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Referral Programs: An Easy, Affordable & Effective Marketing Plan

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Photography is primarily a word-of-mouth business. While you might get bookings from someone coming across your website, or seeing your ad in a magazine, you’ll get the most of your work from other people spreading your name for you.

To understand why, you simply need to look at the nature of photography (portraits and weddings in particular). It’s personal. Very personal.

Your client is letting you, a relative stranger, into their life, and showing you their closest relationships.

Choosing a photographer isn’t something done willy nilly. It has a lot to do with comfort and trust. And when you need a recommendation you can trust, who do you go to?

Your friends. Your family. The people you already trust.

That’s word of mouth in action.

The best thing about word of mouth referrals is that they are strong. Hearing that your friend had an awesome experience with a photographer will carry a lot more weight than seeing an ad in a magazine. You’ll go in to the situation already knowing that that photographer is good, instead of just hoping they will be.

And the bonus? Word of mouth marketing is essentially free! Super duper, right??

So, this is all going on naturally. And that’s awesome. But how can you use this information to strengthen your business?

You can create a referral program that encourages more word-of-mouth!

What Are Referral Programs?

A referral program is a way to thank your happy clients for recommending you to their friends.

Before we go further, there are some important words in that definition we have to stop and consider.

Happy clients: The only way a referral program will work is if you have happy clients. This means that you need to be busting your butt to give the best customer service experience ever. This is default. No questions asked. You have to do this.

Thank: A referral program is a way to show your clients that you appreciate it when they recommend you to their friends. This usually means giving them a small token of your appreciation for their trust. We’ll talk more about what this means in a moment, but remember, this is about thanking them. Not bribing them. A subtle but important distinction.

Friends: Your clients chose you because you fit well with their style. Their friends will likely have a similar style, and will probably fit really well with you as well. This is one of the best things about referral programs; they automatically find more of your kind of clients.

Recommending: Your clients are recommending you. But they can’t book the jobs for you. Remember that this is only a part of the whole booking process. You need to be producing fantastic work, and doing a great job of showing potential customers why you’re worth the investment.

Now, the reason you have a program, rather than just letting this happen naturally, is that your clients might not realize that you build your business around word of mouth referrals. It might have never crossed their minds. The simple act of asking for referrals is critical in getting them.

Creating Your Referral Program

So, we know what a referral program is, and why we need one. Now let’s create one.

First off, you need to communicate clearly with your past clients why you’re starting a referral program. And remember, it’s about thanking them for their support and trust. Take the time to write this out really well. It’s important.

Then, you need to think about how you can make this a win-win situation. You’ll be getting a new customer, so you’re winning. How can you give your past client a benefit as well?

This is going to be totally up to you — there’s no right or wrong answer. It’s simply a matter of how you’d like to thank your clients in a way that fits with your business.

A popular option is a print credit. It sticks with your role as the photographer: provider of pretty pictures. And it encourages them to get more of their photos up on their walls!

You could give credit towards another session as well. This is especially great for portrait photographers, who often have clients who come back every year. Repeat customers are the best.

Another option I’ve heard of photographers using is a gift card to a nice restaurant. This could absolutely work, though I like the idea of keeping your relationship with them focused on photography. It reinforces who you are to them, which means that if anyone ever asks “Do you know a good photographer?” your name will instantly pop into their head.

Finally, you need to sort out the nitty gritty details:

How much will you give them? This probably depends on what kind of booking you get. You might want a bigger reward for a wedding, and a smaller reward for a portrait session. Don’t be stingy. Show them that you really appreciate their recommendation.

When will the reward be given? Generally this happens after a session is booked. While it’s nice when they send people your way who inquire, the real benefit happens upon booking.

Will you allow them to compound their rewards? I can’t see why not. If someone is sending you 10 new clients, give them 10 rewards! They are really helping your business grow! Thank them for it!

Will there be an expiration for the rewards? Maybe that’s a good idea. One thing that can be draining on a photography business is trying to keep up with lots of outstanding credits. Be generous here — a year sounds like a good amount of time to get prints or book another session.

How will you keep track of this? It’s not overly complicated, so a simple spreadsheet should suffice. Past Client. Referred Client. Type of Session Booked. Date of Session. Date Reward Was Given. Date Reward Was Redeemed. You get the idea.

How will you find out who referred whom? You could give out cards with referral details that need to be turned in. But I find that a bit cumbersome. I want it to be really easy for my clients to refer me; as easy as saying “Check out Rob & Lauren”. That’s all you need.

Then, get into the habit of always asking new clients how they found you. That’s crazy important information, referral program or not. And if they give the name of a past client, you give that client the reward. Easy.

How will you tell past clients about the program? Well, if you’re building your newsletter list, that’s one way! Or you can send them each an email. A blog post is nice, but they might not check your blog regularly. Take the time to make sure they know about it. This is a really important marketing plan, and it’s worth the extra effort.

Above and Beyond

Now, this is all the bare bones of a reward program. Take a minute and think of ways you could go above and beyond.

Maybe you give the new client a little gift as well. Some bonus print credit or something. A way to show them right off the bat that their friend was right about you.

Maybe when y
ou send your past client their reward, you package it super duper nice with a hand written thank you card.

However you jazz it up, it’s those little details that really make all the difference. Never forget: photography is a service business. Yes, there are products involved. But the more you can treat what you do for your clients as a service, and think of ways to make that service exceptional, the more you’ll see your business grow and succeed.

So start showing your past clients how much you appreciate their referrals. It’s really the best (and most affordable!) marketing plan ever!

Do you do anything to thank your clients for their referrals? Share it in the comments!

Back in time!

To the future!

Lauren Lim

Hey friend, I’m Lauren! I’m a photographer and head ninja here at Photography Concentrate. I’m downright obsessed with photography, and love sharing it with super cool folks like yourself. When I’m not shooting, or writing, you can find me cooking (and eating!), traveling, and hanging out with wonderful people.

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Discussion

18 Comments // Leave a comment

  1. Love this post! Being someone who is building up their portfolio, this is a wonderful idea which I will look to get started sooner than later. Thanks guys!

  2. So glad you enjoyed it Erin!

  3. Thanks for sharing! I've personally never officially had a referral program but yes I have surprised few of my old clients with fancy little gifts like prints, photo frames, miniature albums etc…
    Time to think of officially launching it I guess! :D

    Thanks again and Have fun!

  4. This a great Idea and I am going to e-mail my past clients and put it out there for them, and see what happens. As Niaz says "its time to officially launch my referral program" thank you guys I just love this website and just love you guys.

  5. Thanks for the great comments guys! So exciting to hear you're going to give the program a go!

  6. I'm hoping to start doing senior portraits this summer and I know referrals are a huge part of that. So thanks for the thoughts and outlines!

  7. You both ROCK!! Love these posts!

  8. I love your posts!! Very nice reading! You write as if your sitting right next to me saying everything that I'm reading – Awesome!

  9. *@Julie:* Thanks! I'm sure referrals are HUGE with senior portraits, so I'm glad this was helpful!!

    *@Eleni:* Haha, thank you!

    *@Jenn:* Thanks so much! That's so awesome that you enjoy my writing style. I really do write just as I would say it to you! :)

  10. What a great idea! You guys are super awesome to share all your super cool ideas and knowledge with all of us. Muchas gracias!

  11. I am currently revamping my program and this article was super helpful. Thanks!!!

  12. Thank you so much for this article. It was very clear and thorough. Everything you said makes perfect sense. You made a great point, offering a print credit is a small price to pay in comparison to the incredibly expensive ads in magazines or websites. I just started my referral program following your advice and we’ll see where it takes us!

  13. Hey Lauren!

    This post is a wonderfully comprehensive discussion of referral programs. The idea is simple, but you accurately point out that there are some detailed questions that need to be asked (about compounding incentives, expiration, etc).

    I may be wrong, but I feel like most photographers would prefer to spend as little time as possible managing a referral program and more time with their art. You can get a referral program up and running and automated by a referral software. With a referral platform, you can use links to track referrals and automatically deal with rewards and payments. For example, you wouldn’t have to worry about asking new customers who referred them – you can just see how they accessed your site and who’s link they clicked on.

    I work for Ambassador, which provides this sort of referral reward program software. With it, people who want to run a referral program (even if it’s small) could avoid a lot of headaches by checking out our services. We’re at http://www.getambassador.com

    Happy shooting!

    Derek

  14. Thanks so much for sharing such great information with others. I am always learning somethining new.
    I have a referral program, I make business size cards with the clients images up to 3 on it front and back with my information, along with the $50 print credit or $50 off session fee,((which ever I choose.) for the person bringing the card in. That way I know who referred them b/c their picture is on it. The clients love handing out their images and telling how much fun it was. And the cost to me is only $15. per client for 25 cards.

  15. Great post that perfectly distils why and how to creat a referral programme. Another option is to include it as part of your email newsletter to your clients and make it into a competition where the winner gets a grand prize. This works well if you’re confident of getting lots of referrals from the programme. If you’re not then you could be forking out for a big prize even though you didn’t get many referrals. Like all marketing ideas the best approach is to test it before rolling out on a big scale. Again, top stuff guys.

  16. This might come super late, but thank you for this post.

    I’ve been a full time photographer for the last year and lately I’ve been struggling to reach new clients. I’ve always thougt my clients would recommend me just because they like me, but I forgot that they might not know word-of-mouth is extremely important to every little business and especially us new photographers.

  17. Sophie Callahan says:

    I’m an equine photographer and have always tried to encourage referrals, but never had an official programme. Great tips. Thanks! x

  18. Scott Hamill says:

    I am just starting my family lifestyle photography business and I am thinking about accepting ONLY referrals as a way to make sure I only get clients that know previous clients and will most likely have the same set of values that the previous clients have. I would use my business card as a referral card that has a unique number on it as a way to track when and where is came from. My website would have no contact information, but a note saying to ask around in order to get a referral card, almost like a VIP club or such. I am doing this part-time on the weekends (full-time job during the week) and I don’t want that many clients, but I want clients that are willing to spend at least $1,500.

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