Agency marketing: What to do when your referrals dry up

Written by: Karl Sakas

I’ve seen many agency owners who’ve used referrals from their personal network to grow to where they are today. The problem is, most people eventually run out of referrals—they either need/want more revenue than their network can provide, or the referrals dry up when their agency most needs the revenue.

If you want to avoid finding yourself in this situation, follow the advice you’d give your own clients—use marketing to attract new business!

This seems obvious, but I hear from a lot of agency owners who are concerned their network won’t take them to the next level. Or worse, their referral-based pipeline has dried up and they’re worried about payroll.

If you see this looming—or want to prevent it in the first place—I’ve created this article with short-term (1-3 months), medium-term (3-6 months), and long-term (6-18 months) ways to get clients at your agency. [Last updated: April 2023]

Don’t jump to hire a salesperson—this should be a strategic decision, not a knee-jerk reaction. There are at least 50 ways to get sales leads for your agency—the key is to prioritize which to use next.

Short-term agency marketing (1-3 months)

Plan on working some overtime to make this happen—especially PPC if you haven’t run a paid campaign before, or if you don’t have a good “offer” ready to go.

1) Upsell your current clients on services that would be valuable to them, but they may not have on their radar yet. For example, if your client would benefit from a particular service but they don’t know you offer it, craft a pitch. Be sure that anything you recommend is, indeed, in the client’s interest.

2) Use “fast failure” to avoid wasting time on poor-fit prospects. These include people who don’t have enough budget, or clients who waste your team’s time.

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, this includes disqualifying clients. Do this by implementing a sales intake process, so that you only spend time on sales calls with good leads. You should also consider publishing your pricing—this change typically means fewer but better-qualified leads, which means you only spend your time on prospects who really want to buy.

3) Update your homepage to overcome your prospects’ top three objections. The goal is to move people past those objections, so you can focus on later-stage conversations. Which are your top three objections? You’ll need to sort that out—here’s how to do it.

Medium-term agency marketing (3-6 months)

These three take longer than the ones above—don’t use them when you’re in a hurry, but start practicing them now. In 3-6 months, you’ll be glad you did.

1) Adjust your marketing to show your specialization by up to three client-vertical industries. This will increase your clients’ faith in your familiarity with their industry and capability as a specialist. For instance, using analogies and examples from clients’ industries helps show your expertise.

Agency specialization is a complex topic—but as you start, here’s how to choose a vertical specialization.

2) Ask current clients for referrals. This only works if your current clients like your work—and if you can reassure them new business won’t hurt the attention they’ve been getting. People may need some prodding. If someone shares a potential match, consider asking your client if you can mention their name—and then do the outreach yourself.

3) Sell training as a service and market it to clients and prospects who want to become more self-sufficient. Training is an untapped revenue source for most agencies—and they’re often doing it without charging for it. Some clients will decide to hire your agency for more work, instead of making everything 100% in-house.

Long-term agency marketing (6-18 months)

In the long run, you need to commit to what I call “inbound branding“—a combo of industry-vertical specialization, thought leadership marketing, and marketing automation. Here are three time-consuming (but powerful) ways to feed your inbound branding funnel.

1) Speaking is an excellent way to get well-qualified clients, but it takes time to get gigs. Share useful, relevant, interesting information aimed at your target client, and structure your free or low-cost seminars to encourage your audience to hire your agency for strategy and implementation help.

I wrote a book on public speaking for agency business development. Available in paperback and Kindle, the book includes several chapters—and free templates—focused on helping you maximize follow-on business.

You may see success from offering your own events—but this relies on having an existing list and followership to promote. (PPC can help, depending on your budget.)

2) Meet prospects where they gather—and add value. This includes online and in-person venues, and if you frame it right, your ideal-fit clients will raise their hand to get paid help. This takes time—when people see you again and again, you become familiar.

It’s better to focus on 1-2 places all year long, rather than show up once at a dozen places. (But it’s OK to “shop around” at first—you need to find the groups that are right for you.)

Value has different forms—it could be “strategically free” advice, introductions to partners who can benefit others, or volunteering to help run the organization.

Your networking can help you build referral partnerships with complementary firms. As you’ve seen, referrals tend to convert well, but you should diversify your referral base. Getting all your referrals from one or two firms is a version of the Client Concentration problem.

3) Build your own platform or group to help your ideal clients. Consider how your work fits into your prospects’ day-to-day pain points (which aren’t all about marketing and sales).

For instance, American Express OPEN Forum offers advice for SMBs on a range of topics—most of which are unrelated to Amex’s core business (issuing credit cards, processing transactions, and selling “miles” to partners).

In my case, I created and ran a group for Marketing Agencies on [the now-defunct] community site, where agencies could ask questions, share articles, get survey feedback, trade war stories, and more. We grew to 2,000+ members from 50 countries worldwide; it was’s largest and fastest-growing group for the first year.

Question: How do you find leads at your agency?

Book Cover: "Work Less, Earn More" by Karl Sakas

Good agency owners have strong client relationships.

But great agency owners look to the future, too—by creating a strong sales pipelines.

Their secret? Consistent content marketing.

In this instant-access training, you’ll learn how to generate high-quality leads for your agency, based on the content lead-gen techniques I use myself.

Don’t leave your sales pipeline to chance! Run a stronger agency now with our Content Marketing for Agency Lead-Gen training.