How to Create a Culture of Referral Giving

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This week I’ll be out in San Diego talking to owners and marketers of health clubs about referrals.

I plan to use the occasion to make a point about how to create a culture of referral giving.

giving referrals
photo credit: djwhelan via photopin cc

Fitness Centers depend upon referrals and, like so many businesses that get this, they actually abuse their customers in an effort to maximize this dynamic.

Of course no industry is immune to this practice. Most businesses look at referrals as something to get from their customers and I plan to take on this point of view.

The common approach is to make a customer a financial offer so they’ll give over some referrals. A typical health club tactic might be to give away a free month for every new membership referred.

The problem with this approach is that it forces the customer into making a financial decision when referrals are fundamentally social. It forces the customer to think “what can I get” rather than “what can I give.”

In order to tap the true power of referrals we need to focus on creating a referral motivation that is about giving rather than taking. We need to find a way to create an environment where the primary reason someone makes a referral is because they believe another person will benefit by them doing so.

This mindset changes the referral equation dramatically.

This mindset forces a business to think about ways to deliver real value first and in doing so become more referable.

This mindset forces a business to make supporting a vibrant community as important as getting the next referral.

Creating a culture of referral requires that a business give and give first and in doing so create a culture where customers want to give and give as well.

I know that the idea of giving to get referrals is not exactly a new concept, everyone acknowledges this, but finding ways to apply it in the realm of a specific marketing initiative seems a little harder to pin down.

So, how can a health club give to get?

  • What if a health club created a series of presentations geared towards traveling business executives that showed them how to stay healthy on the road and away from the club?
  • What if a health club created a community of expecting and new moms and taught pre and post-natal fitness while providing a play-group like community?
  • What if a health club created a new customer package that included supplements, coupons for prepared Paleo meals and a foam roller all gathered from strategic partner businesses?
  • What if a health club sponsored an after school kids fitness program that encouraged parents to use their facility free of charge during a once a week community program?
  • What if a health club sponsored a monthly “live fully” night that featured renowned chefs teaching nutritional cooking, chiropractors talking about healthy at work practices and classes on meditation, breathing, rest and recovery?

For today’s post I used a health club as an example, but the give to get referral mentality applies just as surely to a financial planner, plumber or executive coach as it does to selling health club memberships.

So, how can you give more value in your marketing efforts?


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  1. Love this article. While I totally agree it’s important to ask “what you can give” instead of get, I find that it’s very effective to give some premium and ask for a referral, but not with a hard close. For example, if I approached my ideal health club patrons with a message like “Jim, you’re our perfect customer. You’re committed, positive and consistent. We love watching great people like you get results!” We would love to work with others just like you. Who do you know that might experience results with our programs? Would you mind giving them these complimentary supplements to the three friends of yours who you think would be the best fit?” and then followed up by celebrating those existing customers who refer….and make them peer coaches to new members. Is this too aggressive?

    1. Aaron

      Great insights not too aggressive at all – what I was really addressing was the one referral plan fits all approach. Once you start to attract and groom referral champions you definitely want to focus on ways to bring them even deeper into the community as you suggested – great idea too!

  2. John,
    Great insights, and a great reminder of why I need to revisit The Referral Engine.

    Fitness centers/programs are one of the main business types I think of as being notoriously money-focused in how they promote themselves. They throw all kinds of deals your way to try to get you to join, hire a personal trainer, give referrals, buy their supplements, upgrade to Membership 2.0, and so on. But for most people, they’re nothing more than a cemetery where new year’s resolutions go to die.

    If gyms (and businesses in general) spent half as much time trying to help existing customers benefit from what they’ve already paid for as they spend trying to make more money, the referrals and testimonials and positive case studies and such would begin to become the norm rather than an anomaly. And I might still have a gym membership instead of deciding to set up a gym at home.

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