The Single Most Important Marketing Tactic Ever Devised

The most important marketing tactic ever devised is also the simplest. And it wasn’t invented by marketing people, but by business owners and sales people looking to grow their business the best, fastest, least expensive way possible.

Unfortunately it doesn’t get much traction because it doesn’t have enough complexity, bells and whistles or cost to make people pay attention to it. It’s just too simple to be that effective. The profound things are always simple, but we don’t believe that either. Yet people who have done it are almost always successful.

What is the single most important marketing tactic ever devised?

Make a list of everyone you know.

I mean your dentist, your mother, your sister, your clients, the bar keep – everybody.

Yep, boring, dull, simple, can’t be that helpful. Wrong. It’s the first thing every business owner and every sales person should do to before they open the doors. I could tell you a few dozen success stories of people who believed and did this, even a restaurant owner who did it, gave away four free nights of food to people on their list to open their restaurant and never looked back (or did much traditional advertising either).

Once you have your list made, divide it into two categories – potential clients and potential gate openers (people who can refer to me). Potential clients got a 1, 2 or 3 (most to least likely to become a client, and potential gate openers get an A, B, C (most to least likely to refer someone to me). I did this on Excel so I could then sort the two and all the 1’s and A’s floated to the top. Some people were 1-A (great potential client and also great potential referral partner). Others were 3-C (and some of them became great clients – our guesses are many times pretty bad).

Once you’ve got the list, figure out what to do with it.

  1. Call your best friends and family and beg for work. If you’re reluctant to do it, it’s almost certainly more your problem than theirs. They want to help you a lot more than you think, more than anybody else you know. Beg!
  2. Call others you know well and simply ask if they want to do business or know someone that does.
  3. Have a pizza party for your highest potential gate openers who aren’t likely to become clients and have a brainstorming session. Give them your 10-minute spiel and get 30 minutes of feedback. Then ask them to make a list of everybody they know (or 5-10 people in the meeting) and go around and ask each of them to describe somebody they are referring. That will help everybody to immediately think of someone they forgot.
  4. Create interest groups from your list and get a guest speaker to serve them – just put together the meeting to build relationships. They’ll love you for serving them and later you can ask for referrals.
  5. Go through the list and see whom you should connect with each other – you’ll be surprised at how much power you have to connect people who would love to know each other, and you’ll be the person who made it happen.
  6. Start a weekly or monthly interest or business group for those that have some common needs (get 5-10 other people on your list to do it with you and recruit 10-15 others you’ve never met – your list just grew exponentially). Put some structure and commitment to it – play kids games and that’s whom you’ll get.
  7. Do the usual where appropriate – send an email or a direct marketing piece or similar for those you really don’t know very well.
  8. Assemble your top 100 potential clients and gate openers and commit to call two of them every day and say hello – no agenda. Build the relationships and do business after it’s appropriate.

I put that one last because things like it (frequent, personal, relational contact) are the best way to use that list to build your business. And serve, don’t sell. Find out what they need, meet them where they are at, and watch your business grow.

If you have lots of money and no time, than just do advertising. But if you’re like most small business owners, you’ve got a lot more time than money, and you can reach people you already know a lot easier than going out cold-calling.

I’ve never done a cold call in my life and was the top sales person in every corporation I was in, with annual sales of up to $10 million. Make a list of everyone you know and build relationships with them. It’s the best-kept non-secret in marketing.

Is a Referral Program a Bad Idea?

Hey, Chuck – “Is a referral program a bad idea?”

My response to a client asking this question recently:

Here’s my three cents. I believe people refer to me most when 1) they like me, 2) like what I’ve done for them, and most importantly, 3) when I’ve asked them to refer to me (and taught them how).

Why do they refer to me?

  1. Because I’ve served them, and they want their friends to experience the same service. Their reward? Their friends like them better because they got turned on to somebody who would help them.
  2. Because I asked them to. People want to help other people, they just get busy or don’t know how to help us. When we ask, most people are glad to do it. “How has this worked for you?” “Great”. “I thought so…do you know one other person who might benefit from the experience you’ve had with us?” Don’t ask for three, you’ll get none. Ask for one and you might get three. And talk about their experience, not your need for a referral, etc. We’ve worked out the wording of the last sentence pretty carefully over time.
  3. Least motivating – because they get something extra from me. If you can’t develop a relationship with someone directly, then having a standard referral program to incentivize them is a great idea (37signals) has a nice one). But in general, the best referrals don’t come because I paid somebody, they come because I served them, asked and taught them how to refer. In some cases, paying for the referral can actually cheapen the relationship because now you have a monetary relationship instead of a friendship.

My best referrals are from people I’ve served, who like me, and who have benefited from our relationship in a non-monetary way.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t reward people for referring. But with close in connections it’s sometimes better to do it as a “gift”, something they weren’t aware of beforehand even though you may already have planned to do it for anyone who refers to you. A gift says thank you (and still incentivizes them to do it again). A referral fee is a pure business/revenue transaction.

Bottom line – If I don’t have a personal relationship of some sort and don’t see building one, giving a referral fee is a good idea. Buy friends you don’t have time to make. But I would start with the following:

  1. Make a list of your top 10 existing or potential referral partners.
  2. Get a cup of coffee with them and discuss how you can help each other in business by raining on each other and ask them for a referral “one other person you know that might benefit from the experience you’ve had”, or if they are not customers “…an experience with us”, etc. If they refer someone, you might tell them you are developing a referral program that they might see in an email, but don’t tell them the details unless they ask. Most won’t care.
  3. Once you’ve got that list covered, publish your referral program. And in the future, continue to get with those big potential referral partners and develop the relationship (sending them referrals is the best way to reward them!).

I send clients to people mostly because I know they are going to be well served, and it makes me glad to serve people I know. Being someone that others want to refer to is the best referral program possible.