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How To Increase Your “Sphere Of Influence” And Get More Referrals


There are plenty of ways for freelancers to get project leads: job marketplaces like oDesk or Elance, referrals from past clients, people finding your website through a Google search, and so on.

But we all know these acquisition channels vary in quality. Given the choice, I think we’d all prefer a strong referral from a wonderful past client over competing with potentially hundreds of others for a gig on a job board.

So with that said, this article is about referrals — the holy grail of project leads. One of the best things you can do as the owner of your freelancing business is to increase the amount of referral sources you have. The more people you have to refer you, the more direct leads you’re able to get.

But most of us don’t do much to proactively get more referrals or to expand our referral network. We each have a “sphere of influence” — people who know what we provide, and are able to recommend us to others (or just hire us outright). Let’s talk about how you can both grow your sphere of influence, and condition those in it to become prime referral sources for you.

How referrals work

You have a network.

And this network consists of people who know about what you do and are either in a position of hiring you or can refer you to others. Your network generally consists of friends, family, acquaintances, and your past clients.

Past clients are generally always the most valuable referral sources. After all, someone’s more likely to trust somebody who paid you and got great results over your mom trumping her son or daughter (sorry, moms!). But the problem with past clients are that they’re slow to gain. Freelancers with a long work history and a lot of clients get more referrals; they have numbers on their side.

To get referrals, two conditions need to be met:

  1. Somebody needs to know you’re capable of delivering business value.
  2. Somebody needs to remember to recommend you when the moment’s right.

Usually, that first step — demonstrating that you have something to offer — happens as a result of working with somebody. You do good work, and you’ve provided value to your client. They now know this.

But this is limiting. It takes time (selling, executing, delivering) to end up with a “past client,” and your sphere of influence (that is, your network) can only grow as fast as you can deliver new projects.

…See where I’m going with this?

Your number of strong referral sources is limited to how many past clients you have. And if you want more referrals, you need more referral sources. But your time is a finite value, so those referral sources are slow to grow.

Step 1: Influence a lot of people at once

It’s important to remember that while value is typically delivered through completing projects, it’s not exclusive to that. You deliver value by recommending tools like Mailchimp or Wufoo to somebody you meet at an event. You’re delivering value anytime you make somebody better off than they were before.

Let’s get meta for a second. Think about what I’m doing with this article. I have about 25,000 people on my newsletter who received this article in their inbox. In order for me to convey what I wanted to get across in this post, I don’t need to have 25,000 individual conversations. Likewise, when I used to host a lot of educational seminars for my agency, I influenced about 20-30 people at once; I didn’t need to sink 20-30 hours into one-off conversations.

Creating an insiders list, like I covered here the other week, is a great way to kickstart expanding your sphere of influence. This leads to setting yourself up as an influencer for a pool of people who receive updates from you, either as email newsletters or via in-person events.

And I’ve published a few articles here over the years on hosting seminars and webinars (“How I Made $312.50 An Hour Teaching Local Business Owners” and “Borrowing An Audience: How Seminars Can Win You New Business”), which are fantastic for influencing a handful of people at a time. And it doesn’t need to be fancy; it can be as simple as making yourself available for a group discussion at a local coffee shop. And you don’t need to target people who you hope are direct matches for your services — you just need to show that you’re capable of providing business value.

Step 2: Condition over time

I talk to, and often consult for, companies that want to get into this “email thing.” These companies virtually never email their audiences, and when they do — a ton of people unsubscribe. They’re often left wondering what they said that caused so many to rush off their list.

What they sometimes fail to realize is that no one is as interested in their business as they are. While they’re thinking day in and day out about their business because, well, it’s their business…their audience isn’t. Their audience is going along with their lives. So when a company emails their list that hasn’t heard a peep from them in months, or even years, no one should be surprised when people think, “…who are you again? Unsubscribe *click.*”

You can’t expect your clients or your sphere of influence to always be thinking about you, or to have you at the front of their minds when they’re chatting with somebody who needs something you can provide, if you’re not in regular communication with them.

Setup a followup conditioning sequence for all of your clients, and don’t be afraid to email people — individually, in segments, or your entire list. Just make sure that you’re always delivering value. If you’re going to email your sphere of influence or ask someone to coffee, make sure you know how you plan on making them better as a result of either reading your email or meeting with you.

It’s a numbers game

Not everyone who attends a seminar of yours, is a part of your insiders list, and so on is going to refer you or become a client of yours. That mindset needs to be done away with. Not everyone is going to be a good fit for you, and you for them. And if the only value you deliver is forced on people who you need to become clients, then you’re going to miss out on a lot of opportunity.

If all of my 25,000 subscribers were customers, I’d be very, very well off. But they’re not. And I don’t expect that, nor do I want to cut people off who never self-select to enroll in one of my advanced courses or whatnot. Ultimately, it’s a numbers game. The bigger my audience, the more sales I get. The bigger your sphere of influence, the more referrals you’ll get.

In summary, you’re going to want to influence as many people as you can at scale. Show them that you know what you’re talking about, and if they decide that you’re capable of making them better off, leave it up to them to refer you to others or become a client (and, of course, there are ways to increase the likelihood of that happening).

Looking for a deep dive into the specific tactics (what to write, how to structure and setup your seminars, etc.) that will help you grow and condition your sphere of influence? You’re not going to want to miss out on Double Your Freelancing Clients. Enrollment opens up soon, so be sure to jump onto my list to register.

  • Benjamin Holmgren

    This article was timely for me.. I’m trying to determine which direction to point my own blog (http://benjaminholmgren.blogspot.com/) and the one thing I keep being reminded of by you, Seth Godin, Pat Flynn, and others is always provide value to the people you’re trying to reach.

    Keep it coming!

    • Thanks Benjamin!

      Some quick feedback on your blog: I’d probably move off Blogger to something that you can control a bit more. Overall, from my cursory reading of your article titles/excerpts, it all looks really interesting — I don’t know who you’re targeting (are you a freelance writer?), but overall it looks pretty good. Pick your ideal client, and write for them.

      Additionally, that sidebar CTA has got to go. “Let’s talk” = “OMG I’m going to get hounded by this Benjamin guy until I hire him” or, more likely, “Um, why?” Come up with a compelling offer that makes people actually want to leave their info with you. (I do this somewhat successfully here on my site, and in DFYC I’m covering some ways for freelancers to use “carrot” incentives.)

      • Benjamin Holmgren

        You are (of course) spot on. My blog is in major need of fixing up. The only thing I do like about it is that it’s live, it’s got a few readers, and it’s allowed me to start conversations with entrepreneurs who need help. Beyond that, I will certainly take your pointers and act on them!

        My end goal is to be a consultant/freelance problem solver. I’m doing as much reading, watching, writing and talking with entrepreneurs and business owners as I can to make the connections, and bring my energy and worldview to the table.

        The one thing I aspire to do is interact with my tribe the way you do. I mean, I’m a 20 year old with an sub-par blog, and you took five minutes to look at my work and give me feedback. That’s sweet!

        Thanks for your work!

        • Hi Benjamin – just popped over to your blog to check it out – great stuff! I particularly like your ability to say a lot in a few words. I’m a big fan of Seth Godin and another writer who thinks similarly Bernadette Jiwa. Agree with Brennan that moving to WordPress would be a good move and I would have liked to subscribe but couldn’t find where to do it (although I haven’t caffeinated yet!)

          • Benjamin Holmgren

            Thanks Kim!

            Nothing like positive feedback 🙂

            I’m going to set up my new blog this week. If you zip me an email in the sub-par ‘Let’s Talk’ box, I’ll let you know as soon as the new blog is up.

            I’ll look up the other writer you mentioned; always love finding good work!

            If you’re reading Brennan’s stuff, I’m just going to assume you’re out making a dent in your universe. Thanks!

  • Great article and a reminder that though the work is completed for the client they can still be an
    asset to you by referring others your way. One thing that I am implementing is
    remembering certain information that relates to the client only, and writing
    them personally and checking in on them. Congratulating them on a milestone is
    a way to stay in the forefront of clients mind and show that I actually care
    about their progress.

    I’m looking forward to Double Your Freelancing Clients.

    • Yep! I mean, you see this all the time in like the mortgage/real estate/dentistry world. We all know our dentist REALLY didn’t remember our birthday… but it doesn’t matter 🙂 It pushes them to the top of our mental stack.

      If you can really dig into a client’s business and understand how your projects relate to their longterm and shorterm goals, and then proactively contact them as you know those goals are getting close, etc. it goes *such* a long way.

  • Bill K.

    Great article Brennan. I couldn’t agree more that consistently providing value and following up with potential clients is a must. Nice job!

  • josegonzalezdamico

    Hi Brennan, maybe here is a little typo?
    ” I don’t need to have 25,000 individual conversions”
    I’m pretty sure you meant “conversations” 🙂

    • Ah, thanks Jose! Fixed. One of those unfortunate typos that isn’t exactly a misspelling 🙂

      • josegonzalezdamico

        Ha! My psychologist wife would smile if she read that 🙂 #freudianslip

  • Love this strategy! It’s playing the long game and builds a trustworthy reputation.

    Keep up the amazing insights, looking forward to Double Your Freelancing Clients!!

  • Juan Pastás

    This is a great advice, I am trying to develop a way in which I can promote what I know in different social networks, till now I have found Quora for this purpose, since its moderation system is the most kind and fair I have found.

    I know a lot of people love email today, from the data I remember is the more old than young people, and the trend is to move to social networks. Well, email vs social networks deserve an entire post and research. The only thing is that I find email a central place to receive notifications and I am seeing that there is a pattern of getting help from a community instead of one guru, what makes me think that in the long term the email will be converted to a centralized place to receive notifications from the social networks I am subscribed to.

    This will happen when people realize that is better to have a lot of experts trying to help instead of just one. Of course there is more to treat here, but this is a comment and is turning too long.

    Anyway, here is what I plan:

    1. answer the most I can about the topics I enjoy
    2. get a lot of points there
    3. ask help for the skills I need: copy writing
    4. promote questions and answers related to the projects I would like to make

    I will be doing this for personal preference, and I understand that having an own website has also its advantages.

  • “You’re delivering value anytime you make somebody better off than they were before.” please make this a tweetable!!!

  • Kingston

    Thanks, Brennan for this. Good perspective for all relationships. God bless you.

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