Alcoholism, Treatment, and a Need for Change
When I tell people I’m the CEO of a company that specializes in marketing and growth consulting for addiction treatment, they’re often surprised.
People find it to be really specific, it’s a stigmatized topic, and I think, while no one says it, there is even some discomfort around the idea of marketing in this space. Ironically enough, those are actually some of the exact reasons I got into it
Like most people in this space, my story starts with alcohol and drugs, but then it veers off into an 8-year-long world tour, and comes to the present with me building a marketing and growth consultancy from the ground up
In high school and college, I was the party guy. I went to every party, whenever possible, and I was always the one who drank the most. At one point, I was blacking out about 4 nights a week. If you’ve been to an AA meeting, as I’m sure most people reading this have, this story sounds super familiar.
Drinking landed me in a lot of trouble with the law. I had three DUIs in the space of a year and a half, which allowed me to spend a less than enjoyable couple months getting familiar with the inside of our county jail and then spending the next year on probation. And, of course, mandatory addiction treatment.
So that was my forced introduction into the addiction treatment space and it left a bad taste in my mouth. Most of our time was spent simply sitting around in a circle talking about nothing. There was one lady in my group who was a self-admit and actually serious about getting sober. Everyone else there was court ordered.
There were a lot of problems with the program I went to:
- No honest or open communication. You were expected to say whatever the counselor wanted you to say, which resulted in nobody saying much and just speaking when forced to.
- There was no clear program or goal. Every session just seemed to be an open circle discussion. Once I remember we watched Bill W. the movie, so I guess that was different.
- I think my OP program was 3 months long and in all that time I only had 2 individual sit-downs with the counselor, one of which was my initial assessment.
- Some people in the group were really struggling with mental health, poverty, family issues, etc. These were not allowed to be discussed in the group as they were “off-topic.”
- It was clear our counselor had just as many issues as most of us in the room. She was only 2 years sober and hadn’t resolved most of her own life issues outside of sobriety.
I completed the program with an understanding that addiction treatment at the time was basically just a hodgepodge of half-formed ideas run by people who were not really qualified to be offering treatment outside of the fact that they were sober themselves. Unfortunately, I often feel that not a whole lot has changed in 20 years, which has been a strong motivator for me to drive quality in this space.
Also during that time, I went back to college and was working three jobs in order to pay all the bills. College tuition prices had just tripled and I had a lot of legal bills and fines that also needed to be paid. So my routine became 80-100 hour work weeks. I’d start class at 8am, then finish up working my night job at 1 am. I didn’t have a license at the time due to the DUIs, so would bike home, study for a test or write a research paper till 2 or 3, then get up and do it all over again.
As for my addiction, well, I just walked away from it. I had always just really enjoyed drinking and the party lifestyle and didn’t have much in the way of big life goals at the time. In fact, like many college students, I had no idea what I was going to do after college. My degree was in Religious Studies, so no clear career path there.
But with all the legal trouble and fines, heavy partying just wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore. I slowly reorganized my life around different goals and left that lifestyle behind. What’s often glossed over in most treatment programs is that my story in this regard is the norm. A full 80% of people moderate or quit abusive alcohol and drug use on their own, without treatment. It’s the 20% that can’t do it on their own that we see in centers every day and that need our help the most.
As for the field of substance abuse, I took a course in Substance Abuse Treatment while at university, but pretty much left it alone for quite a long time after that.
Entering Digital Marketing During an 8-Year-Long World Tour
After college, still fairly directionless, I decided to travel the world. I had been doing a lot of teaching and mentorship with children during my last two years of college, so became an international teacher. Being naturally hard-working and motivated, I quickly decided I wanted to do more than teach.
So I started getting on social media and blogging about education topics. I really fell in love with all things digital and figured out how to market myself online before most people even knew what Twitter or a blog was. Back then, Twitter would get overloaded constantly and the Fail Whale would appear. I bet most people reading this never even heard of it, which tells you how long ago that was :).
I was in Turkey at the time, and, in 6 short months, I became one of the best-known writers on the topic of international language education in Europe and the Middle East, getting invited to speak at conferences in Turkey, Cyprus, Greece, and Bulgaria. I’d have teachers from as far away as Japan come to conferences and know who I was (interesting side note: my first article ever published in an academic journal was through a Japanese publisher). That’s how I truly began to understand the power of social media to drive real-life goals.
My speaking and teacher training efforts led me into school management, where I used my still growing marketing and leadership skills to work with educational startups and grow schools. I became known for my expertise in turning around a failing school, eventually being hired by Disney to run their largest school for their 2-year old education startup in Shanghai, China and eventually going on to build an international school with some Chinese partners near Hong Kong.
After traveling to 31 different countries, getting married, and having a daughter, I moved back to the US. I stayed in education for about two years and brought all my self-taught digital marketing skills, which absolutely no one else understood, to the schools I worked at. In peak enrollment season, I was enrolling $70,000 a month worth of new students just off of Facebook and Twitter. Back then, I think we were paying something like 4 cents a click, so Return on Ad Spend was amazing. I miss those days.
Having become disillusioned with education in the states, and realizing that my digital marketing campaigns were bringing in more tuition revenue in a month than I was getting paid all year, I decided to branch out and start a digital marketing company.
Starting the Company – Building for Performance
At first, I was extremely nervous. The barrier to entry for starting a digital marketing agency is almost nil, so they are a dime a dozen. This is why there are so few good ones and most organizations have stories of getting burned by a marketing agency. Most simply have no idea what they’re doing, sort of like real estate agents.
I knew there was tons of competition already out there. But what I quickly came to realize is that 95% of agencies out there were all fluff. All they talked about was likes, engagement, building relationships, and creating quality content.
All of that’s well and good, but if it’s not tied to the business’s bottom-line, who cares? At the end of the day, I’m a numbers guy. When I was running schools, my schools were the best. I knew that because I spent more time training my teachers than anyone else and I’d see the difference when I visited other schools. So, I knew more kids coming to my school would be the best thing for them. Plus, the more tuition revenue we brought in, the more money I had to improve the school, hire better teachers, grow, etc. Profit and purpose are intimately intertwined when you build a business right.
My business background led me into something rare in the agency world – performance-based marketing. I also really like data, which is a perfect fit for marketing. What ads can we run to get more traffic to the site? Once they’re on the site, what changes can we make to keep them their longer? Then what changes encourage them to download our guide, email us, pick up the phone, and buy? Each step of the customer journey can be closely tracked, every change evaluated for performance. It was a fascinating world that other agencies seemed to ignore in favor of the more creative side of things.
So my agency grew and we doubled in revenue every quarter for our first 6 quarters. During our first year, I was still focused on education, but came to realize that schools absolutely hate to outsource.
In what now seems like fate, two of our very first clients were in behavioral health. One was an addiction treatment center from Wisconsin, and one is now what is the biggest behavioral health group in Seattle, who we’ve helped grow from $5 million a year to almost $10 million a year now. Both clients are still with us today, 3 years later.
Fixing the Broken Field of Addiction Treatment
As we worked with these clients more and more, I became more and more aware of the shady underbelly of addiction treatment. I remembered my own days of poor treatment, but found out there was also this entire realm of shady marketing and deliberately poor treatment. Then I started just Googling and calling centers. I found:
- Web pages that were 10 years old. You couldn’t find a contact number or they weren’t mobile friendly and took ages to load on the phone.
- Once you did find a number, no one ever picked up.
- A lot of the top listings weren’t even treatment centers. They were lead generation aggregators. Upon more research, I found they just sold names and numbers to the highest bidder.
- Centers that did pick up the phone seemed to be focused on selling their luxury surroundings more than treatment. I learned a lot about organic chefs and the Xbox games in the room and could find out very little about what they’re program actually did. Being a Rational-Emotive Behavioral Certified Counselor myself, I know what to look for in a quality clinical program.
I remembered all my experiences both in groups and in dealing with parents during my volunteer work. Your window to find treatment is so incredibly small. When someone reaches out with an addiction or mental health issue, they need help right that instant or the window passes.
There were all these people out there looking for help, yet the only people they could find or get a hold of were lead aggregators, not even real treatment centers. If they did get in touch with a treatment center, they were run more like a hotel than a center for treatment.
Then, as we started to get more and more clients in the space, I found out there were a lot of smaller treatment centers that had the same problems as the schools I used to go in and turn around – people very passionate about their work, but with no real knowledge of how to run a business.
I knew we could fill that gap. We could help treatment centers both from a marketing standpoint and an operations standpoint so people could find them and actually talk to a real person when they called. After all, it doesn’t matter how many inquiries we send to a center if they don’t know how to answer the phone correctly, have no CRM, have no follow-up, or have poor internal communications systems.
Become the Gatekeepers – Creating the Future of Addiction Treatment
My ultimate goal is for Circle Social to become both a support and a gatekeeper in the field. What I mean by this is that we seek out good partner centers, ones that are doing things right, focused on clinical excellence and evidence-based treatment. We connect those looking for treatment with these great centers to help them grow.
By doing so, we elevate the good centers while leaving the crappy centers in the dust. One of our real strengths is innovation. We’re the only addiction treatment marketing company I know that also excels at the operational side of things. We had cracked Facebook for admissions generation before anyone else was even trying to use the platform. We also do very innovative things with LinkedIn to support business development teams among a host of other strategies no one else is using.
When the entire industry is one-track minded and obsessed with one thing, like Adwords, we’re combining Facebook, SEO, LinkedIn, Business Development, and overall Operational Excellence to deliver consistent results. Even though the field changes constantly, we’re able to stay on top of things and are usually a step ahead of those changes.
My dream is to completely transform the field of recovery. We work with the really good centers to help them grow and refuse to work with the bad ones so they go bankrupt and die. I also dream of bringing a data-driven and evidence-based perspective to treatment.
Most treatment approaches are stuck in the 1950s. There’s been little innovation or change although current treatment modalities fail to be successful for most people entering programs. We need to bring treatment into the modern age and create programs based on effective outcomes, not just doing it because that’s how it’s always been done. This is also why I started The Recovery Executive Podcast, to help centers with the business side of things.
I know these are very lofty goals, but we will make it happen, of that I am very confident. My team is excellent and the partners we’ve already built in this field are excellent as well. We’ll get there and I look forward to joining with others to build the movement as we continue to grow. If you’d like to join me in this goal, reach out to me any time at firstname.lastname@example.org. Together, we can make a difference.