As of September 14, 2017, Google has banned most treatment marketing campaigns from its Adwords platform.
For those of us who saw the proliferation of unethical marketing practices in the industry, and given Google's propensity to crack down in other verticals where unscrupulous ads endangered consumer safety, this is hardly a surprise.
But it's hard not to feel for the ethical treatment centers - many of them smallish operations genuinely concerned people started to help stem the growing tide of addiction - who got swept up in the ban, and watched a significant portion of their income evaporate overnight.
“Our Google reps did say the decision came from the higher ups, and that’s literally all they’ve said,” Advanced Recovery Systems marketing director George Fischer told The Verge, after ARS saw 40% of its ads disappear. “When you’re paying millions of dollars a year, you’d want slightly better customer service.”
In this article, I'll attempt to explain, as best I understand them, the reasons for the ban, and speak about what ethical treatment centers should do to continue helping more people with addiction, so long as Adwords is off-the-table.
Here's Why Adwords Banned Treatment Ads
Last week The Verge published a story about the proliferation of scammy marketing tactics in the treatment space.
Chief-among-them was Treatment Management Company, which, until July, misrepresented themselves as a treatment center, whilst sending unsuspecting web-searchers to third-rate, understaffed, and medically unprepared centers out-of-state.
In general, the unethical practices fell into two categories of "misrepresentation of services"...
Misrepresentation of Services
Here's how Recovery Marketers Dot Org, describes Misrepresentation of Services...
The primary examples I used to encounter were these:
- Referral networks masquerading as treatment centers
- Lead brokers masquerading as treatment centers
- Out-of-state centers masquerading as local ones
Say you were searching the web for treatment - let's say in close geographic proximity to your home. You'd like to believe that a center that represents itself in its ad as...
...a treatment center...
...is both of those things.
Instead, you were as-likely-as-not to find a lead broker pretending to be a treatment center. You'd call the number, and you wouldn't be talking to an operator at the treatment center you thought you were contacting. Instead, you'd be speaking either to an operator at a referral network, with a number of affiliated centers to whom they'd then refer you...
...or, to a marketer, who would then sell you off as a "lead" to whichever center wanted you.
Here's What Wasn't Unethical
Amongst the several legitimate horror stories, media coverage of treatment marketing "threw the baby out with the bathwater" to a degree, lumping several perfectly-ethical marketing practices in with the bad.
There are plenty of referral networks who work hard to refer patients to the best center for their needs, who are transparent about the fact that they're not, themselves, treatment centers...
...and plenty of out-of-state treatment centers who target local keywords for cities across the nation, but are transparent that they're out-of-state.
Sources like The Verge made hay out of the high cost-per-click treatment providers were paying, as if a high acquisition cost on its own - something common in industries from legal services to home security - was evidence of malfeasance.
What's more, I felt many media sources maligned the targeting of ads at prospective clients who can afford high-end care, rather than those seeking free - or medicare-funded - options, as if not being able to afford to pay for the clicks of those not qualified to invest in a high-priced service was unethical.
Finally, I cringed at the "heads on beds" canard, and its implication that center owners who wanted to run at capacity - often so they could handpick clients who were perfect candidates for treatment, then refer them to "downstream" services like IOP for a treatment rationale - rather than because their insurance stopped paying - were greedy, or looking to "cash in" on the addiction epidemic.
Nope - it's the misrepresentation that's so disgusting, that makes legitimate center operators cringe and shake their heads, and that ultimately doomed our ability to advertise on Adwords.
But the ban is also an opportunity...
Here's What to Do About It
The proverbial tide has come in, carrying-with-it plenty of scrupulous operators who were only trying to do good.
The truth is that treatment marketing - just like New York City real estate development - was full of "arbitrage" plays, enabled by the ease-of-getting-clicks, including much of the largesse I've written about on this blog for months:
- Huge ad budgets instead of careful targeting
- "Shotgun" approaches, like driving everybody to a generic homepage, which haven't worked in more "difficult" verticals for a decade
- Lackadaisical - or no - follow-up with prospective clients who filled out a contact form just days ago, let alone any kind of long-term nurture/trust building, or reengagement with former clients
The biggest centers, with the budgets to "blow everybody else away" in the search rankings, will - at least for the time being - no longer be able to count on a steady stream of expensive phone calls from Adwords.
So what's left? Genuine relationship building.
When addicts or family members take to Google, it's often because they have an acute need for treatment. (That's what made some of them so easy for scammers to exploit.)
But many are aware they have a problem long before they're ready to search solutions on google.
Reaching potential addiction clients at an earlier stage - via something like facebook ads and valuable content - has two advantages:
- You've got more time to build a relationship (and there's less room for scammers)
- You may be able to intervene at earlier stages of addiction
Admit Scout is currently developing a system to get qualified centers in front of potential clients before they're at rock-bottom/crisis levels, build a relationship through valuable content and regular follow-up, and "check in" gently at regular intervals. We've already seen centers succeed with this system.
In the mean time, I'll continue to post on this platform about the latest from Google and the future of ethical marketing.