalf of the facility.
- Utilize digital marketing channels and assets to promote the brand.
- Run paid ad campaigns to raise awareness and generate leads.
- Attend conferences, man a marketing booth and network to promote the facility.
- Educate other providers, such as EAP groups, unions and other potential referral sources.
All of this is legitimate and ethical, assuming you are working with honest people. Where you get into a gray area is when the individuals are also paid a commission based on admissions to the program. Many legitimate marketing positions, where all business is conducted in the light of day, include such incentives.
Many in my ethics group are confused why commission is allowed, but fee-per-referral is not, or is at least frowned upon. There are still hordes of websites and social media pages that seem to be making money from addiction treatment referrals.
Can You Refer Addiction Treatment Leads Legally?
Whether you are a facility owner or not, there are plenty of reasons why you might have to refer a lead to a treatment center. If you are an MD, psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, run EAPs or have some other related affiliation, from time to time you may need to refer clients to an effective addiction treatment provider.
Please note that I am not a lawyer and therefore I can’t give legal advice. However, based on popular public opinion, I can say there are a few things you can do to avoid violating HIPAA and professional codes of ethics:
- Pre-qualify any treatment center you partner with.
- Only refer patients to facilities qualified to treat the specific needs of this client.
- Host and transfer your treatment center leads in a HIPAA-compliant system.
- Never sell your leads to the highest bidder.
- Don’t accept kickbacks for patients you refer.
The laws around lead referral seem to vary per state, so if you are in the business of referring leads, you should definitely consult a lawyer and make sure you understand what you can and can’t do legally.
Generating Addiction Treatment Leads the Ethical Way Isn’t Easy
I can’t say I don’t understand why so many treatment centers resort to buying leads. Generating your own leads has always been hard. But, generating leads for addiction treatment is harder than ever.
At one point, before Google decided to eliminate the ability for addiction treatment centers to bid on treatment-related keywords, the cost per click on their paid ads had skyrocketed to $100 to $150 per click. This meant that Google ads were altogether too expensive for some of the smaller rehabs.
Alternative forms of marketing, such as branding and social media, can also be expensive and take time to get results. Plus, there are no guarantees. Take Facebook ads for example: After Google crushed AdWords, many rehabs moved to Facebook paid ads. So much for Google’s plan to stop shady rehabs from advertising, right?
Per this post from LegitScript on August 8th, 2018, LegitScript Addiction Treatment Certification Expands to Include Facebook:
“Starting today, Facebook will require LegitScript certification for providers of drug and alcohol addiction treatment who want to advertise in the United States. This partnership follows the official rollout of our program, which began at the end of July after an initial pre-launch phase. Now both Google and Facebook will require LegitScript certification for addiction treatment providers looking to advertise.”
So, now you have to have a LegitScript certification for both Google AND Facebook ads.
Viable Marketing Alternatives to Paid Ads for Rehabs
Here’s what to do/try if you’re a rehab business and not LegitScript certified:
#1: More of What’s Already Working
Want growth like this? An organic approach to multi-channel marketing can rank your website for thousands of keywords and drive countless qualified visitors to your site and branded assets:
- On-page SEO
- Organic Link Building
- Local Marketing
- Strategic Blogging
- Content Marketing
- Asset Development
- Outreach and Engagement
- Email Marketing
#2: Test Other Ad Platforms
Google and Facebook are not the only tech giants selling ad space. Why are these other channels of marketing and paid ad opportunities not being more heavily tested? Someone give us a budget so we can test this stuff already, such as:
If you do decide to test other ad platforms, just keep in mind that each work differently and may need to also utilize a supporting lead nurturing campaign.
When considering the buyers journey most ads on social platforms will reach buyers at the top of the funnel, or beginning of the journey. These leads can be nurtured into sales with the right strategy, but don’t expect to convert the majority of your visitors from the first touch.
You can learn more about this strategy here: How to Convert Leads into Sales by Understanding the Buyer’s Journey
#3: Get Listed on Relevant Sites
There are numerous high traffic sites that still sell ad space or offer directory listings. Trusted sites, such as PsychologyToday.com, offer brand visibility and referral traffic for a monthly fee.
Our good buddy, Jim Peake, of Addiction-Rep, has a good-sized drug rehab directory list on his site here. Some of the listings are free, but most decent websites want to charge you for valuable real estate on their site.
You do have to be careful about what sites you buy ad space from, however, as there are still so many shady third-party sites that fake their statistics and the quality of their traffic, banking on the ignorance of their buyers.
#4: Everything Else I Already Said Before
I don’t want to be redundant, so if you missed it, I provided some other interesting marketing ideas in my previous article here: Can Rehabs Survive Big Changes to the Addiction Treatment Industry?
Unfortunately, there are no cheap solutions or quick fixes here.
Effective marketing requires addiction treatment center owners and advertisers to work together on reaching clients where they are with the right messaging. If Google and Facebook can eliminate your ability to bid on paid ads practically overnight, then your other channels of marketing and lead-generation sources could dry up in the same way.
The key is to diversify, test everything and use a smart marketing strategy that is always focused on what is working NOW … and focused on the tried-and-true solutions that provide long-term gains, like SEO.