5 steps to building a more effective referral engine

Marketing expert Lisa Harr explains how the power of social media can fire the volume and quality of your company's referrals.

In an earlier post, I made the case that referrals and word-of-mouth are the cornerstones of business development for professional services firms. I have also shared some thoughts about a more effective means of generating referrals relative to the traditional approach of relying only on people or companies with whom you have actually done business.

The underlying reality of today’s referral marketing is that when you’re visible in the marketplace and known for your expertise – which is the #1 criteria buyers of professional services use when selecting a firm, you can get referrals from individuals whom you’ve never even met — let alone worked for.

In this post, I want to share some thoughts about a five-step process for setting up such a referral engine.

Practice digital networking

You already know the traditional method of getting referrals. You go to events, do some networking, and once you’ve turned a prospect into a satisfied customer, you eventually ask for a referral.

Traditional, in-person networking is fine, and will always be part of how referrals are secured. But a far more efficient use of your time is to practice digital networking. For one thing, it allows you to cast your net much more widely than in-person networking, and also requires less of your time and effort. Consider that at a typical networking event, you might meet a handful of potential referral sources — maybe a dozen if you’re a really skilled networker. But that result has required an hour of your time at the event, not to mention whatever amount of time it took to get to and from the event.

Digital networking, in contrast, is not limited to the number of people you can personally speak to, and in fact can help you connect with hundreds, or even thousands, of individuals you might otherwise never meet in person. It’s part social media (primarily LinkedIn and Twitter), part email etiquette and strategy, and part having a high-performance website (more about that in a minute). Think of it as “working the digital room.”

Hold on, you may be thinking. Social media is fine for some people, but not for me. If you have this wariness, consider the three data points in Figure 1, findings from a recent study my firm did concerning people’s behavior around referrals. The key takeaway is that if you’re not active on social media (i.e., digital networking), you may be leaving a huge amount of potential leads on the table. Social media has become the primary place where you get judged and vetted … especially by people who were referred to you or your firm.

  • 60 percent of referral sources check you out on social media
  • 17 percent of referrals are made because they interacted with you on social media
  • 18 percent of millennial professionals won’t refer firms at all if they aren’t on social media

Make your expertise visible by sharing it with your audience

Based on our research, the most effective way to share your expertise is by giving presentations. Whether through in-person speeches, webinars, or podcasts, our research found that 30 percent of people who referred someone learned about that person’s expertise by hearing them speak. As the pie chart shows, other high-impact channels for making one’s expertise known include writing blog posts, interacting on social media, and having an impressive website.

How do people learn about your expertise?

Maintain a high performance, high quality website

A well thought-out website plays an enormous role in the referral process. To begin, with 80 percent of people who have been referred to someone check out their website beforethey even contact them. Remember, though, that not all websites are equally effective at impressing visitors. High-performance websites are defined as those that are designed to not only attract prospects, but also demonstrate the expertise of the company, and use strategic content to convert first-time visitors into leads and opportunities. Other important components of high-performance websites include relevant and provable differentiators, search engine optimized (SEO) text, and others.

Elements of a High Performance Website

Keep up with the industry trends your audience cares about

The next essential component of your referral strategy is to stay informed about the topics your clients want to read about. You want to establish that you not only know about the issues that matter most to your clients, but that you also have thoughts and opinions about them that set you apart from others.

Consequently, it helps to keep up on conversations taking place in the forums your clients frequent, whether those are LinkedIn, Twitter, or industry events. By giving some thought to how you see these topics a little differently than your competitors, you set yourself apart as an expert whose views they need to hear.

Create high quality, keyword rich content

A related strategy is to develop content that highlights your expertise as it relates to industry trends. In doing so, it’s important to keep in mind a couple strategies.

First, you need to make it easy for people find it by featuring SEO text. (Finding the right keywords is a strategy unto itself, and you can learn more by checking out a resource my firm created here.)

Second, you want to provide some of your content for audiences to read without making any kind of commitment, but other content as “gated” material, where they need to share their name and an email address before being able to download it.

A whole greater than the sum of its parts

One of the best features of this approach is that it works as a system, with each activity feeding into the next. For example, through your digital networking, you’re constantly learning about the topics that matter most to your prospects. That insight helps you stay on top of the most popular industry trends which, in turn, is where you focus your SEO content, which you then make available on your website in the form of blogs, white papers, and so on.

Most importantly, the system works because it allows you to share your expertise in an efficient way with a very broad group of potential referrers and clients. Doing so allows you to introduce yourself and your expertise to people who would otherwise never know about you. Then, after you’ve nurtured them with additional content, they become impressed enough with your expertise that they’re comfortable with referring you to colleagues.