Marketing, for the Record

I think we’ve all gotten some version of this email:

Hi There Busy Solo Clinic Owner,
I was wondering if you could help me. I am (choose one)

–a fellow acupuncturist! I AM SO SO INTERESTED IN COMMUNITY ACUPUNCTURE!!! No really, I am! I’m totally thinking about doing it!
–an acupuncture student working on a paper and I can’t find any other acupuncturists who will talk to me (why is that, do you think?)
–a business coach/life coach/fellow small business owner and I just LOVE your CONCEPT! I want to translate it into what I’m doing, aren’t you excited?

Would you mind sharing how you grow your business? How do you get new patients and more importantly retain patients? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Irritatingly Ungrounded, But Undeniably Enthusiastic (For The Moment, Anyways)

So, for the record, how DOES a community acupuncture clinic attract and retain patients?

Marketing isn’t something separate from everything else a community acupuncture clinic does, and so you can’t separate it out and hope to succeed. There’s no magic formula and there’s no shortcut. If you’re looking for one, stop it! Otherwise you’re going to be wasting your (and other people’s) time.

A successful clinic is composed of two sets: a set of systems, and a set of relationships. Both these sets require a lot of time and energy to build, and more time and energy to maintain.  (See above: no shortcut.) Both these sets have to be a good fit for the acupuncturist(s), whoever they are. One thing you learn in community acupuncture is that humans are wildly and beautifully variable. In constructing systems and relationships, there’s an inevitable amount of trial and error as the acupuncturists experiment to find out what feels comfortable to them (hint: “what feels comfortable” generally equals “what you can sustain” and “what’s authentic to you”.). It’s kind of like designing and sewing your very own work clothes — and then carefully taking them in so they fit as well as possible, mending them as needed, etc. (See above: no shortcut.)

Unfortunately “marketing” often means floundering around, trying to get people’s attention in ill-conceived and inauthentic ways, wearing yourself out, and wasting energy that you could otherwise be putting into caring for your systems and relationships. It is possible to create good systems for marketing, and most successful community acupuncture clinics have done so. These systems tend to be low-impact and easy to maintain; other than that, different clinics do different things depending on what feels comfortable to the people who work in them. Some clinics send postcards, some clinics put up flyers, some clinics run regular specials (example: 5 for $65). What works for one clinic doesn’t necessarily work for another. (See above: people are different, trial and error, no shortcut.) Also! When you join POCA, you will get access to tons of systems. If spreadsheets scare you, you can download somebody else’s — ditto for intake paperwork, handouts for patients, you name it.

But in general, whatever marketing the clinic does takes a backseat to working on the systems and the relationships. Because the bulk of marketing in a successful community acupuncture clinic is going to be done by the patients themselves (think word of mouth spiked with the occasional opportunity to be written up on a blog or to appear on TV). Patients doing the bulk of your marketing is a result of your systems and your relationships working the way they’re supposed to. Not convinced? POCA as a whole has successfully used this strategy to get the kind of national media attention no marketing campaign could possibly deliver (OK, no marketing campaign that we could afford.)

Once you’ve set up your systems, and you have at least a few relationships to work with (volunteers and other supporters as well as patients), it’s worth taking a closer, critical look at them — BEFORE you spend any energy on marketing. For example:

Identify the barriers to people using your services, and take down as many as you can. (Hint: some barriers will be inside you.) If you’ve got barriers that are up and functioning, all the energy you put into marketing is going to be wasted because they’re just going to deflect any people you attract.

Obvious barriers: cost, location, hours (you have to be open enough; every other week on Tuesdays in months that end in “r” is not going to cut it).

Not really obvious barriers: method of payment (taking plastic matters); scheduling (online scheduling really helps); not having enough help and support for yourself.

Not-at-all obvious barriers:
what you think acupuncture does, as opposed to what it actually does;
how you think acupuncture works, as opposed to how it actually works;
what you think people are looking for when they come to your clinic, as opposed to what they’re actually looking for;
the way you interact with people;
inconsistent systems and messages;
the amount of energy, focus, and headspace you have to put into your business;
whether or not you are aware of and practicing trauma-informed acupuncture.

(and if you don’t know what we’re talking about here, please join POCA! There are years’ and years’  worth of conversations about these things on the member forums.)

In other words, you have to know exactly what you’re doing and exactly why you’re doing it, and then you have to devote a lot of energy to doing it. Most acupuncturists don’t.

WCA recently rewrote its mission statement. Now it says: Working Class Acupuncture provides low-cost acupuncture to the community through a cooperative, grassroots, financially self-sustaining model. Our goal is to offer people as much acupuncture as they want, in support of whatever goals they have, so that they can use it in whatever way works best for them. It took us almost 14 years to get that clear about it. But now we know that what we do IS our marketing; it’s all one effort.

Please chime in, comrades. What would you like the internet to know about marketing, so you never have to answer this question again?

Author: lisafer

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Conference Keynote: Breaking the Ceiling

The theme for this conference is “Breaking Barriers”. You know, there are so many barriers to break in acupuncture that it was really hard to choose which ones to talk about for this speech. But since I’ve spent so much time talking about classism as a barrier, I thought it might be fun to shift gears a little and talk about numbers.


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  1. I think that the new mission statement really nails what WCA and CA is about. It strips away so much and gets to the heart of what WCA does and how CA can work.

    “Our goal is to offer people as much acupuncture as they want, in support of whatever goals they have, so that they can use it in whatever way works best for them.”

    I think that this is a fundamental concept. That really impacts your numbers. By empowering patients to use acupuncture as it works for them, you build the basis for a strong relationship.

  2. A little blurb Gururas and I have been working on – work-in-progress:

    Look at and learn what types of oppression and demographics impact the well-being of our community. For example:

    1) Dive into the demographics and issues, birth stats relative to perinatal death/c-section rates/age distribution/pediatric health issues

    2) Find out what social movements/labor movements/working class/economic issues impact the immediate area

    3) Hunger and food insecurity, including food deserts and food swamps

    4) Environmental justice issues and exposures

    To be effective we need to connect with our patients in a sensory way to receive rest and stillness – this is about set up – be porous, open, and receiving of the community that we’ve researched and are part of so that the structure/aesthetic/process fits into people’s neighborhood life and we can be in step with the folks that use our clinic.

  3. LOVE THIS POST! Such a good, clear reminder about the point of this business model. Especially, helpful as I am going to give a talk on CA (butterflies in stomach!!!) at my TCM alma mater later this month.

    It’s pretty much gonna be here’s POCA and here’s why you need to know about it!

  4. I love this post and would only add to the “there is no shortcut” this: if someone tells you they have “the secret” to getting huge numbers of people in the door fast they are trying to sell you a ticket to their next seminar on the topic. Lots of success gurus are out there literally telling people to glom on to people who are doing well and figure out their “secret”. Total scam.

  5. Great post! So clear on the business piece. I think that there is another great point in here because I also remember being that BA acupuncturist reaching out(so please be gentle on them clinic owners :)). Community clinics to those practitioners/students seem to have it all figured out and the owners that I knew were so admirable for their commitment, passion, and most of all camaraderie.
    To me it speaks so much to the importance of POCA Tech. If new Punks enter the world really knowing this fundamental piece, there is no telling what they can do! I really think it will be revolutionary for our profession and be the backbone of a new profession grounded in relationship and camaraderie. For the most part acupuncturists now have none of that, its no wonder so many of us are a little weird, neurotic and sometimes delusional. This post really speaks to me on so many levels. Thank you!

  6. For me, one of the gems in this post is thinking about a successful clinic as 2 different sets: “a set of systems and a set of relationships.” That is so simple and yet I have never heard or read it broken out that way before.

    It makes me wonder – do you think a community acupuncture clinic needs to be run by a team or can one punk do it all by themselves?

    Any input would be appreciated. Thanks!

  7. Hey healingriver16,

    I think that’s a great question whether CA clinics need to be run by a team or can one punk do it themselves.

    Just some background, I am a solo punk clinic in Winona, MN. I’ve been open since July 2009. I see anywhere from 120-280 patients visits a week. Last year I saw over 8,000 visits. I am a clinic success mentor.

    One of the biggest things I tell people I mentor is don’t do it by yourself. Find people to help you everywhere and built it into your systems. It’s too big to do by yourself.

    What this blog says is exactly right: it will make your systems much stronger and it will have an exponential effect on the relationships, when it’s not only dependent on you.

    All the busy clinic tell me, I wish I had a receptionist much earlier. Even when you’re slow or especially when you’re slow the exponential effect is incredible important.