Back to Blog

Marketing for Consulting Firms: How far can referrals take you?

Consulting firms need to have a business development strategy in place that is not dependent on referrals. Here's what that can look like.
Marketing for Consulting Firms: How far can referrals take you?
Usman Khalil
Published On
April 12, 2020

Discover the powerful combination of a simple tool and expert coaching with Willow.

Book a free demo

Expertise-driven businesses often take a backseat when it comes to actively marketing to find new business. The reasons for this are plentiful. Building a business on trust and professionalism can mean shying away from aggressive marketing practices as it adversely affects that trust. So most consulting businesses, especially when they’re starting off lean towards word-of-mouth or referrals to develop their business.

How effective are referrals in business development?

When consultants launch their careers, often they rely solely on referrals and word-of-mouth within their network to get them new business. A lot of the times people in your network can take it upon themselves to find new business for you. And that can work well...for a short while. But soon it can become difficult and scarce. The people offering their help might think ‘okay I’ve played my part’ and stop at some point.

This is when they first think about marketing. This is when investing in business development becomes important.

Good alternatives to referrals for consulting firms

The ultimate goal is to find new customers without losing credibility or trust. This can be accomplished with a dual strategy; Direct response marketing + brand marketing.

What is Direct-response marketing?


Any type of marketing which asks the target audience to take some action is a type of direct-response marketing. Businesses use different types of lead generation strategies as a form of direct-response marketing.

Most often, a business might give access to a webinar, an ebook, or another resource if you leave an email address.

Or it can be more direct: you see an offer, you click a button to go avail that offer. For an expertise-driven business this might look like a limited discount being offered to sign-up for a workshop.

But because they might give the feeling that the business is coming on too strong, it can diminish trust, and drive them away. So it must be carefully balanced with brand marketing.

What is Brand marketing?

brand marketing
“The best marketing doesn't feel like marketing.” - Tom Fishburne

Brand marketing is a long-run strategy and more suited to consulting firms. Whatever the size of the consulting firm, brand marketing is heavily invested in, because it is marketing that doesn’t come across as marketing.

There are various forms of brand marketing used by the best consulting businesses. Bigger consulting firms, such as Deloitte, will create yearly State of [Add industry name] reports for different sectors. It makes them look like the authority in that sector. The report is widely quoted by different players in the industries and keeps Deloitte in the spotlight.

They’re not marketing their services here. They’re providing a free resource as a means to generate trust, create a dependency, and therefore sustain constant traffic to their website.

Especially for expertise driven businesses that run on trust, this is a great indirect method to market without marketing per se.

Should I do direct response marketing or brand marketing?

To have a sustainable business, you need a constant inflow of new customers in the short run WHILE still staying relevant and top of mind in the long run. So you don’t have to pick one; you should be doing a bit of both.

For consulting firms, brand marketing can work towards building trust, authority, and professionalism. A brand strategy can set this direction early on.

While in the short run, direct-response marketing can ensure that new leads keep falling into the top of the funnel.  

Direct Response Marketing: Best practices

  1. Know your target audience: With direct response marketing, you’re only reaching out to people requiring them to take some action. It follows logically that you should reach out only to people who might be interested, otherwise it might come across as spam.
  2. Have a clear message: Businesses and business-owners have little time to look at ads, or lengthy texts. But they’re not immune to a good, clear message. Make sure your message is brief and addresses the major pain points of your target audience.
  3. Set a time-limit: A time-limit to your offer sets off an internal alarm in the reader’s mind. It doesn’t need to be aggressive. If your lead magnet expires in a week’s time, state that in your offer.
  4. Free downloads: Offer up free useful templates, resources, and ebooks that might be useful for your target audience. It’s a win-win for both parties.

Related: Willow helps consulting firms generate new leads with its presence on social media channels. Find out how we can help in a free demo by clicking here.

Brand Marketing: Best practices

  1. Figure out your firm’s brand before you market it: Often a consulting firm’s brand is closely linked to one of its leading figure’s personal brand. The firm’s brand can have similar characteristics eg. It can personify authority, trust, and professionalism. So everyone within the firm can also benefit from it.
  2. Provide value without expecting a return: Brand marketing is not about what you get out of it. It is about being the kind of brand you want to be. And yes, as a business you have to think about the ROI, but with brand marketing, the return on your investment is not always quantifiable in the short run.
  3. Be consistent: Perhaps the toughest part of brand marketing is ensuring consistency. It is also the most important. A brand personality is easy to imagine, but less so to put in to practice day-in-day-out. But being consistent with your brand online has far reaching advantages. For instance, consistent brand marketing can create a loyal base of followers who form a long-term bond with your brand. That kind of relationship with your target audience is priceless.
  4. Brand marketing is about linking your marketing to who you are as a brand. This means every message, every copy, every report you put out, should be saying something about your consultancy’s brand. And therefore building your brand in your audience’s minds.

Related: At Willow we help consulting firms build their brand’s authority by providing a constant stream of on-brand content to share on their online channels. Reach out to us to see how we can help.


Referrals are only effective in the short run and can fizzle out pretty quickly after a year or so. So consulting firms need to have a business development strategy in place that is not dependent on referrals. Philip Morgan, an expert marketing consultant, makes a similar point in this podcast.

What can that strategy look like? A comprehensive marketing effort which takes a balanced approach between direct response marketing and brand marketing can help consulting firms in the short run and long run.

Direct response here refers to any marketing effort that requires the target audience to take some action (fill a form, call, press a button, leave their email address).

Brand marketing here refers to efforts which help build a brand, something consulting firms don’t do enough of. It can help generate a following and inculcate brand loyalty among them.