Don’t Rely On Referral Business

It’s affirming when clients refer new business to you. Their recommendations are a testament to your expertise and experience. For a long time referrals alone were how I got the majority of new clients. We are proud of referral business. We wear it it like a badge of honor. But don’t rely on referral business.

Why not? Notice the implication there: For a long time… which means it wasn’t a forever thing.


Word-of-mouth marketing is unreliable

When eventually the referrals trickled away and stopped altogether, I had to scramble to get my marketing wheels greased up for some high speed maneuvering.

There are several reasons for the loss or lack of referral business:

Clients’ projects end and there’s no more work they have to give you.

Clients may not want to refer business because they see it as competition. They may not want your attention taken from their projects.

They’re not comfortable with referrals in general.

They don’t know who to refer you to.

I love the clients I’m blessed with, but they’re entirely unreliable as a marketing method. Yours are, too. Better to grab those testimonials from them to use on your website and promos.

While I was working on all those referral projects, I got lazy about marketing and put minimal effort into it. I didn’t treat it as a core activity of my business. I didn’t make the effort to promote my work consistently. I didn’t invest anything into advertising and list-building on an ongoing basis. The result?

When the projects were completed the sound of crickets was loud and clear. There were no new projects in my pipeline. No projects meant no revenue.

The problem with having no revenue coming in is not just about paying your bills. You’ll grab hold of the first project that comes along, no matter how low-ball and low-tier it might be because you need to pay your rent. You’ll work with anyone for any amount, and at the same time toss your ideal client strategy out the window. So you end up working with low-end, less-than-ideal clients who over demand, micromanage, treat you like their tech support, make scope creep their hobby, or pay you slowly, and you still aren’t able to get your marketing stuff done to attract the clients you really want. What the heck?

Are you tracking with me here? You know that low-ball clients are certainly not going to recommend you to their colleagues… would you want them to?


You Can’t Rely on Referral Business Alone

 You need to always be marketing because you always need profits. If you’re not comfortable with the idea of marketing (many artist- and designer-types aren’t), you will definitely need to change how you thing.

Changing your mind starts with making a decision and then learning all you can about effective marketing that hits with your ideal client type. Do all you can to get your work out there in an appealing manner.

Areas you must focus on:

Building a platform. A platform is a structure from which you launch or promote your business (cause, appeal… you get the idea.) A platform consists of your purpose, brand, and messaging, and the ways in which you share those things with your audience. That includes your website, social media, email, direct mail, networking, your branded communications pieces, and more. Let people out there know who you are.

Becoming as good at marketing as you are at creating. If you’re already bringing in a steady flow of work though your outreach efforts, that’s great! But you probably should do more than you’re already doing. Why? You need to do all you can to bring work into your business.

Communicating your message. No one else has your vision, values, voice, and purpose. You have a unique role to play in the industry you serve. What makes you YOU? 

Creating and following a marketing plan. If you don’t plan it, you won’t do it. If you don’t schedule it, it won’t get done.

In my Freelance Road Trip digital course I have several trainings that teach you how to market your work. I’m also happy to work with you directly to help you create your marketing plan. Are you’re interested in me helping you one-on-one? Fill out the contact form on this website and I’ll be in touch with fee and schedule options.

Accept referrals and recommendations, but use your filters. Just because your favorite client recommends you to their colleague does not mean the colleague will also be a good client. Many times a good client has referred a colleague to me, and during our get-to-know-you phone call more than one red flag popped up.

Referred business comes with expectations that you’ll perform to the same degree for the referral as you did for the referring client. That’s okay. You should. But when those expectations don’t fit the new client’s project or budget, you’ve got some relational management to do along with your creative work and doing what’s best for your business.

Vet all referrals thoroughly before accepting the work. If you decline the project, be sure to thank the person who referred the prospect and let them know it wasn’t a good fit.




Always be marketing

Meanwhile, while you’re hip deep doing your creating work, consider how you can use the work to attract new projects.

How will you use the project on your website and social platforms? 

Will you create a case study from it?

Will you submit the work to design contests? 

Will you send out direct mail? Will you use it in an email promotion?

Will you create footage and screencasts of the project development to use on your YouTube or Vimeo channel?

Will you create a slide deck presentation to show prospective clients?



Take action today

Here’s an easy email thing you can do today to promote your work and build your contact list.

First, answer these questions:

What kind of work do you want to do more of?

What kind of clients do you want to work with?

Have you collected business cards of people you’ve not yet reached out to?

Do you have former clients you haven’t heard from in awhile? Friends and acquaintances who own businesses? Customers of your Etsy shop?

Put all these contacts into a list.

Select 3–5 people from the list and send an email to each asking their permission to send them your promotions. Send this from your email directly, not through an email service.

The next day, send the same email to 3–5 more people. Repeat this until you’ve sent the email every day for 5 days.

Here’s an email template you can follow:

SUBJECT: [insert their name], here’s something you might be interested in…

MESSAGE: Hello [insert their name],

I’ve just completed a design project and thought you might be interested in seeing it.

Can I share it with you?

[your name or email signature]

That’s all you need.

Don’t embellish or add any How’ya doing’? Thank you, Bye For Now, Best Regards stuff. Leave the question open for them to respond.

When you get a positive response, send them a follow up email showcasing your project. Ask them what they think of it. 

Then add the person to your regular promotion email list at your email service.

If they come back with a negative response, don’t contact them again.

If they don’t reply at all, send the email again 5 days later.

Do this every day for the next 5 days, and let me know the results. If you do this exercise, not only will you have added interested people to your email list — with their permission and without the offer of a free incentive (lead magnet) — but you will have engaged in a marketing activity for 5 days straight.


Finding clients is up to you.

Take the initiative with your marketing. You can’t put that responsibility onto someone else. You need to be driving the car on this.

Build your own platform and establish a multi-legged approach to your marketing. Don’t rely entirely on any one form of tactic. Mix it up.

Of course you want to cultivate ardent fans among your clients, and hopefully they will refer you.

But in the end, getting referrals shouldn’t be your whole marketing strategy. By not relying on referral business for the majority of your efforts, you put yourself in control of who you reach out to, how, and when. You’re not waiting around for other people to remember how great you are.


Deliberate, purposeful marketing is necessary for any business to become profitable.


To wrap it up, deliberate, purposeful marketing is necessary for any business to become profitable. If you don’t promote your work to potential clients, what are you doing being an entrepreneurial creative?

Your Turn

Go ahead. Use the email tactic.

Write back or leave a comment (comments are moderated) and let me know how it turned out. How did people respond? How many did  you add to your email list?

To your success!