Should Wedding Photographers Pay for Client Referrals?

(The following is excerpted from the new book The Successful Wedding Photographer, by the editors of Photopreneur.)

Whenever a former client discusses your work and passes your name onto a friend, she’s doing you a huge favor. It’s the kind of favor that puts money in the bank and provides the foundation of a successful wedding photography business.

But that’s not why she does it.

Clients recommend photographers because they want to do their friends a favor.

Finding the right photographer for a wedding isn’t easy. Competition is tight, portfolios can start to look similar, and a 20-minute consultation can only tell the wedding couple so much about a photographer’s personality and the way they’re likely to behave on the big day.

If a friend says they’ve used a photographer who produced great pictures, that’s one difficult task that can be crossed off the wedding planning to-do list.

Which raises an important marketing question: Since the desire to help a friend is usually the biggest referral incentive for your satisfied clients, is it useful for you to provide additional incentives in an attempt to generate additional referrals?

And if so, should these incentives include cash payments?

The Cash Incentive

Magic Eye Photography, a U.K. family photography business, chooses to reward its referrers in cash, giving them a 10 percent commission on the value of the order they bring in. The new clients just need to mention their referrer’s name and, interestingly, they have to come within four weeks of the referrer receiving their own order.

The Bauer Gallery, which calls itself a “photography & fine art company” in Dallas, does something similar. The company has a page on its website entitled “Cash Back for those New Couple Bills.” The page promises to “lessen the overall financial burden of the whole wedding experience with The Bauer Gallery’s cash back program.”

The deal is this: refer a friend to The Bauer Gallery and the studio will pay the referrer $100 in cash. It will then pay $50 for each additional referral. The gallery even goes so far as claiming that the value of the commissions could cover the cost of the referrer’s own wedding photography:

Is there a limit to how many referrals you can give? No! Refer enough people and your wedding photography could be FREE!

It’s true that The Bauer Gallery’s wedding packages begin at just $1,099, but at $50 a referral, the company’s former clients would still need to do a lot of referring to generate enough commissions to cover their own wedding photography.

Missing the Point

While offering a cash-back reward to former clients is certainly the easiest way to incentivize referrals, it misses the point. Clients almost always make referrals — particularly in the case of wedding photography — to help their friends, not out of self-interest.

That’s why non-cash rewards, or even rewards that go to the client’s friends rather than the referring client, can be more effective. Incentives presented as gifts rather than payments help maintain the real connection that made the client want to refer you in the first place.

Peter Yamasaki, a portrait photographer in Orange County, California, offers referring clients two different kinds of rewards.

First, the new client receives a discount on their initial sitting fee. And second, the client who provided the referral receives a credit toward a complimentary 5 x 7 print. They can either cash in that credit immediately or they can hold out, wait for a second referral and receive an 8 x 10 print. Four credits are worth an 11 x 14 print, and five credits win the referral an entire photo session for free.

While Yamasaki’s rewards might work well for a portrait studio, they wouldn’t be sufficient for a wedding photographer. The idea of creating bonuses that can be held in reserve and grown in order to receive bigger bonuses is useful, however. It’s the same principle that guides the use of air miles: the greater the loyalty, the greater the rewards.

So a wedding photographer who wanted to reward a client for providing a referral could offer a sliding scale of incentives that started with a DVD of images, perhaps, but which grew into a website, an album or even a free maternity shoot, if appropriate.

Whatever rewards you choose, by inviting your former clients to put off claiming them, you keep your business fresh in their minds and give them a reason to continue recommending your services.

Matching the Referrer’s Motivation

But while Yamasaki’s rewards to referring clients are smart, his decision to provide a discount to the new client is even smarter.

It’s a smarter form of reward because it matches the reason that former clients tell their friends about photographers — not because they’re hoping for a prize, but because they want to help their friend by providing them with a photographer they can trust.

By offering referred clients a substantial discount on your services, you are helping your formers clients help their friends even more. According to one study, around 40 percent of couples overspend their wedding budgets, sometimes even doubling the amount that they’d planned to spend. Anything that can help relieve some of that budgetary pressure is going to be welcomed.

For the former client, a recommendation of your services could be a wedding gift worth several hundred dollars — and one they didn’t even have to pay for. That’s the kind of incentive that makes everyone happy.

Tomorrow: earning referrals from your competitors

3 Responses to “Should Wedding Photographers Pay for Client Referrals?”

  1. When I give a referral, I'm not expecting any sort of monetary compensation. And, no, I'm not in a position where I don't need more money. I certainly do.

    I believe that one good turn deserves another. So, if you do a good job for me, I'll be happy to recommend you to others.

    Doesn't matter if you're a physician, photographer, or plumber. Do good work, and the word-of-mouth from Martha will follow. And you don't have to pay me for it.

  2. Interesting commentary. You might like to know that I've never had a bride ask for the referral reward when a friend of theirs booked their shoot with me. So, maybe you are onto something! 😉

  3. I think that it might be a good idea for those that might get a higher end client. I know for my friend who is a wedding photographer likes to get information from wherever he can. I don't know what kind of incentive he gives people who give him a referral but I'm sure he rewards them somehow.

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