Continuing the tradition of questionable online marketing practices by addiction treatment centers — which are a huge and growing industry — the company behind American Addiction Centers (AAC Holdings, Inc., ticker: AAC) over the summer acquired a little online marketing company that virtually nobody had heard of: Referral Solutions Group (RSG). The company was acquired by AAC for $32 million in cash in addition to stock.
Referral Solutions Group (now known as Sober Media Group) operates a whole bevy of websites, including everything run by Recovery Brands. But on most websites run by this group today, you won’t see any mention of who owns or operates the site.
Why would a company seemingly want to hide the fact that they own or operate a particular website? It’s anyone’s guess, but it appears such actions are meant to make it seem like a website is independent and not associated with any particular treatment center.
This illusion of independence is important, in my opinion. As a consumer, if you go to a website and believe it’s not affiliated with a treatment center, I suspect you’re more likely to use its treatment referral hotline or directory. And if you’re on one of these websites operated by AAC Holdings, you may even get a referral to an American Addiction Centers treatment facility.
MentalHelp.net: No Longer Independent
Referral Solutions Group (aka Recovery Brands) now runs a website near and dear to my heart — MentalHelp.net. First begun in late 1995 by myself and a co-founder, it was the very first commercial website I built. I spent 4 years developing it into the largest and most trusted mental health resource at the time.
After I left the company, the site was left to languish but still manages around 300,000 visitors per month. This is not-insignificant traffic that, to an addiction treatment center, is 300,000 potential more referrals a month.
At some point earlier this year, MentalHelp.net was apparently acquired by Referral Solutions Group.1 It seems that the change in who runs MentalHelp.net was not publicized, nor was any press release issued. Since it was re-launched with a slick new template, it appears no new content has been added.2 Its home-grown therapist finder also appears to have gone away, as well as its social media feeds. All without notice or explanation.
AAC’s Referral Solutions Group (Now Sober Media)
Referral Solutions Group (now known as the Sober Media Group since its acquisition by AAC) lists none of the properties it owns and/or operates on its own website. It seems a little curious that a company that seeks to “build, expand and continually improve a network of sites” doesn’t actually list the network of sites on their own website. Not a single one.
American Addiction Centers’ subsidiary also appears to run a lot of other websites, including:
- And now, Mentalhelp.net
among others. (This could very well be the tip of the iceberg; without transparency, we simply don’t know.) Most of these websites operate with privacy-shielded domains, have little in the way of a descriptive or detailed “About Us” section, and share in providing virtually no information on who owns or operates the site.
In other industries, some might consider this to be a conflict of interest (especially when it comes to a previously-independent referral website like rehabs.com). We’re not the only ones to think this could be a problem.
MentalHelp.net — once an independent publisher of mental health information — is now just a part of a business arm of an addiction treatment center. And they’re apparently not even actively updating the site any longer.
Why Do Addiction Centers Need So Many Websites?
In my opinion and experience, it’s all about search engine optimization (SEO). SEO drives more people to AAC’s websites, resulting in increased call volume to their hotlines, which ultimately drives more paying customers to their treatment centers.
Search engines, in general, don’t like websites that are seemingly run by the same company with simply repurposed content. A company could even suffer a penalty if a search engine company like Google believes the company is just trying to confuse consumers or “game” the system. Hence the need to have a group of stealth websites, owner and/or operated by a subsidiary.
According to the most recent earnings call from AAC, they apparently do about a 2 percent conversion rate on calls that come into these phone numbers. The more calls they get, the more beds they can fill — it’s simple math. So on the 240,000 calls/year they’ve previously done, they’re filling about 4,800 beds. With an inpatient stay of about 30 days on average, that comes out to only 400 beds filled throughout the year — and they have something close to 1,000 beds.4
Obviously there’s room to grow. The more eyeballs online they can get to consider picking up the phone and calling that referral number, the better for their business.
- Recovery Brands and Referral Solutions Group are now known as the Sober Media Group — a wholly owned subsidiary of American Addiction Centers. One thing the addiction treatment center industry seemingly likes to do is to regularly change the names of their subsidiaries and companies. [↩]
- If you’re an ex-contributor to MentalHelp.net, we’d love to hear from you to get your story. If you’re also looking for a new place to contribute content, please contact us at talkback at psychcentral.com. [↩]
- And maybe recovery.com? [↩]
- If just 5 percent of MentalHelp.net’s 300,000 monthly web visitors call the toll-free treatment referral number, and just 2 percent of those who call are converted, that’s 300 new customers/month for the company. [↩]