Don’t Be A Marketing Creep on Facebook: The Addiction Treatment Edition

don't be a marketing creep on facebook the addiction treatment edition.png

One of my favorite journalists, Cat Furgeson, posted a new article on The Verge this week documenting several deeply troubling instances of Facebook marketing for addiction treatment gone wrong. In the article, we learn that marketers have been creating large Facebook support groups like “Affected By Addiction” and then using those groups as list-building tools and contact platforms for potential leads—without identifying themselves as marketers or naming their affiliation with treatment centers.

The details are cringe-worthy.

Moms of heroin addicts being harassed by “hard sell” marketers from four or five different treatment centers. People desperate for recovery thinking that they are getting personal messages from someone who cares only to learn that their new “friend” is a marketer trying to send them to Florida. A woman selling her snowblower to send her son to an overpriced, distant treatment center only to have him overdose shortly afterward. A son devastated that one of his father’s last text messages was about how the people at his treatment center cared more about money than they did about his recovery. This, before he suicided.

The stories are truly heartbreaking.

After reading this article, I honestly wanted to take a long, hot shower and reconsider my career choices. It is disturbing and discouraging for my industry to be associated publicly with this kind of behavior.

Although Furgeson’s new article states that “it’s hard to put together a consistent set of ethical norms in treatment center marketing,” it’s actually really not that complicated. For one, I think we can all agree that patient brokering—the act of paying a middle-man for each new admit—is not only unethical, but illegal in many instances. Conducting marketing activities online without disclosing your affiliation is also clearly unethical.

Today, I’ll look at the top two ways unethical marketers are exploiting Facebook to dupe leads into choosing their treatment centers. What follows is a cautionary tale for my fellow marketers on how NOT to use Facebook for marketing purposes.

But First: What *IS* ethical on Facebook?

PLENTY! There are so many ways to market your services without veering into unethical territory. Trust me, nearly every other industry on the planet does it this way and it works. I don’t see why it can’t be the same in addiction treatment.

Things you can do to promote your center on Facebook that are perfectly ethical:

  • Distribute information about the disease of addiction

  • Inform people about your center’s services

  • Keep readers up to date on news affecting addiction treatment

  • Build above-the-board relationships with potential leads with great content

  • Post photos and videos of your wonderful staff, facilities, and alumni success stories (with written permission)

  • Create super-targeted Facebook ads for people in your area

This handy infographic I made sums it up perfectly:

(Note: Feel free to share this infographic but please link back to this original post!) 

It goes without saying that when doing the above things, you want to disclose your identity and share your brand with the people you are targeting. Be proud of your brand! If you’re not, you’re probably in the wrong business. Adjust accordingly.  

Now that we’ve looked at the top ways to promote your addiction treatment center ethically on Facebook, let’s look at the top two ways to completely blow it and be a total marketing creep on Facebook. These are the things you DON’T want to do on Facebook if you’re interested in growing a sustainable, respectable business that serves people in need of recovery.

Marketing Creep Move #1: Making Facebook Groups Without Disclosing Your Identity

Don’t make marketing groups on Facebook—or any other platform, for that matter—without disclosing your identity and affiliations.

If you are doing marketing work on behalf of a rehab center, that’s fine—just say so!

It’s OK to make groups on Facebook on behalf of your center. I don’t advise doing this, and I’ll talk more about that below, but there’s nothing inherently unethical about making a Facebook group. The name of the group doesn’t need to be the name of the center but you need to make sure that the affiliation with the center is very, very clear. Spell out the association in the description of the group and disclose any moderator employment details in the moderator’s public profile. Congrats—you’ve just created the bones of an ethical Facebook group!  

A note about good inbound marketing form: Just because a certain center is affiliated with the group, that doesn’t mean all the content on the group needs to be about the center. In fact, 80-90% of the content shouldn’t be about the center at all. If you choose to run a Facebook group as part of your marketing campaign, focus on providing helpful resources and information that will be valuable to the folks in the group. This tactic will help build a trusting relationship between leads and your center, positioning your center’s staff as experts in the field—because that’s what they are.  

The Downside of Using Ethical Facebook Groups For Addiction Treatment Marketing

As I mentioned above, I personally don’t recommend starting Facebook groups—ethical or otherwise—as a part of treatment center marketing campaigns at all. Groups are complicated and very time-intensive (read: expensive) to run. Even with highly trained staff, it is very easy to veer into HIPAA-violation territory with Facebook groups. Unsecured back and forth communication with potential patients can easily contain (or accidentally hint at) PHI. The risk isn’t worth it.

Also, consider that opening a Facebook group that is associated with your center may rub some people the wrong way. Even if you do disclose the relationship in the group’s description, inattentive readers may miss that statement and feel “duped” anyway. The last thing you want to do when you are interacting with leads is give them any reason to mistrust you. I say skip the groups altogether.

Do This Instead: Create A Facebook Page for Your Rehab

I generally recommend centers open Facebook pages instead, where people can like and follow the content that your center posts, without the complicated upkeep of group maintenance. Shareable articles, blog posts, infographics, and news items can be great things to post on your center’s Facebook page.

I’ve written elsewhere about how to keep Facebook pages kosher in terms of HIPAA compliance, so be sure to check those recommendations out if you have questions about how to stay fine-free while taking advantage of all social media marketing has to offer.

Marketing Creep Move #2: PMing People on Addiction-Themed Facebook Groups and Referring Them To Your Rehab While Not Disclosing Your Identity

Well, this is a novel and creepy idea.

Apparently some “marketers” are joining Facebook groups full of people in recovery and/or active addiction and private messaging people who seem particularly desperate. These “marketers” then give out free advice about how the lead (or should I say target?) should totally go to this one rehab in particular because it’s, like, the best.

They do all this as a “friend,” without disclosing that they’re a marketer representing a specific treatment center.

Yah...don’t do this.   

When your lead finds out that you’ve tricked them (and they will), they will feel justifiably violated. This is a great way to generate negative reviews online and rack up tons of complaints against your treatment center. Your alumni will hate you and so will anyone who didn’t fall for your trap.

Oh, and let’s not forget: negative consequences aside, this strategy is just plain icky. This is basically like writing a fake review of your own center and acting it out in real time. Just don’t.  

Do this instead: Run An Amazing Treatment Center, Provide Fantastic Service, and Create Delighted Alumni

Wouldn’t it be nice if real people—not your marketing staff—would actually saddle up to potential patients and genuinely recommend your service?

That’s not a fantasy—you can make this happen.

The first step is running a fantastic service and delivering above and beyond patient expectations.

If your alumni love your service and go back and tell their GP how great it was, you’ve now got two natural advocates who are more than happy to refer people to your center. This is how real success is built.

It's important to engage alumni and keep your center at the top of their mind. Newsletters and regular texts from previous counselors are great ways to keep alumni involved. Facebook treatment center pages can be wonderful hubs for alumni to gather and stay in touch.

These same strategies work for keeping your referral partners, like local MDs and social workers, engaged as well. Newsletters and Facebook pages keep these folks in the loop, too.

Now that you’ve created advocates for your brand in the form of delighted alumni and referral partners, what’s next?

Well, all these delighted folks are great candidates for case studies and testimonials. Reach out and ask if they’d be willing to have some of their glowing comments featured in your testimonials section. If they’re happy to brag about your center, odds are they will be happy to give a testimonial, as well. Once you have their permission to use their glowing review in marketing materials, slap those testimonials all over your website, rack cards, and email marketing. They’re called “social proof” and studies have shown that they’re hugely influential when leads are making admissions decisions.

Creeping on Facebook is a Terrible Long-Term Strategy

Aside from the obvious moral implications and possible karma fallout, creeping on Facebook is just a really poor long-term marketing strategy. Sure, you may be able to deceive a few patients into signing at the bottom line this month, but what about next year, when reports of your trickery are everywhere on the internet? If you have any interest in building a viable business in the long-term, you absolutely must avoid these deceptive, reputation-damaging tactics and focus on long-term marketing tactics like building out a blog or developing a great email marketing campaign and focus on driving organic traffic to your site. As always, if you are tired of DIY-ing and are itching for an outside perspective, I’m happy to help.

Erin Gilday