Ethical Marketing and the Business of Addiction Treatment from an Owners Perspective

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addiction marketing owners perspective This morning I read an article in the New York Times  on digital advertising tactics employed by addiction treatment facilities. This article prompted me to write this blog post to help provide families a guide of what to look for when searching for addiction treatment online and how to prevent themselves from becoming prey to a growing number of bad actors in the addiction treatment community.

As with most things in life in 2017, many families turn to their smartphone in a time of crisis to search for a solution when they learn a loved one is struggling with substance abuse and in need of rehab. Families might “Google” “drug rehab” or “addiction treatment” along with a geographic location modifier such as “Denver” or “Colorado” to search for a drug or alcohol rehab facility near them. Some facilities will display on the three map positions on the first page of Google. Another several websites will display below the three map positions on the first page of Google. This is called organic SEO and is coveted and fought over real estate. Most people searching Google, whether for rehab or for a pizza restaurant, are not going to look at page two. What if you can’t get your site on page one organically? If you are willing to pay a premium- up to $70.00 per click- you can buy your way to the top spot in one of the three paid ad spaces on the top of each Google page.

Addiction treatment is a business. Drug and alcohol rehab centers have overhead, payrolls, marketing costs and the like just like any other business. Despite the financial realities of running a business, addiction treatment centers have an ethical duty to prioritize the best interest of the clients over profits. Treatment center operators need to be in the business for the right reasons-to help people get sober and improve their quality of life. Any person (or private equity firm) who gets into the treatment business to make money is missing the point and is almost sure to prioritize profit over people. I believe treatment center operators should focus on providing quality care to the patient and the finances of the business will take care of themselves. In the six years my rehab center has been in operation this strategy has been successful.

With the understanding that treatment centers need to market their services in order to attract clients in an increasingly competitive environment, what is ethical when it comes to online marketing and what isn’t? What do consumers need to watch out for? The opinions on this will vary to some degree from person to person. In this short blog post I hope to shed some light on some common unethical tactics that consumers should watch out for.

First of all, optimizing your website for organic SEO by using certain keywords so you can be found online is perfectly ethical in my opinion. My treatment center is in Boulder and also serves clients from the Denver Metro Area. Therefore, I try and focus my organic SEO on people searching for “drug rehab” “addiction treatment” “intensive outpatient” and the like using “Denver” “Boulder” and “Colorado” geographic modifiers. This allows client searching for treatment to find my site and call or tour or rehab center to make a decision about enrolling. If my site is not showing up on page one in Colorado Springs for Example, I might bid on the keywords “drug rehab” “addiction treatment” “intensive outpatient” etc. in order to show in the paid ads for that search. I would argue this is still ethical as I run a legitimate treatment center within driving distance of Colorado Springs.

Here is where ethical violations have occurred. If you are in Denver searching for “alcohol rehab” on Google, chances are that a few of the paid advertisers are going to be rehab centers in Florida or California. They are paying for their ads to display in Denver in hopes of getting consumers to fly out of state for treatment. I would consider this a grey area but not necessarily unethical. Then, there are the companies that are not treatment centers at all but lead generation firms. These businesses create a web of deceptive websites, deceptive paid ads and fake locations which display on Google Maps. For example, if you Google “Denver drug rehab” and a paid ad pops up with the tagline “Denver’s top rehab center.” You click on the ad or call the phone number displayed. You think you are on the phone with a local treatment center. In fact, you are on the phone with a call center in Florida whose sole focus is to get your insurance information so they can verify your benefits and sell your qualified lead to the highest bidder. After you insurance is verified, this lead generation firm will sell your qualified lead to an unscrupulous treatment center operator who will purchase the lead for up to $10,000.00 because they stand to make up to $100,000.00 over the course of 90 days of treatment, often times billing for unnecessary tests and services. In my mind, this network of lead generation firms and the opportunistic treatment centers who buy the leads from these firms are the worst actors in the industry. They are in the business for all the wrong reasons. They are prioritizing profit over patients.

Another prevalent issue in online advertising is brand hijacking. This has happened to NorthStar Transitions. I once Googled our business name to see what displayed, and an unscrupulous company called “Rehab Reviews” had wrote a false and error ridden review of our treatment center. Adding insult to injury, they displayed a 1-800 number above the website which did not connect to our treatment center- it connected to a lead generation firm! The site was utilizing the good will and brand that our business has built to try and drum up business for unethical addiction treatment centers.

In short, be aware when searching online for an alcohol rehab or drug rehab center. Make sure that the rehab is actually a rehab and not a lead generation firm, make sure that the rehab is close enough to your home to be a viable option, ask how long they have been in business, ask what licenses and accreditations they hold, ask how the treatment center will serve the needs of the client and not just if they will accept your insurance and if all of these questions are answered to your satisfaction, ask to tour the facility so you can get a feel for it in person.

If you need a referral, we at NorthStar Transitions are happy to help. Whether you will be best served here or at another addiction treatment center, we are happy to steer you towards an ethical and competent provider.


Michael R. Ferrell

Executive Director

NorthStar Transitions


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