Referral Programs That Really Work


There are lots of ways to bring clients into a photography business but ask an established photographer where they get most of their orders and the answer is often referrals. It’s not unusual for as much as 90 percent of a wedding photographer’s bookings to come from couples they’ve photographed in the past, with the remainder usually coming from Web searches. That may come as a surprise for many new photographers though. Instead of seeing their income snowball naturally as happy clients pass on their name to their friends, new professionals can often find themselves struggling to win work even though they’re certain their clients are satisfied with the results. The problem isn’t the photography, and it isn’t the clients. It’s the studio’s referral program and the poor choice of incentives that the photographer is using to encourage word-of-mouth marketing

That was the experience of Leah Remillet of Go 4 Pro Photos. A children and family photographer who describes herself as “an entrepreneur at heart” she launched her photography business in 2008 and within a year was averaging sales of $2,000 a time. What she wasn’t doing though was winning recommendations that translated into new bookings.

“I knew I truly was creating a great experience, and I knew my clients loved me, but the numbers showed that something was broken.  Because — despite their raving reviews and their claims that they were telling all of their friends — my bookings weren’t coming from referrals.”

At the time, Remillet was doing what many photographers do to encourage clients to pass their names on to people they know: she was handing out referral cards and hoping that the clients would be keen enough to give them to their friends.

It’s an approach, she realizes now, that has two weaknesses. While it’s convenient for the photographer, who only has to print up a bunch of pretty cards, it’s inconvenient for the client who has to remember where she put them and keep one on her every time she runs into a friend looking for a photographer. And the rewards tend to be low value. Clients are rarely excited at the prospect of receiving a free 8 x 10 print and when photographers pass them out to anyone who gives a recommendation, the recommendation itself looks as cheap as the reward.

“We hand over a stack of referral cards and ask our clients to pass them out,” says Remillet. “And while we want it to be a super big deal to them, all of our actions say, ‘dime a dozen.’”

There are a few things that you can do, though, both to increase the perceived value of the reward and to get clients excited about passing on referrals.

Reward Referrers, Incentivize Leads

Baby and child photographer Tennille King, for example, uses two kinds of rewards in her referral program. Each referral wins a $50 credit towards prints after the client’s next photography session — credits that can be combined to deliver large value deductions. But the new clients are also given a $25 coupon to help pay for their print order.

Clients aren’t just giving a card to a friend and receiving something with an apparently low value; they’re also giving a friend $25 of someone else’s money and receiving $50 for doing so.

Remillet now does something similar. She still uses referral cards but she limits the number she gives to just eight to make them look exclusive and special. She has also handed out free 3 x 3 accordion mini-books which are more attractive than referral cards and therefore more likely to be kept close and shown off. She offers gifts with each new purchase, such as a printed iPhone case, which guarantees that her photo will always be in a client’s handbag and motivates new leads to buy. And she keeps in touch with clients who have given her referrals, sending them handwritten notes thanking them for their recommendation and complimenting their friends, together with a gift certificate to a local theater.

Even more importantly though, Remillet tracks her results, identifying the rewards and the programs that are most likely to produce the best results.

“I track everything. It’s nearly impossible to grow if we don’t know what is and isn’t working,” she says.

To measure the degree to which a free iPhone case can incentivize referred leads, for example, Remillet creates a spreadsheet (or just uses paper and pen) to mark the number of collection sales acquired during the promotion. She then compares this number and the number of sessions booked during this time to the figures acquired during previous months.

“We can always take this a step further and compare different promotions, as well. So, for example, I could promote the iPhone Case one month as the ‘Gift with Purchase’ and then offer a couple mini albums the following month.”

A Referral is a Client’s Way of Saying “I Love You.”

That’s not too complicated although it will take some thought and plenty of discipline to link bookings made at a particular time to a reward given through a particular period. But improving the rate of your referrals should happen naturally. Tennille King began, like many photographers, by rewarding clients with a free 8 x 10 print or some other product that could only be won through a referral. She soon found though that clients who referred multiple friends had little need for five 8 x 10 prints. Her combination of a reward for the referrer and an incentive for the new lead now means that 95 percent of her business comes in through personal recommendations.

That stable revenue stream should be a reward enough for the photographer but it’s also worth remembering that each referral isn’t just a new order. It’s also a vote of confidence in the photographer.

“Clients who tell others how great it was to work with me, and about the high quality of the product and service, is priceless,” says King. “There is no greater compliment than a client recommending my business to a friend.”

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