Photography Marketing Tip of the Week

Review & Commentary on The Referral Engine, by John Jantsch

Wow. I just got finished reading this book and I’m already pumped to read it again. That’s how good it was. It is literally chock-full of great insights, tips, and ready-to-use tactics. I was originally introduced to the author, John Jantsch, through his other popular book, Duct Tape Marketing, which is another great read.  But I really feel like Jantsch knocked it out of the park with The Referral Engine, especially given the importance of referrals these days.  After getting charged up with contents of this book, I would like to share some the ideas and put them in to context within the photography industry.

The book starts off with a stellar illustration of a very simple way that you can create word of mouth buzz, which can easily lead to referrals.  To summarize, one night the author and his wife went to an outdoor gear sale at REI, where his wife ended up finding a jacket she liked and bought it.  A few weeks later, on her way to an outdoor event, she chose to sport her newly acquired coat.  As she went out the door she reached into the jacket pocket, she found a little slip of paper.

Expecting something along the lines of “Inspected by #48″ she was surprised to find something different.  The note read: “You are a goddess!”  That simple, unexpected message made her day and ultimately led her (and her husband) to talk about the jacket and company to any who would listen.

What a simple, yet very powerful example of how you can easily you can WOW your customers through a small act of unexpected kindness.  What are some ways you could do the same for your photography clients? 

A few things quickly came to my mind…

  • Sending a few 5×7 prints from the session along with a handwritten note
  • Creating a similar motivational, uplifting note to your clients (ie. Surprise note to bride a few days before her wedding day telling her how magical it will be)
  • Putting together a slideshow of your favorite images from the session online and then sending the link out to your clients on the anniversary date of your session
  • Surprising your client with other photo products (canvas wrap, enlargement print, complimentary session, gift voucher, etc.)

(If you have any other suggestion, share them in the comments.  Love to hear what others come up with!)

Jantsch starts off the book with establishing why people give referrals in the first place.  This chapter was critical because most photographers out there feel downright sheepish about asking for referrals, as if it were to come across as begging.  You absolutely need to change your mindset about asking for referrals.  As Jantsch states, “We rate and refer as a form of survival, to connect with other people, and to build our own form of social currency.” In other words, we refer because we like to be recognized as a source of good information, as someone “in the know”, it links us to others, and because we will likely need advice or help later on.  People love to share their “insider secrets” or tips on anything from a faster travel route through the city to our favorite dive restaurant.  We derive deep satisfaction when people ask for and take our advice.  This is why people refer.

Once we understand that, then it’s easier to make the transition into asking for referrals.

In order to create referrals, your business needs to be worth sharing. Marketing extraordinaire and best-selling author, Seth Godin, shared this profound nugget of wisdom. “If the marketplace isn’t talking about you there’s a reason. The reason is that you’re boring. And you’re probably boring on purpose. You have boring pricing because that’s safer. You have a boring location because to do otherwise would be nuts. You have boring products because that’s what you think the market wants.”

Jantsch goes on to talk about creating a your unique referral strategy by mixing and matching different stand-out elements. I share only a fraction of the many powerful ideas covered in the book.

Be the Red Leaf

Jantsch remembers going for a run one chilly fall morning and noticed a brilliant red maple leaf nestled in a large bed of green ivy. He couldn’t help but notice the sharp contrast that made this leaf stand out, which he now uses to symbolize the way a widely referred business differentiates itself. How can your business be the red leaf?

He gives the example of a remodeling contractor who, after getting frustrated by the lack of systemization and the inability to create a consistent, high-quality result without killing his staff, had a breakthrough moment while watching Extreme Home Makeover. He asked, “Can we open a remodeling company that builds really fast and make a living doing it?” They went for it and today have a thriving company that delivers high-quality, custom bathrooms on budget and in one week. Or they pay you.

Think about that for a second. They promise to do all that in an industry where it’s almost expected to not only take longer than expected but also cost more than originally estimated. Now, there’s a red leaf!

How can you make your photography business a red leaf that boldly stands out? Maybe you could do something similar such as an unheard of turnaround time with the guarantee that if you are late, then it’s completely free.  Pretty bold, huh?  But don’t you think that would catch people’s attention?  Imagine how much you would stand out if your ad would stand out against all the other cookie-cutter ads?

The Higher Purpose

Businesses that get talked about and have created a consistent stream of referrals are driven by a higher purpose. Jantsch goes on to explain that your higher purpose doesn’t have to be a spiritual or religious aspiration, but rather something that people want to connect with. “It’s an honesty that is hard to define but can’t be faked.”

To illustrate this point, he used the example of TOMS shoes, founded by Blake Mycoskie. In case you haven’t heard of TOMS, they are a company that matches every pair of shoes purchased by giving a pair of new shoes to a child in need. One for one. Powerful higher purpose, don’t you think?

In a BusinessWeek interview, Mycoskie shared what led him to create TOMS: “At first all I wanted to do with my new business was to be able to give kids in Argentina shoes. I didn’t want to start a charity. I wanted to self-fund the venture. So I came up with the buy-one-give-one-away model. I based it on the idea that if I could sell a pair of shoes for forty dollars, I could make a good pair of shoes and give another pair away. I wanted to build it in a way that it could sustain itself.”

The important part to remember about this is to show your passion for what you are doing. Again, your higher purpose does not need to include charitable donations (like TOMS) but it does need to demonstrate your deep-seated commitment to what’s important to you.

There are several ways that you could demonstrate a higher purpose.  One great way is to focus on consumer education.  By doing so, it proves that you truly are concerned about your customers because you are endeavoring to educate them on what they need to know in order to make the best decision.  In addition, it shows your passion about photography and your desire to help the industry as a whole.

Another way is to pick something that is near-and-dear to your heart and attach that to your focus. For some, that might be working to improve the environment.  For others, it could be helping people truly cherish the relationships they have with others.  Heck, it could even be a simple as catering your services to others that enjoy the same interests as you.

To put it differently, your business  message needs to be about something.  It’s not simply “providing great pictures.”  It needs to evoke something emotional, something personal to a specific targeted audience.  Using the example above, your message could be about cherishing your personal relationships through photographs.  Then you can structure your business around that message and educate your clients on how to accomplish that in their lives perhaps through photo albums (printed & online), photo sharing, etc.

Again, this is only a small slice of what’s contained in these pages.  I would strongly encourage you to go and get this book for your business library so that you can refer to it regularly while working to create your own referral engine.  I got my copy at amazon, which you can find HERE.