Referrals – the unsung hero of the marketing toolbox
Design journalist and communications expert, Rachael Bernstone, is passionate about the potential of referrals to elevate marketing efforts. This article outlines how to collect them, how to use them, and how to monitor their effectiveness in relation to enquiries from prospective clients, lead generation and new projects.
Why are referrals such a big deal for architects?
I’ve had clients tell me that 75% – sometimes even more! – of their new work comes into the practice via referrals. That’s a staggeringly high figure, and yet this is a marketing channel that is often overlooked in favour of social media, publishing or awards.
We know that referrals carry a lot of weight with people who are making purchasing or procurement decisions. According to marketing expert Malorie Lucich, head of product communications at Pinterest:
“People share, read, and generally engage more with any type of content when it’s surfaced through friends and people they know and trust.”
However, very few practices have established a formal referral system – which involves regularly requesting and collecting testimonials, sharing that feedback via your marketing across the other channels, and then monitoring its impact on your enquiries, lead generation and new client pipelines.
In this modern marketing era, there are many different types of referrals, and you can use them to increase the volume of new enquiries you generate, or the types of projects that people contact you about, or both.
So where do you start? I’m so glad you asked…
Do you know how your prospective clients find your practice?
Before you start working on your referral system, it’s useful to take a snapshot of your current marketing activities and find out where your traffic, enquiries and new project leads are coming from.
If you have a strong social media presence, you may get a significant proportion of your enquiries and new projects from there. Some architecture practices have done a stellar job with their social media profiles – especially Instagram – and built a large following with an active and engaged audience. And sometimes, this can be a source of new projects, but often other channels are more reliable in terms of generating new clients and projects.
Your website might also be a beneficial marketing channel, especially if it’s built on a WordPress or SquareSpace platform. They offer the best Organic Search performance, so if you’ve invested time and energy into Search Engine Optimisation, you should see positive results in your website analytics.
(SEO involves entering the right “keywords” into your website’s headings, text paragraphs and metadata fields, such as image titles and descriptions, page titles and descriptions and URL names. Then Google serves up your website to people searching for the services that you provide. You can read more about how to use SEO here).
However, if you built your website on any of the DIY-platforms such as Wix, Weebly and GoDaddy, your Organic Search numbers will probably be lower by comparison, because the SEO functionality of those platforms isn’t as robust as WordPress and SquareSpace.
What does this mean, in layperson’s terms?
Put simply, a Wix, Weebly or GoDaddy website will probably be seen by fewer prospective clients than your competitors’ websites on WordPress and SquareSpace.
(So, if you’re considering the best location to build a new website, consider the SEO functionality before choosing your preferred platform).
If you’re not actually sure how much traffic your website gets from Organic Search or other sources, one of the easiest ways to find out is by installing the Seeking Digital dashboard (sign up or login to CPD+ and get your copy here if you haven’t already installed it).
The graphic above is based on generic data, but in the case of the Sounds Like Design website, the Dashboard reports that traffic arrives via:
- Organic Search (mostly via Google)
- Direct (when people type in the website URL)
- Email (my fortnightly newsletters and The Drill)
- Social Media (the dashboard also provides a breakdown of which platforms and how much traffic they deliver; see the image above), and
- Referral (or backlinks from other websites).
This is useful information, but it only tells you half the story.
That’s because architects don’t typically sell products or services directly from their websites (ie, they don’t tend to offer e-commerce services), so it’s not usually possible to determine via website analytics how many of those website visitors actually convert into paying clients.
If you want to better understand that customer journey process, you need to track the progress of prospective clients from the point where they first became aware of your practice, to their initial inquiry, to their first meeting and finally to the moment when they engage your practice to deliver their next project. You can do this via a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) tool, or by tracking the customer journey manually, in a spreadsheet for example.
If you do collect and analyse this information, you’ll be able to categorically state which marketing channel is the most beneficial source of new clients and projects for your practice – social media, website, referral, or another option. And once you know that, you can invest most of your time and money into enhancing that channel.
In my experience, from working with practice leaders who have monitored their practice’s digital traffic, enquiries and lead generation, the majority of new clients and projects tend to arrive via referrals.
So, while the marketing landscape has changed immeasurably over the past decade, good old-fashioned word-of-mouth is still a highly influential and powerful marketing channel for architects.
What marketing channels do your clients prefer?
The rise of social media in the past decade has transformed everyone in the digital space into reviewers and referral agents, and the level of perceived trust from other people on social media is higher than you might expect.
And referrals don’t need to be delivered by people you know in order to carry significant weight. According to Danny Brown, who is an award-winning marketer and author:
“90% trust peers on social networks (even strangers); only 15–18% trust brands”
Is this true in architecture, though?
Well, yes, actually.
We know from the Institute’s Client Feedback Report 2021 that 71% of respondents nominated “a referral from a trusted source” as their preferred way to find an architect.
Other preferred methods to find an architect include:
- making decisions based on their own sector knowledge and expertise (53%);
- a referral from a project manager (19%);
- the Institute’s list of members (10%); and
- marketing materials, such as social / web / collateral (10%).
(Note: Survey respondents were able to choose more than one answer).
The report also found that respondents believe it was worthwhile to engage an architect, with 75% of respondents stating that using the service of an architectural practice represented good value.
And, asked whether they would engage an architect again on a future project, the results were highly encouraging, with 69% saying they would be Highly likely, and a further 23% stating they would be Likely to use an architect again.
I conducted an extensive review of this report and wrote a blog post that outlines the top five findings as they relate to client communication and marketing for your practice.
What is the most important source of new clients and projects in YOUR practice?
Aside from the Client Insights report, there is little official research on referrals specifically, or marketing channels generally, so I recently conducted a mini-survey to try and quantify the importance of referrals.
And the results confirmed my long-held beliefs: Referrals are key!
I asked – Do you know which marketing channels (referrals, website, email, social media, publishing, awards, or something else) deliver the most new clients and projects to your practice?
And 89% of respondents were certain which marketing channel delivered the most new clients and projects; only 11% were unsure about which channel was their most effective.
Of the 44% of respondents who nominated their most important channel, 75% cited referrals, and the remaining 25% cited their website.
Admittedly, this was a small sample size, but the results are still highly informative and useful. They indicate that the majority of respondents understand the important role of referrals in generating new clients and projects.
(You can complete the two-question survey here if you’d like to increase the sample size and share your insights.)
So how can you use referrals to generate new enquiries, clients and projects?
The main aim of setting up a referral system is to encourage your satisfied past clients to share positive experiences about the process of working with you and the outcomes you delivered, AND to recommend your practice to their friends, family, colleagues, neighbours and even random strangers.
The following list includes 15 ways you can use referrals to generate new enquiries, leads and clients. It’s not meant to be exhaustive, or exhausting! If you don’t yet have a referral system, I suggest you start with suggestions 1, 2, 7 and 8.
And if you already have the basics in place, you might like to incorporate some of the other suggestions to augment or enhance your current referral activities.
- Collect testimonials from your clients (use SLD’s Client Questionnaire Template as a starting point, if you haven’t created your own survey or online questionnaire yet);
- Use your clients’ words to describe your service, what sets your practice apart from others, the unique value you delivered, the opportunities you unlocked, the surprise bonuses you uncovered, and more, across your marketing and sales materials (such as your website copy, project descriptions, blog articles, social media posts, videos, awards entries, published articles, brochures, capability statements, fee proposals, etc). This helps you to avoid archi-speak and make your content more appealing to future clients who may recognise themselves and their issues;
- Ask clients to provide a 100-word statement for your awards entries, and use that statement across all of your other marketing channels as well;
- If your work is published in a magazine and the client is interviewed by a journalist, extract any useful and compelling feedback and repurpose it into testimonials (this is a great way to gather feedback if you haven’t yet sent questionnaires, but your work has been published in the past);
- Ask your clients to complete online reviews on your platform of choice – Google, Facebook, Houzz etc – and then repurpose those across your other marketing channels;
- Keep an eye out for useful quotes in client emails and correspondence – a positive comment in an SMS from a site visit could make a great testimonial for social media. (Ask your client for permission to use their words in this way if you want to attribute the comment to them directly);
- Create testimonials for your email newsletter, website home page or social media, using quotes from past clients, images of their projects, and portraits of them if you have some (and they’ve given permission);
- Ask your clients to recommend your services across their networks – either in person or on their social media platforms – because chances are, they know others who share the same struggles, problems and challenges that you helped them to resolve. And those prospective clients would likely benefit from your services too!;
- If you do mainly residential work, leave a stack of business cards at your satisfied clients’ home – for them to keep on the hall table, so that when their friends and family come to visit, and say: “I love your new renovation, who was your architect?”, your clients can give them a business card along with their glowing recommendation;
- For commercial projects, create case studies that credit all of your collaborators, consultants and suppliers, and then share those widely, so that the people who contributed to the project at various points can see the finished result, and share with their networks;
- When you share project posts on your social media, be sure to tag in all of your collaborators, consultants, contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers – they are all part of your broader referral network, and can help to spread the word about your service, approach and expertise;
- LinkedIn is the most effective social media channel for referrals because it provides the highest organic reach – that means if you post and tag-in your project collaborators, the people in their networks will get notifications and see your posts, without your contacts having to like, comment or share them;
- If you regularly collaborate with experts from other disciplines – such as engineers, landscape architects, surveyors, even real estate agents – make sure they know you value their referrals. Because if they help you win a new project, you’ll both benefit! And remember, the Institute’s Client Insights research found that 19% of clients would value a referral from a project manager, so make sure you’re taking advantage of those relationships too;
- Capture your clients on video, either talking about how they worked with you or highlighting the benefits of the built space you created for them, or both. Professional videos are more expensive to create than other media types, but you can make great videos on your phone, and video has a sense of immediacy and relatable trust that transcends static words on a page or website;
- And finally, remember to monitor your referrals activity in your Marketing Metrics tracking spreadsheet (add fields to track these activities: questionnaire request out, completed questionnaire returned, repurpose feedback into testimonials, testimonials distributed to marketing channels, ask new clients how they heard about your practice, who provided the referral, etc).
Building a formal referral system is one of the most inexpensive yet effective ways to improve the quantity and quality of your enquiries, leads and new projects. In short, it is one of the key steps you can take to design and deliver your ideal architecture practice.
Rachael Bernstone is the founder of Sounds Like Design, a consulting agency established to promote conversations about architecture and design, and to provide marketing and communications services to architectural business owners.
Rachael’s next Architecture Marketing 360 Course starts on Monday 16 May and she has generously offered ACA members a 10% discount on the course fee using the code ACAREFERRAL. For more on the course, head to the website.