The Inbound Marketing Myth For PTs – Can You Really Rely On The Internet and Social Media For Your Marketing Success?

Updated August 11, 2019. Originally posted January 9, 2015.

Introduction: Inbound and Outbound Marketing – What’s The Difference And Why Should You Care?

According to Wikipedia, the term “inbound” marketing was coined by Brian Halligan, founder of Hubspot in 2005.

“Inbound marketing is promoting a company through blogs, podcasts, video, eBooks, enewsletters, whitepapers, SEO, social media marketing, and other forms of content marketing which serve to attract customers.”

In contrast, buying attention,[1] cold-calling, direct paper mail, radio, TV advertisements,[2] sales flyers, spam, telemarketing[3] and traditional advertising[4] are considered “outbound marketing”.”

I take issue with this definition, particularly with respect to outbound marketing. I don’t know any other trained marketing professional who would include “spam” and “buying attention” as an outbound marketing strategy. In fact, you could easily go the other way and load the inbound definition with stuff like “buying attention” as well.

With that definition in mind, Halligan co-authored the book “Inbound Marketing” with his MIT peer and business partner Dharmesh Shah. If you read the book you may conclude that “outbound” marketing budgets should be diverted to inbound or cut altogether.

Even if you don’t read the book, all the hype for website and social media effort can also cause confusion. So how should a PT clinic split its effort between inbound and outbound marketing? For example, if you had $1000 to spend and needed to choose between pay per click  (PPC) advertising and direct mail, which should you choose?

To answer these questions, it helps to take a closer look at the reality of inbound (digital content) marketing and two practical problems:

Inbound Problems

Problem 1:

The “inbound” mentality sits back and waits for prospects to find you through your digital content collection. From a PT marketing standpoint, that can be deadly. That’s because most small and mid-sized clinics don’t have the resources to play the inbound game competitively. It takes lots of money, time, and talent to pull off an inbound strategy. For most clinics, this just isn’t a practical approach.

Back pain is a good example. For most consumers, PT for the back is  “something you do only when your doctor tells you to do it.” This means most people don’t even think about physical therapy when searching for content about back pain. To fix this with an inbound strategy, you’ll need to create and maintain the content – LOTS of content. And while you’re busy doing that, you still don’t know when it will appear. Instead, you give control to the search engines. They decide if and when to display your information; they decide if you will rank high enough to be seen by your audience.

When it comes to new patient acquisition, outbound strategies like direct mail, broadcast, and print will work better for PTs. Outbound gives you control. You decide what information to send and who to send it to.

But even if you could succeed with an inbound marketing campaign, we still have problem number 2…

Problem 2:

The second problem with the inbound philosophy for PTs is mathematical. In the back pain example, you have two groups of prospects. One group already knows they want PT and are ready to book. The other group is still considering diagnosis and treatment options. About 2% are the “ready to book” group. The other 98% have some level of interest in back pain treatment options, but many, if not most, are not actively seeking information. Instead, they are living with the issue or waiting for a physician to tell them what to do. Hence, most back pain prospects are not even on the “inbound” search spectrum.

Problem 2 is ideal for “outbound” strategies like direct mail. This explains why direct access new patient acquisition rates are much higher with outbound channels than inbound. It also explains why we recommend spending your theoretical $1000 on direct mail, and not PPC.

Postcards for physical therapists

A Word About Local Search

My remarks today tried to help make it easier to think about when to use inbound and outbound marketing strategies. To make my point I ignored the most  important inbound consideration for outpatient clinics – “local search.” Instead, my remarks were based on “informational search.”

Local search results display maps and reviews of locations in the searcher’s area, like the one pictured below on the left. Note that informational search results  look different, like the one on the right for “back pain.”

PT clinics should not neglect their “inbound” marketing effort on local search. Managing local search is much easier than informational. That’s because when a searcher already knows they want PT, you need to be optimized for appearance on maps, patient reviews, and online directories. Therefore, local search demands less content production. With local search, you’re not competing with the guerillas of inbound marketing like the ones pictured in the informational search example below.

Local Search Result Example
Local search example - image
Informational Search Result Example
back pain search example - image


With inbound marketing, you CAN win the local search battle. But remember, local searchers are the smallest slice (2%) of your target audience. Your biggest audience is the other 98% who are not seeking information but can learn how you help through your outbound marketing.

Local Search Package – Inbound
Direct Response Marketing – Outbound
Marketing Boot Camp – Practice Marketing

PT Referral Machine Newsletter Signup

Stay up to date on the latest trends in marketing for physical therapists – From The Trenches.

  • Physical therapy marketing strategy & tips

  • New product, service, and training announcements

  • Exclusive subscriber discounts and special offers