How to Build a Referral Engine That Works

Image of Engine

Producing a remarkable product is good marketing, but even the best products need help in spreading the word.

Movie producers (now) know the value of a good trailer that’s shareable on social media. A teaser to whet your appetite.

Coke hasn’t changed its product in years, but they always put out feel good commercials that remind you why you like to drink it.

Zappos knew that they needed to create such amazing customer service that nobody could stop raving about them, and they passed the 1 billion sales mark — without shelling out the big bucks in traditional advertising.

Your marketing needs to be a part of every product and interaction that you have with a prospect or customer.

But how can you — the small to medium sized business, the independent consultancy, the one-person shop just getting the ball rolling — make this kind of marketing happen?

Let’s take a look at one powerful strategy that always works …

The great content marketing effect

You can create the same effect as the businesses I mentioned above by writing great content.

From informative articles on your site to smart tips on your social media accounts, relevant, contextual content attracts the right kind of prospect to your business, and compels them to share it with their friends.

Social media is a powerful tool, but it needs a lot of support. Most referrals that turn people into buyers come from a conversation.

When asked what sources “influence your decision to use or not use a particular company, brand or product”  71% claim reviews from family members or friends exert a “great deal” or “fair amount” of influence. (Harris Interactive, June 2010)

The person who recommends your products to their friends needs the occasional reminder about just how awesome you are. That’s why it’s important to build strong relationships with your customers and stalkers.

When I say “stalkers,” I’m not talking about the creepy guy that hangs out in the corner of your coffee shop while you bang away on your keyboard, getting the right words up on the screen.

By stalker, I mean the people that hang out and devour your content/ideas day in and day out, without buying anything from you. These people are vital to your business. I say this because a lot of them have influence in the social media world and are willing to sing your praises to all their followers.

One reason they do this sharing, is because they feel guilty for not buying from you. And that brings me back to why every company should have a home base (a website that they own and control) that provides free, truly valuable content.

Let’s say you sell BBQ sauce — like self-described “Legendary Bar-B-Q” purveyor Stubb’s. You need to give away recipes on your site, instructions on how to use Stubb’s sauce in all different kinds of dishes.

If you sell ebooks that help small business owners, you need to publicly share the valuable advice that your audience wants and needs.

High-quality content is that “reminder” about who you are and how you help your customer. And when your customer needs you, your name is the one that comes to mind.

Why trust is everything

So much of getting social shares — or referrals of any kind — boils down to trust.

Trust is something that many businesses have forgotten about because of certain preconceptions about how the Internet works. The good news (or bad news, if you’re just trying to slam together crap products) is, we’re getting back to the old ways.

Years ago, when your car broke down, you didn’t go to Yelp to find the best mechanic in the area. You talked to your friends.

Now we can do both.

You can talk to your friends offline and online, check out Yelp and make an informed decision. If one friend loves a certain mechanic but Yelp has terrible reviews, you’ll probably keep searching. If both give rave reviews then you are pretty sure it’s going to turn out well.

Every business should be using these tools to help build trust. If someone talks about you on Twitter you should be there to help. The same thing goes for Facebook, Google+, and the other major social networking sites.

Most important, lead these conversations all over the web by publishing powerful content on the site that you own. Become a trusted source of information and advice in your industry, and your audience will grow, and eventually spread the word for you everywhere else.

Engagement without burnout

When you truly listen to your audience — and regularly deliver the content that they want and need — they’ll connect to your business and ideas in a way that was nearly impossible before the rise of the Internet.

And once that connection is in place, they’ll want to help spread the word. That authentic emotional connection compels people to share your stuff with their friends.

Remember that every person that finds their way into your universe is a potential part of your “Domino set.” The more you build trust with them through publishing great content, the more people will refer that content to their friends, and the more sales you’ll ultimately generate.

The math is very simple, the execution takes time and hard work. Here’s some help to get you started with that.

* Hat tip to John Jantsch for the headline of this post, shamelessly stolen from his excellent book The Referral Engine.

Print Friendly

What do you want to learn?

Click to get a free course and resources about:

Reader Comments (28)

  1. says

    Great ideas. I like the part about “stalkers.” I think they can play an important role in your growth if you are able to engage them and get them talking.

    • says

      Hi Deji, Connecting with people on a meaningful enough level that they refer us to their trusted friend does take time. We have to be consistent and deliver amazing value. Very much like Copyblogger teaches us here.

  2. says

    Thanks for the reminder about how important great content is to every business. I think the point you brought up about “stalkers” is so valuable — those people might not buy from you directly, but they help fuel your business online and that is just as valuable. Great article!

    • says

      Hi Sonja, We can’t discount a rabid fan just because they don’t fit the mold that we expect from a fan. The more open we are to all the different personality types that we attract the more social love we receive.

  3. says

    I love stalkers. And I love it when they come out of the dark and tell me they are stalkers. Usually they are embarrassed and confess that it might seem weird “that I’ve tried to read everything you wrote” or “I’m studying your work right now” and I’m like, no worries, that’s complete validation for what I do. It’s like oxygen.

    I’d like to add to your idea of a referral engine that quality content marketing needs a heavy dose of guest posting on quality sites in order to bring the little got to the notice of the big guys. Sure, you can toil away on your blog and success may eventually find you, but guest posting on quality sites will inject it with that boost most of us what fast.

    Good article and good writing. I enjoyed it.

    • says

      Hey Demian, It’s a great feeling to get such an enthusiastic response to our work. It’s really a confidence booster. I agree with you about guest posting. It’s why I’m here guest posting on Copyblogger. Great for SEO and finding new clients. :)

  4. says

    Karl, I’m ‘way too old to admit this, but I’m just now learning to play dominoes. Living in Texas, my friends are really good at it and, well, I’m not. So, it’s humbling, to say the least. But I keep at it and gradually improve, and even my friends notice the improvement. Love your domino ideas here. It seems to work in our online lives the same way it works when we sit down to play dominoes in real life, right? It’s all about the connections…

    • says

      Hey Mia, Exactly. Each new connection has a chance to turn into something amazing. The more positive connections we develop the we can grow our businesses.

  5. says

    “One reason they do this sharing, is because they feel guilty for not buying from you.”

    An interesting thought I’m sure I’ll be mulling over for the rest of today. Great read!

  6. says

    You know, Copyblogger people, I’m confused. My comment relates generally but not specifically to the above article.

    You’ve been doing great work recently making us aware of the growing use of mobile and teaching us how we need to format our content to be more mobile friendly. So I just don’t get why you’re sending out truncated emails and forcing us to come to the website to read the whole thing. I read a LOT of email on my mobile, and clicking over onto the website to finish the read is at best annoying and at worst something I don’t bother doing.

    Why, Copyblogger, why???

    • says

      Thanks for the comment Susanna. The answer is that the Copyblogger site is mobile responsive, so the experience should be better on site than in a mobile email client. That’s the idea. Is that not the case for you? For example, on my iPhone, reading the email is tougher than reading on the iPhone-responsive version of the site.

      • says

        Hey, Brian, thanks for the response. Yes, I appreciate that Copyblogger is mobile responsive and it does look good on my phone. But — and maybe I’m in a tiny minority here — as someone who’s not currently in the US and has access only to slow mobile data connections, having to click a link and wait and wait and wait makes me oftentimes shrug my shoulders and say “forget it.” If I remember I’ll take another look when I get back to my computer, but not always.

  7. says

    Hello Karl Staib!

    Your post is really brilliant! If you start to thinking deeply you will understand that marketing is more important than product! I know two great popular products….the first one is better than the second…but the second one has the appropriate marketing! In other words the second company invest more in marketing and ways to sell their products and in conclusion they have more sales/profits!!

    Thank you,

    • says

      Hi Zouras, I like your reasoning, but I don’t think you can separate the two very easily. You need a great product that is worthy of people telling their friends. You also need marketing that encourages them to tell their friends. When you have both, great product and great marketing, that’s when you have something truly special.

  8. says

    Hi Karl, thanks for the post. I’d add to your supporting reasons for creating great content that content provides purpose and direction for the use of social media. It creates the opportunity for real engagement.

    I’m a digital strategist and also a photographer. I’ve been doing the former for much longer than the latter and as I’ve built my photography network, tapping into platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ in the process, I’ve observed that many photographers use social almost exclusively as an outbound channel.

    Certainly, this usage isn’t exclusive to photographers, but since I’m in this world daily, it’s in my face A LOT. Photography is also so shareable online, making it a very natural, easy act for any photog seeking to create awareness for her work to share her photographs.

    The problem is that this enables a monologue that’s mainly prohibitive to the objectives (creating awareness with a well-qualified audience) that drive the use of social media in the first place. The photographs might be great, but tweeting them all day, every day do not necessarily make a photographer more findable (unless your an absolute rockstar of a photographer — there’s an exception to every rule).

    I actually published a post about this very issue today (here), and your post really seems to come from the same wavelength.

    Thanks again for the post — really appreciate the consistently excellent thinking and writing that appears on this blog.

    • says

      Hi Wesley, Creating a conversation is the key to developing a network that refers you at every chance they get. A monologue is a tough way to build trust. Just try emailing Seth Godin and you’ll see how active he is when engaging with his tribe.

      They have to feel like they know and trust you. A conversation does this much easier than a monologue. Once you develop this trust they don’t have any problem making sure they tell every relevant person they know about you.

  9. says

    Hi Karl,
    Social media is one of the best way to build relationship & Audience.Through social media you can come closer to your audience and came to know what they want ?.It also makes your audience trust on you more reliable.
    Thanks for sharing this great article.

    • says

      Hi Ali, Seems like I’m preaching to the choir on this blog. :)

      My point with this article was to teach people to never discount how important each person is to their company’s success. You never know who might know a big player and be willing to tell them about you.

  10. says

    The trust thing is so big, and so hard to come by. Everyone is concerned that they may be giving their email to the wrong person, and I get that!

    Great content comes first, I agree. Then building those relationships. There are some cool ways to do that:
    1. Comment on blogs
    2. Attend a class with other bloggers (or common interest people)
    3. Create circle of influence awareness
    4. Even do a promotion with a trusted source.

    I’m testing a promotion to grow membership. A winner will get an hour of Dan Rockwell’s time (The Leadership Freak) to a enhance their blog. Seems like a good idea, but I’ll let you know if it works.

    And – The landing page is PREMISE of course:

    • says

      Hey Todd, Finding ways to cross promote with other bloggers is a great idea. We all have different superpowers that can help each other. We can’t think of each other as competition, just teammates willing to help each other grow professionally and personally.

Comments are open for seven days. This article's comments are now closed.