Referrals are the centerpiece of most professional services firms’ marketing agendas. Everyone wants more of them.

But wanting more referrals is not the same as getting more. How do you go about changing the odds in your favor?

We’ve compiled our top 7 referral marketing ideas to help. But to make the most of these opportunities, it’s useful to understand how professional services referrals actually work today.

Referral Marketing by the Numbers

We know that generating more referrals was historically a top marketing initiative for many firms. So, most professional services firms know how important referrals are. In fact, many have been able to exist and grow on referrals alone—at least up until now.

So why don’t your existing clients make more referrals? In most cases (72%), the answer is simply that no one asked them. In other words, they are happy to make a referral if a friend or colleague asks them for one. This is important because it is at the root of several of the top referral marketing ideas.

At the Hinge Research Institute, (our specialized research unit), we conducted a research study of 523 professional services firms to dig deeper and get the full story on referrals. We know that when most firms think about referrals, they focus on getting referrals from clients.

But what we learned is that 81.5% of service providers have gotten a referral from a non-client, people who they’ve had no direct experience with. So, clients aren’t the only source of referrals.

Two Types of Referrals

To understand referral marketing it helps to realize that there are two distinct types of referrals. Each type works differently and requires a different strategy.

  • Experience-Based Referrals. These are referrals that arise because of direct experience working with your firm. Think clients or other professionals that you may work with on a project as the source of this type of referral. The strategy here is to get as many people as possible to ask them about your firm.
  • Reputation-Based Referrals. These referrals come from folks who have not worked with you directly but are familiar with your firm and its reputation or expertise. They may know someone who has worked with you. They may be familiar with the content you produce. Or these folks might be aware that you specialize in certain industries or a certain type of service but lack any real knowledge of your reputation. Think of these as referral sources or influencers.

A strong referral marketing strategy should take advantage of both types. Here are our favorite ways of doing just that.

Our Favorite Referral Marketing Ideas

1. Identify and nurture top referral sources.

While this may seem too obvious, it is surprisingly rare. While individual partners may have their favorite referral sources, it is rare that a firm actively cultivates them. There are a lot of good intentions, but too little follow through. Lunch and golf outings are great, but don’t forget the simple step of keeping them up-to-date on developments at the firm. Single them out for VIP treatment and let them know how much you appreciate their contribution.

2. Feature top clients in case studies.

Behind in your case studies? Shame on you. The more widely you circulate your case studies, the more likely that a prospect will know someone at the client firm and ask about you. Even better, do the case stories on video. They are more believable and convincing. Presto, an experience based referral. If they did not see the case study they would not have known to ask.

3. Showcase your best clients in presentations, articles, etc.

Help make your clients more visible. It helps them at the same time it helps your firm. After attending a presentation and reading an article, some folks will approach those clients and ask about your firm. You’ll benefit from the “unsolicited endorsement.”

4. Publish your client list.

Now, I can just about hear the groans. So many firms are afraid their competitors will “steal” their clients. This fear is mostly overblown. If you make sure you have satisfied clients on the list and have their permission, they are much more likely to make a referral than to switch to a competitor. Publishing a client list is a good idea for another reason as well. It also helps a prospect understand what type of clients you typically work with.

5. Interview industry experts.

Profiling high visibility industry experts can pay off in several ways. As a result of the interview they will learn about your firm and what you do. This immediately sets them up to make specialization based referrals. As they learn more about you they may even be in a position to make a reputation based referral.

6. Publicize your specialty.

Many firms play down their areas of specialization for fear that it will alienate potential clients who are not in the specialty area. In doing so, they sacrifice a much greater benefit. The more folks that know about your specialty, the more likely you are to get a referral. Generalists rarely get this type of referral.

How can your firm publicize its expertise? From our research, we found that individuals or organizations often refer a firm after seeing them speak, reading their content, or interacting with them on social media. Being highly visible across these channels is essential to generating more non-client referrals.

7. Become a Visible Expert®.

Most firms have professionals that are experts in their fields. Typically, they are not well-known outside of their firm and their clients. This is a big miss. A key referral strategy is to make these invisible experts visible. A Visible Expert is exactly what it sounds like, an expert that is well-known within a target audience. In our research, we found that these professionals bring major benefits to their firms, including:

  • An increase in leads
  • The ability to charge premium rates
  • Greater ease in closing sales
  • An increase in opportunities
  • Brand building

And importantly, our research shows that these high profile individuals draw reputation-based referrals at a high rate. It can be a big win for your referral program.

While we love each and every one of our referral marketing ideas in their own right, we love them more when they work together. For example, a number of these techniques fit together well within the structure of a content marketing strategy. You can help stimulate referrals as you build your brand. Now that sounds like a winning combination.


How Hinge Can Help

Looking for more referral marketing ideas? The Visible Firm® is the leading marketing program for delivering greater visibility, growth, and profits. This customized program will identify the most practical offline and online marketing tools your firm will need to gain new referrals and clients—and reach new heights.

Additional Resources