Nicole Wicks is a loyalty marketing expert and president of ReferNow.com, a Web-based marketing tool for companies of any size to create and manage customer loyalty and referral programs. She can be reached at www.refernow.com.


Everyone knows the best way to drop that spare tire is by exercising and eating right. If the idea is so simple and so obvious, then why doesn’t everyone have glorious buns of steel?

It’s the same for marketing and sales. The best source of new business is your active membership base. Everyone knows referrals cost less than traditional advertising. Everyone knows referrals walk in the door knowing who you are and what you have to offer because they have a recommendation from someone they know and trust. More often than not, they are ready to buy. So why aren’t you getting more referrals?

The answer is human nature. There is a big difference between knowing something and doing something. Exercise and eating right requires change and hard work. When the alarm goes off at 5 a.m., my instinct is to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep—not get up and go running. The same goes with asking for referrals. Asking for referrals is awkward. It is hard. It requires change. It requires work.

When it comes to asking for referrals, many organizations fall prey to human nature and, as a result, don’t give referral programs the attention they deserve.

Here are seven tips that will help you quickly get new members:

1. Look at what the experts are doing and copy them. The best referral programs get their current members to walk in new prospects by giving incentives and “thank you” rewards. For example, you can give your members an exclusive discount that they can pass on to their friends. When the friend becomes a member, you then give the person who referred them a thank you gift, such as a gift card, one month’s membership dues waived, etc. And you get a new member. Everyone wins.

2. Don’t stop at one referral. Encourage your members to continue referring everyone they know to your gym. Make it fun. Visibly and publicly reward the people who send you the most referrals. For each additional friend that signs up, escalate the quality of the rewards your member receives.

3. A cardboard sign by the door is not a referral program. You walk into a club and see a hand-made sign that offers a free drink at the juice bar for referring a friend. This is an afterthought, not a referral program. If you care enough to ask for a referral, spend the $25 on a sign at the local print shop to do it right.

4. Tell your members. To kick-start your referral campaign, you’re going to have to jump onboard completely. That means telling your members about your referral program again and again. The only way your members can participate in your referral program is if they know you have a referral program. Send a letter, an e-mail or both to announce your new fun referral program. Customize your e-mail signature to include a link to your referral campaign. Include your referral program in your direct mail and your monthly newsletter. Put a link on your Web site, too.

5. Train your staff to think about referrals. Lots of companies have informal referral programs, but few take the time to train their employees to use proven referral techniques. The people that carry your torch, the people that carry your brand out to the rest of the world are your current member base and your employees, so treat them well. Every company should have a program or a system in place to reward the people that are telling the world about you.

6. Walk in your customer’s shoes. Your members don’t spend their days and nights thinking about your bottom line, so it’s okay to ask for referrals and not feel awkward about it. As your product adds value to the member, the number of referrals you receive will increase.

7. Ask more than once. When a new member signs up, tell them about your referral program. Create a visible sign that reminds your members that you have a referral program. Send an e-mail or letter every quarter as a reminder that you have a great referral program. Each conversation you have about your referral program increases your chance to get more referrals.