Anyone who has owned a marketing agency for any length of time can attest to the value of referrals.

Referrals are the number one source of client acquisition for most agencies and many agencies only grow by referral (though not always by design). The downside to this is that you can’t usually control the rate at which you get referrals and you’ll find that most people who say they’ll refer business to you don’t refer anyone or they only refer people who don’t reach out, don’t respond, or can’t afford to pay you.

In my time working with agencies, I have seen strategic partnerships as a possible way around this issue, but there are some caveats. Today’s issue will cover what makes a good strategic partnership and some examples to consider as you’re looking for your next gold-mine partnership.


What Makes A Good Strategic Partner?

My first consulting client only grew by referrals. His greatest source of referrals was one specific referral partner. Over the years, this partner referred around $80,000 in monthly recurring revenue to my client. 

Sounds pretty nice, right?

We attempted to double down on this strategy and found that not all referral partners are strategic. Most were happy to pass along leads when we talked to them, but they never sent a single lead.

We even offered some entrepreneurs 20% recurring commissions on his $3k/mo SEO package. That’s a guaranteed $500/mo for sending an email introduction and doing exactly 0 other work. Want to make more? Send more emails.

Still, despite the prospect of bringing in six figures a year in the most literal form of passive income anyone has ever come across, these entrepreneurs became ghosts and never made even a single dime from the opportunity.

So what made the first referral partner so valuable, when none of the others worked out?

There are a few things that set apart a strategic referral partner from one who fizzles out like a wet firecracker.

They Can’t Need You More Than You Need Them

Most of the people we tried to incentivize to refer leads to us needed the money we were offering. Those people usually needed the money because they weren’t particularly good at sales or because they didn’t have enough business for their own company to keep them focused on growing that revenue stream.

It was a bad idea, in retrospect, to pursue people who wanted the incentive more than a solid place to send people who were asking them for help they couldn’t provide.

They Have To Have A Consistent Flow Of Leads They Can’t Help

The ultimate referral partner listed above was the owner of a successful web development agency. He had tons of leads coming in from all over the country and he didn’t want to offer ongoing marketing services, so he was actually benefiting from having someone trustworthy to send those leads to. The person asking for services got what they wanted and the owner of the web development company was able to help them instead of turning them away to the wolves. Win-win.

They Can’t Do What You Do

Another factor to look for, as you may have noticed by the pattern, is a company that does something similar to what you do, but not specifically what you do.

In our example, my client did SEO, Web Design, and PPC (which I was helping them grow to an actual profit center). His referral partner did web design as well, but would actually give my client those leads as well when he was overflowing or when it wasn’t a good fit.

The partner didn’t want to do SEO or Google Ads and trusted my client, so he just sent email introductions when someone asked about either service and we’d take it from there.

These three factors are why it worked so well for my client and it’s what you should look for as well.

It didn’t hurt that my client was cutting the partner fat checks every month in recurring referral bonuses, but I pointed out above the flaw in thinking that’s all it takes to get referrals. The partner didn’t need the money and he would have sent the referrals anyway.


What Kinds Of Partners Should I Look For?

Whether you’ve been inspired by my client’s experience and are looking for a cool million in referred retainers (results not typical) or you’re just getting motivated to get back to the old drawing board and try to drum up some more consistent referrals, you’ll need to know what to look for.

Here’s a list of services that pair well. If you offer one, but not the other, you should start by looking for your “counterpart”. As with the Web Development and SEO example from my story above, aim to pair services that work together to create something greater than the sum of their parts.

Remember the point above about lead flow. You’re not looking for blossoming solopreneurs who are just getting started, you’re looking for successful agencies or consultants who are already getting leads for what you offer and who have to turn them away.

You may need to incentivize them with referral bonuses, but you may also just need to help them better serve their clients. Rather than pitching a partnership via DM or email, try pitching a call.

You should also bear in mind that partnerships are usually a 2-way street. You’ll have much better results if you reach out with a potential lead for your new prospective partner. This will generate reciprocity and goodwill.

Now at last, here’s that list. It’s not exhaustive, just something to spark ideas for you.

Tracking/Analytics + Paid ads
Web Dev/Design + Paid ads
Paid Ads + Inbound
Paid search + Paid Social
Cold Outreach + Closers
Organic YouTube + Funnel Builders
Meta Ads + Funnel Builders
LinkedIn Ads + Email Marketing
LinkedIn Ads + Account-Based Marketing
Podcasts + Organic YouTube
Training Course & Community + Recruiters/Headhunters

I hope that helps you think of some potential referral partners for your agency!

If you’re curious about how I work with agencies or if you’re frustrated with your agency’s profitability or retention of clients or employees, feel free to reach out to me and I’ll see how I can help. I never charge for the first consultation and if I can solve it in 30-minutes, there’s no reason to pay for my services and you walk away happy.

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