How to get tons of new clients (without spending a dime) with the “human billboard” Method

My brother is a fitness nut. He owns gyms, trains in gyms, and basically lives in them too. If you’ve seen “Pain & Gain” with Mark Wahlberg – he’s kind of like that (minus the psychopathic, hostage-taking shenanigans…).

But he’s also a brilliant marketer. And a few years ago he created a system for filling personal training studios and boot camps with new clients that’s 100% free, and works like crazy.

He called it the “Human Billboard” method.


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Because people basically become your “walking billboards”, spreading the word about who you are and driving referrals your way.

But even though he crafted this method for the fitness market, I’ve used it with amazing results in our creative marketing agency, and in our PSD to HTML & WordPress company too (Reliable PSD – check us out, yo).

Here’s how it works, in 6 simple steps.

Step 1: Identify

You identify “key influencers” in your area (or online) who serve the same audience that you do – but aren’t your competitors. A “key influencer” is someone who, well, has a lot of influence over people in your area or online.

People flock to them, listen to them, and take their advice to heart.

For example, let’s say there’s a small business consultant in your area with a couple hundred clients. Or maybe an accountant. A business lawyer. Or anyone else who business owners trust and listen to.

These people’s clients are biz owners, so naturally, many could become your clients too, right?

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Step 2: Scope

You scope them out. Learn all that you can about them. Look over their website, marketing materials, etc.

And you see how you could improve upon them. Because even though we’re in 2014, most people still have really ugly, demented websites and branding.

Their friend’s neighbor’s niece once opened Photoshop by accident so they had her create a logo and website.

Step 3: Approach

You approach them and let them know that you’ve checked them out, and their marketing, and you feel you could seriously help them grow their business by replacing their current website & branding with a beautiful one of your own doing.

The best part? You’ll do it 100% free.

The catch? Once they see how awesome you are, and fall in love with your work and the way you do things, they have to try their hardest to refer their clientele your way. After all, you both help business owners, so it’s a win-win.

But they ONLY have to do this once they’ve seen how great your work is firsthand.

That way they know they can trust their clients with you.

Step 4: Create

You do their logo, website, etc. as if they were your highest-paying client. Treat them like gold. Be responsive and available and do a kick-butt job.

You’re creating the conversation that they will have with their clients. If you respond to emails fast, are positive and upbeat, etc. – they will tell all of these things to their clients.

Write their review for them by crafting a unique, amazing experience for them.

Step 5: Conquer

You help them promote you. Give them business cards and help them write an email to send out to their clients. Let them know that you’re happy to keep this relationship up as long as the referrals keep coming. They could get free marketing for life for all you care as long as you’re “winning” like Charlie Sheen along the way.

Step 6: Encore

Rinse and repeat. Find your next “key influencer” and have at it. The cool thing is, let’s say you targeted an accountant for your first go of it. You now know the accounting market pretty well, and you also have a reference / sample to show other accountants in your area.

The more often you create materials for a niche / industry, the faster / easier it gets.

Now, among the usual voices I hear in my head, I can also hear a lot of objections to this method coming in already…

“Work for FREE? Are you crazy?”

“What if no referrals come?”

“What if her friend’s neighbor’s niece who accidentally once opened photoshop is more talented than me?”

Here are my answers:

To #1:

Most people would consider our agency very successful. When a good opportunity comes my way though, and a good partnership like the one described, I’m the first person to work for free.

Because it’s not really for free. I’m being paid with that person’s trust and if they experience our work firsthand, they’ll have real, tangible experience to talk about when they refer people our way.

Because nothing kills a referral like this…

Person A: “OMG you have to go see this movie! It rocks!”

Person B: “Have you seen it?”

Person A: “Nope.”

Person B: “Why are you in my life again?”

Catch my drift?

To #2:

If no referrals come, then one of two things happened:

1: Your work isn’t inspiring referrals. Time to work on those skills and make them so awesome that people can’t help but brag about their brand new branding and website to everyone they meet.

2: You targeted the wrong person. They’re not really a key influencer. Or they’re just not cool. Someone has to be on board and happy to refer their customers your way if everything works out. You have to be really selective about who you choose, and you have to screen people when you talk to them. Make sure they understand it’s a win-win and not a win-lose.

To #3:

I have no words.

Questions? Concerns? Confessions? Leave them in the comments!

I’d love to hear them 🙂

Talk soon!

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  1. Nice article. I have a question that I’m having a hard time figuring out the answer too. I even asked a business coach I had this but didn’t really get a good answer. How do you actually identify a key influencer in an industry? Is there some sort of trick to figuring that out if I know nothing about the industry? Say for example I narrow my niche down to yoga instructors – how do I find out the key influencer if I know nothing about an industry? Do I just google “Yoga instructors” and go from there checking out social media etc for social proof and see who is talking about who?

  2. Hi. I don’t understand what I’m reading here!
    I’m reading for 2 days, and some posts (from different people) are saying that working for free could lead to good contacts, while other posts are affirmative “Do never … ever work for free or discount price!”.
    Well, my point of view is very simple : I have a lot of regrets for each time I worked for free.
    that’s all.
    Carlos Matias

  3. Question. When you approach these clients would it be through email if they are not in your hometown and how do you come off as not a total hater on their marketing materials when making your offer?

  4. Lets say you do work for free and they give you referrals. Wouldn’t the people they refer expect to get the project for free too?

  5. Great read. I can definitely see the challenge here but also the amount of good this can do, particularly if your business is in it’s first stages.

    My question though would be how would you approach the person without making it seem like you don’t really care about them as a client (well, a free one) and yet make it clear that they have a responsibility to send referrals? I know that if they are a business person, they will understand it better. But at the same time, I would like to avoid giving the impression that I’m only doing it for these referrals, not really for them at all, and that if their end isn’t fulfilled I don’t continue the work for any future projects. Am I just not thinking bold enough? I have a stream of faithful clients but not really any new ones this year, and I know I need to adjust my tactics.

  6. Great post, David! Even if you can’t get behind your methods fully, it’s still a great read.

    First, I think whatever works for you, stick with that! For me personally, putting so much time and effort into “free” work just doesn’t seem worth while in the long-run. I’ve tried doing pro-bono work before, and the client always gets the better end of the deal (obviously). I fully understand the benefit of getting great word-of-mouth, however, it’s not guaranteed unfortunately – even if you find a key influencer.

    If you can apply the awesome work mentality like you mentioned in your post (treat the client like gold, be responsive, and do great work) on an actual paying client, then there should be no reason why they wouldn’t want to spread your name around. You’re potentially getting the same results, but you’re actually making money for your business. Then, you can turn that completed work into marketing material for yourself (case studies) – landing you even more work on top of your satisfied (paying) clients.

    Those are my thoughts. Again, a great read! Thanks for sharing your methods on finding work, David. 🙂

    1. Hey Brent,

      Just want to clarify one thing for those reading this discussion: it’s not just “pro-bono” work. It’s pro-bono with a “catch”, and you make that catch super clear from the get go. You only pick people who you know can easily send referrals your way (like, for example, someone who can instantly send out emails to their client base) and who are 100% on board and understand that’s their end of the bargain.

      With that said, I know it’s still not for everyone. If it’s not for you, I totally understand 🙂

      Thanks again,

  7. Hi!

    For me, I guess doing the due diligence, to make sure as possible that your “Key Influencer” will pay off on the back end. And yes April, make sure your ‘Back End’ is covered with a contract!

    Take care all!

    1. Hey Chris, exactly.

      You want to pick someone who you look at and think…

      “If only I could get them to sing my praises, I’d be flooded with new clients.”

      That’s probably the first big clue that you’re looking at a key influencer 🙂

      Thanks for your comment,

  8. I wouldn’t say it’s 100% free, but I like the potential of this marketing strategy. You’re spending your time (which equals money) to invest in someone else who you believe will be a great source of referrals. So while you’re not shelling out cash, you’re still shelling out time and effort.

    Make sure you vet them properly and use a contract, even for free work!

    1. Hey April,

      Exactly 🙂 I don’t know if I would use a contract though, because this is “Operation: Good Will”, and a contract kind of puts a damper on that. If you can do it tactfully though without killing the energy and excitement, then by all means.

      Thanks as usual for your thoughts 🙂

  9. Hi David, I definitely see your point about the work not actually being for free and I’m sure this method can work.

    For me personally, what would stop me from putting that into practice is the issue of time. There really isn’t enough time in the day for me to work without a guaranteed cash return. That said, it’s something I might consider during a lean time.

    Although, instead of offering the service for free, I’d probably offer a “pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth” deal PLUS the professional endorsement and promotion.

    At this point, while my business is still in its infancy (as is my client base), my way of getting others to promote me is by truly dazzling the clients who are paying. I do this by ALWAYS responding to calls and emails asap, along with providing a small but meaningful freebie – such as refinements to their logo, a new email signature, analytic report, a Facebook cover photo, etc.

    Those small, unexpected gestures take little time and clients are always deeply appreciative of them. Most importantly, they also talk about them.

    1. Hey Matthew,

      It’s a very understandable objection. I can definitely see where you’re coming from. From personal experience, and watching others who I look up to, I respectfully disagree though, and here’s part of why that is…

      (Also, big props on your approach to customer service. I think what you’re doing is awesome. Okay, here are my thoughts…)

      Every time our business has gone through a big growth spurt, and we raised prices (just recently we raised them by more than double), grew our client base, etc…. We had to find “extra time” in the day to work on our growth.

      But it’s always paid off.

      Sometimes it was using this method or variations on it, and sometimes it was working on ourselves in other ways, but the truth is to grow your biz… you have to risk time and money. No way around it.

      Every time we’ve grown, and made moves that would contribute to our growth, like you, we didn’t have the extra time. But our drive and desire to grow and evolve and build a better life challenged us to do it anyway. And we’ve always answered that call.

      I think you have to be willing to give in order to get. That sounds cheesy and it’s repeated in a lot of horrible self-help / business books which I really detest… but I can’t argue with it because I live it on a daily basis.

      Of course, you’ll do what you feel is best, and I respect that, but everyone from Steve Jobs to AirBnB to any other successful business you can think of spent a tremendous amount of time putting effort into something they didn’t know would pay off.

      And that includes working for “free”. I think you have to swing for the fences. If the risk of striking out is too much for you, because you’re not sure 100% if it’ll pay off, then that’s okay. But the great thing is that you can always step up to the plate and try again.

      You don’t have to take this approach. You can keep on keeping on in the direction you’re headed, but if you want to go big, you have to go big. Or at least that’s always been my approach, and I really love the life I’ve been able to live as a result.

      Just something to consider.

      Best of luck, and thanks for sharing your insights 🙂

      1. Also… in your infancy is actually the perfect time for this method.

        My brother used to show this to personal trainers who had just started, and within 6 months they had bigger client bases than anyone else around 🙂

        Also… I read over what I wrote and there are a couple things that might come off as condescending. Please know I really don’t mean it like that. Above all, I think we all have to do what feels right in our guts, and if the path you’re taking feels more right than this one, then I support you 100%.

        Sometimes, though, the comfortable route and the route our guts want us to take (which almost always is uncomfortable and stretches your comfort zone like crazy…) are two different stories.

        Thanks again,

        1. David, Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. I have to admit, you’ve definitely inspired me.

          I especially like your thoughts on taking risks and as a result, I’ve decided to try out your brother’s method.

          Now I just have to find myself one of these influencers…

          Thanks again!

          1. Hey Matthew, that is so awesome to hear man 🙂 Let me know if you have any questions while you’re going at it.

            All the best,

  10. “Their friend’s neighbor’s niece once opened Photoshop by accident so they had her create a logo and website.”

    ^ This made me laugh out loud. Now I have to compose myself and go back and re-read the whole post 🙂

    1. Right on! Glad you liked it. Let me know if you have any questions while GSD (getting s*** done!) 🙂


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