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Marketing 360® Blog

What’s the Difference Between a Review, Referral, & Testimonial?

Post By Scott Yoder | Reputation Management


In this post, we detail the differences between a review, testimonial and a referral, explaining the effectiveness of each for your small business internet marketing.



A referral is when your customer willingly tells another person about their positive experience with you.  If customers will recommend you to their friends, it means you’re doing a lot of things right.

Referrals are marketing gold.  You can’t create content that’s more trusted or convincing than someone who’s experienced your offering, found it to be excellent, and recommended it.

It’s fine when you can entice or encourage clients to give you referrals.  Many businesses create referral programs that reward clients for bringing in a new customer with their recommendation.  But the platinum variety is the unsolicited referral, where your client gives you a positive recommendation without you asking them to do so.

Consistent referrals are vital to most businesses, in particular a local business where “word of mouth” plays a big role in lead-generation.

The tactics for getting more referrals are ingrained in your business itself.  The only way to get unsolicited referrals is to delight customers with unexpected levels of value and customer service.  This is something you need to plan in how you conduct business.

Today, referrals are not just face-to-face.  Social media is another place customers make referrals, using tools like Facebook recommendations.  These have added value because they spread across people’s networks.

Clearly state gaining referrals as a business goal, and make it an underlying part of every type of execution in your business.  When in doubt, make the client happy, even it means a short-term loss for you.  The long-term gains will be worth it.



Reviews transformed with online media.  Once, they were the purview of professional critics.  Today, all consumers can publish reviews, opening the gates for everything from sincere, useful critiques to fake, slanderous tirades.

The ways consumers interpret online reviews continues to evolve.  Because they are a form of unedited public chatter, most people know not to take every online review at face value – good or bad.  Nevertheless, consumers often check reviews for services – and even more for specific products – and use them to get an impression of the offering’s performance.

For example, if you sell a product on Amazon, a long-list of 5 star reviews is now all but essential.  Research shows that just having one product review on Amazon increases the chances of a sale by 65% over a product with no reviews.  In fact, Amazon reviews are so trusted that shopper check them even when they plan to buy the product elsewhere.

A restaurant in a busy urban area can expect to get a range of reviews no matter good its food and service is, but will ultimately benefit from a positive profile.  With professional services, like legal or medical, reviews are playing an increasingly pivotal role.  Consumers will check Google, Facebook, Top Rated Local, Yelp, and industry specific sites like HealthGrades.

For home service businesses, Local Service Ads on Google is prime advertising space.  For these listings, reviews actually play a role in how businesses are ranked, making them vital content.

Many business owners find review sites frustrating because they can’t control the content.  And it’s true that unfair and even libelous stuff gets through.  Reputation management strategies can help you tilt reviews in your business’ favor, but it’s not possible to control all the content that gets created about you online.

However, in the larger scope, reviews tend to work much like referrals.  They are a reflection of the quality of your work and service.  The higher your standards and results, the better your reviews will be.



Testimonials are solicited comments you get from your best clients to put in your marketing materials.

The results from testimonials can be mixed.  On the positive side, you demonstrate that you have satisfied customers that stand by your business.  On the other hand, prospects realize you solicited the comments, which dulls their impact.

For this reason, testimonials need to be strategically developed.  Best practices include:

  1. Making sure the comments are specific.  Vague praise makes the testimonial seem fake.  Get the client to highlight a particular aspect your service they benefited from and note exactly (data/number wise) what they gained.
  2. Use a face-shot or video.  Impersonal testimonials feel implausible.  Putting a face with the comment or – better yet – showing a video, gives people a concrete sense that the testimonial comes from a real customer.  Make sure the images are professional, appealing, and match your target audience.
  3. If you have a real gem that says it all, use a long testimonial or write a success story (aka, case study).  In some cases, showing the entire relationship with the client, formatted like a story, is the most effective way to make your point.  Read some of our case studies here.

Here is a good example of a video testimonial:


Here’s strong use of testimonials on a website:

optometry testimonials


Wrap Up

It’s said today that a brand is no longer what it says about itself – it’s what consumers tell each other it is.  Referrals, reviews, and testimonials are all content that come from the consumer voice.

But this doesn’t mean you don’t have control over what consumers say.  In fact, the control is entirely yours.  What consumers say about you mirrors the value you deliver them.

Make sure leads know you have loyal customers with testimonials.  Embrace online reviews and manage your profiles so they work in your favor.  Use referrals as a guide to how you do business, knowing each one is marketing gold.

You don’t control what people say about you, but you do control the value you deliver – which guides their voices.   Make delivering value above and beyond a priority for your business, and you’ll gain a powerful, essential voice for your marketing.