Planets colliding like digital marketing and client referrals

Do you want to know the number one phrase I hear from leaders in expertise-driven businesses about digital marketing? Whether it’s consultants, architects, accountants, or something else entirely, I hear the same thing:

“Well, most of our business is by referral, so digital marketing wouldn’t really do anything for us.”

I refrain from pointing out the obvious - of course most of your business comes from referrals if you aren’t doing digital marketing - because it’s more important to address the implicit misunderstanding: Referrals and digital marketing are not at odds with each other! In fact, a recent study by Hinge Marketing reports that a whopping 51.9% of buyers have ruled out firms before even talking to them. Why is this the case?

That’s where digital marketing comes in.

The Importance of Digital Marketing for Referrals

I understand that some businesses have been burned by digital marketing firms that have convinced them to forget about referrals and chase whatever the marketing flavor of the month is. This doesn't work, so the business goes back to what it knows: referrals only.

However, there is a misunderstanding of the referral client's journey by those who rely on referrals to the exclusion of digital marketing efforts. This camp seems to think the process goes something like this: Get referral->Make purchase. Of course, in reality that's rarely what happens.

Digital marketing should be an integral part of any referral strategy, not separate or opposed to it.


As with most things in life, the best results come from working together.

Data from the same survey mentioned above, which drew from over 500 professional service firms, tells a compelling story of the buyer’s journey after they get a referral.

First, they do some research, which breaks down like so:

Internet Marketing Referral Help

Notice that out the five ways they do research, including the top two, three of them directly involve the website and online presence.

Depending on what they see, they may or may not contact the referral. If they don’t, here are the most likely reasons why:

Buyers rule out referrals based on websites

Again, we see that the vast majority of these reasons are directly or indirectly related to web design and content online. We can sum this up in a simple graphic considering scenarios in which the potential client gets different amounts of referrals, and you have either a poor or solid web presence:

Referrals with and without Internet Marketing

Clearly, you want to be in the right-hand column. Those relying on referrals will see a significant return on investing in digital marketing. Notice that the increase in revenue will still be from referrals; make sure to credit digital marketing with the assists.

It is already evident that a good website and content marketing are important to closing referral sales - and I haven’t even mentioned the second type of referral...

The Two Types of Referrals

When companies talk about referrals, they’re usually talking about the most common type, called “experience-based” referrals. This is a referral from someone that has worked with you directly, usually a client or a partner. If you are doing digital marketing and other activities visible to your demographic (such as speaking), you also have access to another referral source: Authority-based referrals.

Authority-based referrals come from those who have not worked with you directly, but are aware of your expertise via your website, marketing, speaking, and other public-facing activities where someone at your firm demonstrates your knowledge. Referencing the Hinge referral marketing report, here’s how non-client referrals are judging your expertise:

referral_mkt_expertise_based_referrals-01-01-01 (1)

An effective marketing plan hits each one of these sections (and more) and amplifies the great symbiosis of digital marketing.

The Dynamic Duo: Authority and Digital Marketing

Great marketing creates an upward spiral, generating more and more leads for the same expense. Here are just some of the ways they feed each other:

  • Real-world events are link building opportunities, driving traffic and boosting SEO
  • Quality online content creates a compelling resume for offline speaking or board positions
  • Articles linked to more often are considered authoritative
  • Articles considered authoritative are linked to more often
  • More in-person meetings are opportunities to build your mailing list
  • Awards and accolades that come from expertise promotion help increase conversions online

The list goes on. Of course, public speaking isn’t for everybody; the key for us is that each of our clients be seen and heard in a way that not only fits their business, but them personally.

If you’re curious what that might look like for you, let’s brainstorm.