Conduct an Internet search for any mental health topic – i.e., suicidal behavior in teenagers, group therapy for single moms, eating disorders among college students – and you’ll find a wealth of blogs.
The top hits that come up in your search, however, will likely be blogs written by social workers, educators or other helping professionals — not professional counselors.
“Counselors don’t have enough of a voice now online,” declares Tamara Suttle, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Colorado who presented a session on blogging for counselors at the 2014 ACA Conference & Expo in Honolulu. “It’s frustrating to me. Especially [in the area of] social justice and activism, there’s a dearth of counselor voices out there.”
The one exception, says Suttle, are school counselors, who actively share information and news via blogs, social media and other online forums.
A blog – short for web log – is an online journal, usually written in the first person and taking an informal tone. From family vacation anecdotes to industry trends and breakthroughs, it is a medium to share information, commentary and news.
Suttle, an American Counseling Association member, started to blog on her counseling practice’s website in 2009. Within six months, her phone was ringing three times as often with calls from potential clients, she says.
Blogging is a useful tool for counselors – and a medium they shouldn’t be nervous about trying, says Suttle, who also provides training and consulting on blogging and building a private practice for therapists.
For counselor educators, blogging is an ideal way to share information with colleagues and technology-fluent students. Blogging can also be a way for counseling graduate students to distinguish themselves from the crowd and catch the eye of potential employers.
Primarily, blogging is a way to spread a message, whether to raise attention for a social justice or nonprofit cause or to gain visibility for an agency or private practice, Suttle says.
In general, she believes blogging is the perfect platform for counselors to share resources and insights that benefit the entire profession. And in so doing, blogs also increase public visibility for the work that counselors do, Suttle says.
“[Blogging] is the smartest thing I’ve ever done for myself professionally, but also one of the most rewarding things, personally, that I’ve ever done. I had no idea that would be the case,” says Suttle. “If your goal is to change the world and to touch people’s lives, as strange as it sounds, blogging can do that.”
Suttle has been in private practice for more than 20 years; she specializes in working with women in transition and therapy for other therapists. She calls herself a “digital dinosaur” who has never been a fan of technology.
She got over her hesitation with training from Beth Hayden, a Colorado-based consultant and trainer who specializes in social media, blogging and online business marketing.
“Although I was scared [at the beginning] – I had never written for the public before – I was beginning to see that [blogging] was a very smart thing for people in private practice to do to gain visibility,” she says.
“If I can learn [to blog], anybody can learn it,” she says with a laugh. “I was blown away by the difference it made. … It has been what has made my practice.”
Thinking of getting started yourself? Suttle suggests that counselors begin by looking at other blogs to collect ideas, identify a niche and figure out their own style preferences.
Among the things Suttle says counselors should keep in mind when blogging:
Before you start, lay down “ground rules” for yourself. Will you allow comments on your posts – and accept the possibility of negative comments? Will you share personal information, such as anecdotes from when you were in grad school? Make a decision and stick to it, Suttle says.
Start with a goal, whether it’s to gain more clients, disseminate information, network with other counselors or build trust with your audience. Work backward from there, says Suttle. Decide how the blog will help you reach that goal, and tailor it accordingly.
If you’re trying to gain clients, be aware that mentioning your practice or services too often may turn readers off. Keep the sales pitches to a minimum, Suttle advises.
Be specific. “You may be a generalist in your practice, but if you blog, you need to blog about something very specific,” she says. “Otherwise, you’re forgettable.”
Find something you’re knowledgeable about and interested in but also something to which you can bring a fresh focus. Sticking to a specific topic builds your credibility and can eventually make you a trusted resource for readers who are looking for information on that subject.
Pick a focus that isn’t too broad and that isn’t already covered by a lot of other blogs and online resources, says Suttle. For instance, instead of blogging about adolescent issues in general, narrow your focus to adolescents and self-injury, or adolescents struggling with stepsiblings. For example, Suttle says she knows one blogger who writes solely on counseling long-distance truckers.
Be consistent, publishing new material at least once a month. Set a schedule for yourself, and stick to it. Posting once or twice a week is even better, Suttle says. Readers won’t return to a blog where posts are sporadic or published only once in a blue moon.
Also, the more posts you publish, the more Internet search engines will pick up your blog. Posting frequently bumps your blog up higher on search results pages (i.e., on the first page of google.com search results instead of on the fifth page), according to Suttle.
Write posts that are worth reading. Readers will share posts that are well-written, inspirational, entertaining and informative. “If you’re saying the same thing that everyone else is saying, you’re not memorable,” Suttle says. “[Readers] are going to forget you and not come back [to your blog]. If no one wants to pass on the blog post that you just wrote, you might as well not bother writing it.”
Aim for a writing style and tone that is “not academic or highbrow but approachable, warm and friendly, but professional,” she advises.
Be willing to test ideas and fail. Blogging is a trial-and-error process to figure out what resonates with your readers and gets your message across. For perfectionists and people pleasers, it can be “a really great way to stretch your edges,” Suttle says.
A good rule of thumb: If your posts are not being visited, shared or commented on, then you need to improve or change tack. Try including open-ended questions in your post or a call for readers to share their experiences via commenting, Suttle suggests. In turn, respond to reader comments with feedback. You don’t want them commenting “into a black hole,” she says.
Those who struggle with writing can still blog. If you’re not a confident writer, have someone else edit your posts before publishing. Trade off with other bloggers or hire a student, suggests Suttle. Also consider that blogging doesn’t have to center on writing. Blogs can be photo- or video-based, and recording your own podcast is another option.
Be mindful of risk management and etiquette:
- Plagiarism, or using another person’s text or images without permission or proper citation, is a no-no.
- Remember that a blog is not a forum for therapy. A counselor should not attempt to “treat” or advise readers, either in posts or in comment responses, says Suttle. Also remember not to share specifics from your counseling sessions with clients in your blog. (Refer to the ACA Code of Ethics section on technology and social media for more details.)
- Be accurate. Don’t post something that’s purely speculation or your own opinion without clearly indicating that. Don’t post items that are poorly researched; cite sources in your posts when appropriate. Similarly, don’t link to sites or blogs that are poorly researched. Think of the professional ramifications for everything you post, Suttle says.
- If you’re unfamiliar with a topic, don’t try to cover it yourself. Instead, invite a colleague or professional who is an expert or authority in that area to write a guest post for your blog, Suttle suggests. “Don’t be fearful of linking to great resources that know something that you don’t,” she says. “It doesn’t give away your authority but shows the reader that you are generous in sharing the limelight.”
- Most of all, remember that blogging will open you to criticism, Suttle says. “If you’re going to blog, you really do have to grow a thick skin,” she says. “Not everybody is going to like what you say or be comfortable with it. People will take issue with the position you take or the fact that you forgot to cross a T (or made a grammar mistake).”
Read Tamara Suttle’s blog at allthingsprivatepractice.com
Read the American Counseling Association blogs at counseling.org/news/blog
For more information
Some posts from Suttle’s blog on the ins and outs of blogging:
Advice for reluctant bloggers: allthingsprivatepractice.com/advice-for-reluctant-bloggers/
Therapists blogging for business: 15 mistakes you don’t know you’re making: allthingsprivatepractice.com/therapists-blogging-business-15-mistakes-dont-know-youre-making/
What’s the difference between blogging and sending newsletters? allthingsprivatepractice.com/whats-the-difference-between-blogging-and-sending-newsletters/
“Should I Start a Blog?” a podcast with Suttle by Joe Sanok: practiceofthepractice.com/session33/
Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org