One key difference that separates the most successful professional services firms and the rest is a surprisingly simple one: social media referral marketing.

The reality is that most firms sell themselves short by taking too narrow an approach to referral marketing. All too often, firms assume that the only approach is to do good work for clients, touch base with a few referral sources like attorneys and CPAs, and then wait for the referral business to start rolling in.

This approach still works of course, but can only take a firm so far. Clients and past clients make up but a fraction of a firm’s potential referral sources — and more importantly, there are probably not enough of such referrals to ensure that your firm remains competitive.

In some groundbreaking research conducted by the Hinge Research Institute on how professional services firms generate referrals, we found that, thanks to the way today’s buyers search for information on potential new providers, firms can leverage a whole new world of opportunities through non-client referrals.

Thinking Past Experience-Based Referrals

In our study, we surveyed 525 professional services firms in various fields and markets. We asked respondents to identify where and how their firms received referrals, and how they responded to them.

One of the surprises we uncovered was that there is a huge category of referrals that many firms rarely consider: referrals from sources with no direct experience working with a firm. Rather, they’re fellow professionals who have heard about your firm and its reputation for specific areas of expertise. This type of referral is surprisingly common — in fact, 81.5% of working professionals have received such non-client referrals.

Increasing Your Reputation-Based Referrals

Here’s some great news about securing non-client referrals: the vast majority come from your reputation and perceived expertise alone – meaning you don’t necessarily have to have even met a person in order to receive their referral.

As a matter of fact, nearly all non-client referrals have less to do with personal relationships and more to do with how the referring party views and experiences the firm as “the expert”.

In our study, we learned that people who are referral sources rely on a diverse array of information to form their perceptions about a firm’s expertise. And the data suggests that to boost awareness of your firm’s reputation and expertise among key audiences, there are three places to focus on:

  • Speaking engagements (online, in person or both)
  • Blog posts and articles
  • Social media engagement

This opens the door to an opportunity that is tailor-made for social media marketers.

Making the Invisible Hard to Ignore

We know from another body of research we conducted that the number one criteria buyers use when selecting a firm is in fact expertise. The challenge is that expertise is intangible, and in many cases, invisible. This reality explains why speaking at carefully chosen events and venues, writing blog posts and connecting through social media are so effective: they all help make a fairly abstract and subjective quality something audiences can listen to, read, and share.

Incorporating social media into your referral marketing plan makes sense from another angle as well: roughly 60% of buyers check a firm out on social media in the vetting process, and that 17% non-client referrals are made because of social media. And if you’re still not sold on the relevance of social media, consider that more than 18% of 25 to 34-year-olds won’t even refer a provider that is not on social media.

Developing Your Social Media Marketing Strategy

Now that you know how much of an impact social media can make in driving referrals, you need to identify and implement a strategy. Here are a few considerations:

1. Not all social media channels are created equal.

The great majority of your audience is on LinkedIn, so it’s important to not only maintain your firm’s profile there, but also to encourage individuals throughout the firm to spend the time needed to create substantial LinkedIn presences, both by updating their profile and by engaging in Groups.

2. Set goals and measure progress.

In order to get a return on your efforts, your strategy needs to include a way to capture measurable results. One of the best tools for doing so is Google Analytics. It may be easy to track the numbers of followers and “likes” you attract, but for better results, pay more attention to how much traffic is going to your website — and more specifically, how conversions from that traffic are growing.

3. Never stop testing.

Technical professionals often want to minimize risk and rely on absolutes. Don’t make this mistake in your social media referral marketing, which is all about taking risks — and sometimes going against conventional wisdom. By conducting A/B testing, you can provide your firm with solid data on what’s working best at engaging your target audiences.

By making sure that audiences have a variety of opportunities to interact with your expertise (and your experts) in meaningful ways, you can significantly expand your referral base well beyond your direct clients.