Pay it Forward
by Steven M. Ledbetter
9 minute read
One of the pieces of business advice I’d heard from Facebook for the last 9 years is, “if your clients are getting results, they’ll tell their friends and you don’t need to market.”
In my experience and watching the success of others I’d say that’s about 40% true. I think a truer statement would be, “if you’re creating value for your clients, and making it easy for them to share that story with their friends, then that will probably be the bulk of your marketing.”
I know marketing scares people. It’s scary to ask for money. It honestly still scares me when I tell people my daily consulting rate. It’s scary to say, “I’m worth this much money” when it seems like this whole industry is set up to make you feel like you’re not yet. But marketing is a fact of life in a functioning capitalist economy. You know who doesn’t have to market? Monopolies. Pan Am Airways in the 1960’s didn’t have to market. Microsoft in the 1990’s didn’t have to market. When you have a business in a highly-competitive economy with a low barrier to entry and very few ways to differentiate your service except on branding and price (heads up, Coach: that’s you), you have to market. But that doesn’t mean it has to feel like marketing.
I think when people on Facebook say they are “anti-marketing,” they are really saying they’re “anti-advertising.” And that’s fine; no one is making them buy Facebook ads or read them. But marketing really just means “getting the word out” about the value you can create for potential clients. And if you want to be a sustainable business, you need to find the ways that you can do that without it feeling like you’re doing something you hate. Like I tell my clients: “if you hate it, you won’t do it.”
And let’s get real. For getting the word out to become easier and less effortful, your marketing has to become a system of habits.
Nearly 9 years ago, I developed a full training book within 6 months of hanging out a shingle. I was getting incredible results for clients (a.k.a. “making value”), but I wasn’t really doing anything that felt like marketing to me. If you asked me, I would have told you, “I don’t do any marketing.” But I was also an idiot.
The truth was, I developed 4 habits very early on that tricked me into thinking I wasn’t doing anything:
1) Make a free thing consistently. From Day 1, I wrote a blog post every week. Later, I taught a free kettlebell class every week in the same spot at the same time. I let people try out my group training. And eventually I created a free online community as outlined in my book, We Make Communities. These all represented a free, easy way for my clients to tell their friends, “hey, check out Coach Stevo” without risking their reputation with their friend. To this day, people and businesses reach out to Habitry for contract work because they have read my blog here for years or on MyFitnessPal since I started writing weekly for them in 2013.
2) Consistently tell the story of your clients’ success. I loved bragging about how my clients were doing and what they were learning. I told stories constantly (with permission and often names changed). And when I was creating a system for behavior change, I baked this right into the system in such a way that I only noticed it later. In We Make Communities I call this, “the Flat Circle.” The idea is this: When anyone learns anything from working with you, tell everyone you can get to listen. Quote them (with permission and anonymously if they wish) in your free groups. Write a story for your blog. Interview them for a video. However you consistently can do it, do it, and give that asset to them so they can share it, too. So they can brag!
At Habitry, we encourage our coaches to make what we call, “Habit Lessons Learned” PDFs. These are a document with the top 15 or so quotes from the 2 weeks we spent working on the habit and a little about the habit we worked on and why it’s awesome. I specifically started making these for my first groups because my clients’ coworkers were always asking them about the habits. So I said, “forward them this.” At the bottom, I attached a link to where they could sign up for more information. I made one every habit, and that one thing grew my groups like Miracle Grow.
3) Make them consistently feel special. When I started doing Habitry groups exclusively, I took a lot of what I do doing and just organically worked it into the new format. Chief among these was making the people in the groups feel like they were a part of something special and that they held the keys for people to get in on it. In We Make Communities I call this, “creating a Culture of Invitation.” At the heart of what you’re doing is making the invitation about the client’s success instead of feeling like a favor. Here’s an except:
In our experience at Habitry, Co., the minute you start trying to get referrals is the minute they dry up because when people hear, “referrals” they think, “favor.” Referrals are awesome from the coach or gym owner’s perspective, but from the member or client perspective, a referral means going out on a limb and possibly having an awkward conversation with a friend who may reject it. The most successful communities flip the script and instead of looking for referrals, they start giving their members invitations.
An Intentional Community makes behavior change possible by creating a “new normal” with a laser focus on the process and on the community, so we want to make inviting new members into the community a part of that process. By baking the act of inviting into the very process of change and into the story of our clients’ success, not the coach’s success.
Invitations are first and foremost for the clients’ benefit.
In a study commissioned by MyFitnessPal1, users of their app who invited new users lost, on average, twice as much weight. Twice as much. Behavior change happens in context, and not just the ones we make on our platforms or in our gyms. Behavior change happens where our clients are at: the environments that their in and the people they interact with all day, every day. And the most successful clients are the ones that take the steps to make that environment more conducive to their desired behavior and to recruit their own community into changing with them. So invitations are not just a way to get more clients, they are a tool that we give our clients to shape their environment and to increase the likelihood that they will stay motivated and focused on the process.
Invitations are not a sales tactic. They are a part of the story of your members’ success.
By thinking of and talking about invitations as their tools, as their decision, we are also going a long way to promote the member’s perceptions of autonomy, competence, and belonging: the Basic Psychological Needs2. By empowering them, rather than asking them or even rewarding them, we are not only making new members more likely (which we are), we are also making invitations a motivational tool for the members we have.
Invitations are not a task to be incentivized. They’re a gift that tells them that you appreciate their investment and recognize their value.
The fastest growing communities are not created by paying the existing members to refer people. They grow because they make amazing value and provide existing members with an easy path to invite their friends behind the velvet rope. Referral bonuses for existing clients are a bandaid. Creating external rewards harms intrinsic motivation3 and we want our members shouting about how awesome our community is from the rooftops.
If you’re curious what this “invitation” looks like, it’s simple:
“If there’s anyone that you think would benefit from what we’re doing here and bring some life into this community, here’s a coupon code for half-off the first month.”
Someone in the Motivate Forum called this, “paying it forward.” I love that and will attest that it works when you do it consistently. And the key do doing it consistently is Habit #4.
4) Ignore the misses. This is the biggest mistake I see people make when they are trying to get into the habit of marketing. Here’s the thing, if these things work 10% of the time, that is wildly successful.
If you get 9 “no thanks” to every “sure!” you are the most successful marketer in the history of personal training, coaching, maybe even any business of all time ever.
Marketing, coaching, hell, life is a fucking numbers game. Most of time, you’re not going to see the majority of the misses because they’ll just be people who came to your blog and never came back. But when you’re creating a Culture of Invitation and putting more and more people through discounted first months or free trials, you’re suddenly faced with that 90-99% of people who are just never gonna dig what you do. And it’s on you to remember that when those people leave, they’re doing you a favor. The 1-10% of people who stay are your people. They’re your die-hard fans or as Roland Fisher calls them, “the loyal mofos.” At the end of the day, marketing is a filter, and every person who leaves is a person you aren’t going to have to waste your time on.
Keep up the consistency. Keep putting in the reps. Keep making free stuff about all the awesome things your clients are learning, making them feel special, and ignoring the misses. And as you get better at it, it’ll feel less like marketing and feel more like what it is:
Paying it forward.
Using the most powerful forces in social psychology to get more results for more clients without marketing or selling anything
Buy the Book