The Truth About Word-of-Mouth Referrals

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How many times have you heard that word-of-mouth referrals are among the freelancer’s best leads? I’ll bet you’ve lost count. Ever freelancing pundit argues the case for word-of-mouth referrals, implying:

  • They’re pretty easy to get: do a good job and your clients will tell all their contacts. Simple.
  • All you need is one client to tell one contact! That’s the power of word of mouth!
  • They’re a really cost-effective way to land new work.

I win most of my projects through word-of-mouth referrals, but I have to disagree with these fundamental points. I think if you’re going to rely heavily on word of mouth to build your freelance client list, you need to take three crucial steps.

1. Build a network

It’s not impossible for you to do a good job for a client, and receive a lead for another job as a consequence—but it’s not likely, either. What you really need, if you’re going to be able to actually rely on this as a means of attracting clients continuously, is a network of people. Ideally, that network will be fairly close-knit and willing to collaborate to pass on referrals, help contacts access good professionals, and so on.

My network is big—say 20 or 30 people—and since the businesses involved are all fairly or highly innovative, they have ongoing needs for my skills. Many of them operate in similar market spaces, which means they’re likely to be interested in what I’m working on with other clients, and that the work I do for each client builds the skills I need to help the others.

2. Build a presence

It’s one thing to have a network; it’s another to keep them informed of what you’re doing (or: to give them ideas about the kinds of work you could do for them).

Online social and professional networks have made the job much easier than it was before, but only for some—if your target clients aren’t using these media, you’ll have to build a presence through the media they are using.

Whether you’re publishing articles in relevant industry journals, speaking publicly at niche events, or leading new initiatives within your market, maintaining a strong, reliable, ongoing presence is essential. Among other things, it allows those who have never bought your services to “sample” your philosophy, credentials, and professionalism from afar—to try before they buy.

3. Keep talking

Most freelancers dislike marketing their work, but communicating with your network is essential if they’re to know what kinds of work you’re doing, what you want to work on, and where you might fit in with their plans.

By “communicating with your network”, I mean having conversations, throwing ideas around, asking questions, inviting feedback and suggestions, saying hi—there’s no good or bad way to go about this. It all depends on you, your clients, and what approach suits everyone concerned. There are a few golden rules for this kind of “talking,” though:

  1. Don’t just talk about yourself.
  2. Don’t use these conversations to fish for work.
  3. Don’t ask for (or share) information that’s likely to be confidential.

Think “collaboration” rather than “contact maintenance”—that way, you put yourself in a position to learn from your network, and innovate with them, as well as to share information that may help them, 24/7.

How heavily do you rely on word-of-mouth referrals to get gigs? What do you do to encourage them?

Image by stock.xchng user duchesssa.

Georgina LaidlawGeorgina Laidlaw
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Georgina has more than fifteen years' experience writing and editing for web, print and voice. With a background in marketing and a passion for words, the time Georgina spent with companies like Sausage Software and cemented her lasting interest in the media, persuasion, and communications culture.

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