Many start-up businesses have the same experience. They start out doing projects for friends or connections that they know. This leads to a couple of more jobs and one or two people then refer them to a friend. Some businesses go several years with this being their sole source of growth.
I know for a fact this is how my business partner grew his successful marketing agency initially. The best clients we ever had a RedEye came from this approach. So it’s fine to rely on a strategy that assumes all clients come from referrals right? Wrong.
“It won’t last. It is not a growth strategy.”
It is definitely PART of a strategy and all businesses should do more to grow referrals and never be afraid to see how they can help people they know. But if you rely solely on that, most businesses will eventually stagnate and then they will enter a period of sales & marketing desperation. Better to avoid this and actually start a proactive sales & marketing strategy whilst you are still succeeding with the referral led approach.
It’s Worked So Far
I can already hear many of you saying the same thing - it’s worked so far, why would that change? The short answer is simple - nothing lasts forever! There is a lot more to it, but that is the best way to explain it to people. But for those who want a longer explanation, let me explain a number of reasons why it is not a stand-alone, long term strategy.
1. However good you are, you will eventually lose clients
Sorry to say it, but very few clients last forever. As you lose them, referrals are great for filling in those gaps, but to truly grow, you will need to find new clients outside of your referrals, otherwise, you will standstill.
2. However popular you are, you only have so many friends
Again, I hate to sound like the grumpy bloke you met in the pub, but your list of friends is finite. You’ll get a few friends as clients and maybe a few of their friends as clients. But that list will not carry on forever. Some of those friends of friends will be lonely people without many friends or their friends are already part of your friends - are you still following me? Without making this too complex, let's just say that relying on an ever-increasing set of friends is not a sustainable business strategy.
3. However good your connection range is, it will eventually need to grow
As with your friends, your work network (for most people, known as LinkedIn!) is not unlimited. It definitely has better potential but ultimately to maximise it, you’ll actually need to do some networking and, wait for it, marketing. Yes, to expand the size of your network, which you will have to do, you will need to do marketing. It might not be your traditional view of marketing, but it is marketing. Keep reading and I’ll explain what it is and how it’s not scary.
4. However well connected you are, eventually you’ll need to find people outside your network
So, this is the slightly contentious one, as I don’t 100% believe it’s true!
For some people and some business types, it might well be possible to rely solely on your network - as long as you are using marketing to continually increase your network (more on that below). But for many businesses, you need to find new networks of people outside your traditional set of contacts and for this, you’ll need to start promoting yourself or your business for others to take notice - otherwise known as marketing!
How to Make More of Your Referrals
I promised I’d share ideas on how to grow your referrals. Warning - it involves marketing and networking, a couple of words that scare many business owners. It shouldn’t, it is basically about talking about yourself and your business to other people. There is literally no one better in the world to do that than you!
Let’s keep it simple and focus on just a couple of things, LinkedIn and other networking opportunities. It will feel less like ‘marketing’, so you might embrace it more...
Making LinkedIn work for you
LinkedIn requires you to interact with people, to make virtual small talk and offer value to people in your network. Anyone can do this, so let's look at quick and easy ways of doing this.
You need to talk to people - you can do that!
That’s right, the first thing you need to do is start commenting on other people’s posts. Doesn’t have to be just people you know, in fact, it’s encouraged to comment on posts of people you don’t know. They will appear in your timeline because your connections have liked their posts. But you can also seek them out, use the keywords that matter to your business and look for hashtags. For example, I often search on #smallbusinessowner for interesting posts to read and comment on.
Benefits of this approach - 1) You’ll attract the attention of the author of the post, increasing your network. 2) You’ll look great to the LinkedIn algorithm gods, who love people that engage in others' posts, meaning they will spread your posts to a wider group of contacts.
Post engaging content - rarely about your business
Sorry to be captain downer again, but people generally don’t want to read 10 posts a day about your business or what you do. Follow a simple 4-1-1 policy. 4 pieces of interesting content that have nothing to do with your company, 1 piece of content on your business that is not selling and finally one piece of soft-selling about your business.
People will engage with this approach. Make the posts open questions, give people a reason to comment on them. Even the most interesting article in the world is pointless if it doesn’t then encourage someone to comment on the post.
Benefits of this - 1) People will look at your content and form a positive opinion of you, increasing the chances of a connection and ultimately a sale 2) Those algorithm gods again - they love it when people engage with your post...
LinkedIn is the largest business networking site in the world, but the world is full of other networks that are great for expanding your network.
You’ll find specific groups online, on social media platforms like Facebook or even (whisper it quietly) ones where people meet face to face. Just remember these couple of strategies when looking at the ones that are right for you and how to interact with them.
Marketing agencies don’t hire marketing agencies
What? If you are a marketing agency, a network dedicated to marketing agencies is not going to get you referrals. If you are a plumber, a network filled only by other plumbers is not going to get you plumping jobs. This doesn’t mean these networks or groups are not useful, they are invaluable for asking questions, but if your aim is referrals, then generally you are better looking for networks filled with your ideal customers. And if you don’t know who your ideal customer is, then go download this free eBook and come back in an hour...
Add value, it always pays back
Networking is about offering others help. It is not about arriving and telling everyone how amazing you are and that your business/product/service is the best thing since the final season of The West Wing. Focus on what you can do for others. People soon spot someone that’s only in the group to generate leads, which is rarely appreciated. Contribute to the conversations, offer free advice, offer free content to the group (see below) and generally get a reputation as someone that people like and trust.
Guess what? When someone needs help that your business can offer to do, they will be 100% more likely to listen and choose you.
Strategies to Work Alongside Referrals
I mentioned at the top that the key is running marketing activities alongside your referral strategy. Without going into detail, here are some examples that complement that approach really well.
Social media groups/hashtags/trends
Slightly cheating, as this is another form of networking, but try and join forums or follow hashtags that are relevant to your business and become part of those communities. Then use content marketing (read below) and your best offers to engage with people and generate interest and leads.
Whether it’s on Google, Facebook or even within a trade website, doing some paid advertising is a nice place to start with your marketing when looking to find people outside of your current network, complimenting your current referral strategy.
Grow a marketing database
If someone told you that you could send your sales message directly to a group of people and they would receive it, you’d think that was too good to be true right? Welcome to email marketing. Give people a reason to give you an email address (see below) and then you are able to communicate with them regularly and unlike social media, LinkedIn, advertising etc… you know it's going to be in front of them.
This is the single most important element, as it will not just help you grow your business outside of your current network, but it will massively help you sell within your network. Good content marketing helps increase your credibility and give you tools to grow a database of leads because people will give you their details for your valuable content.
Go and watch our free webinar about how to never run out of content to get you started.
Having referrals should be a massive part of any business's growth strategy, but it’s important to have a variety if you truly want to grow and move your business forward. And, as a bonus, it makes it more exciting! I promise you’ll find marketing isn’t that scary and talking to people about what a great business you have is really rather fun, plus you get to help people and who doesn’t enjoy that.