It seems like everyone is running a referral program these days, and for good reason! Since apps like Smile.io (shameless self-promotion, I know) can seamlessly integrate with major ecommerce platforms like Shopify and BigCommerce, it’s easier than ever to run a referral program on an online store.
However, while starting a referral program may be simple, running a successful program takes a bit more elbow grease. You need to equip your customers with the right information if you want them to participate in your program, and an email referral campaign is the best way to do it.
Why Use Email Marketing With Your Referral Program?
You may be thinking that you don’t need email marketing, but let’s look at the numbers. About 73% of customers are unlikely to return to your store after one purchase. As a result, they likely won’t see your new referral program if you only promote it on your website.
Right from the start, you should be working to drive as much program participation as possible. Referral programs are such powerful tools for driving growth and long-term success because they help grow your audience with higher quality customers. The average referred customer has a customer lifetime value that is 16% – 25% higher than the average customer.
So now that we know why you should run a referral campaign, how are you supposed to execute one?
How to Run a Successful Referral Email Marketing Campaign
Campaigns are crucial for one simple reason: awareness. It’s the first step in the purchase funnel, and as a result should be your first step after launching a referral program. Beyond that, you should be striving to maintain momentum with intermittent communications.
Developing an email marketing campaign isn't too hard if you follow these four core philosophies:
Align Your Brand and Messaging
Keep it Simple
Time it Right (and Avoid Spamming Your Customers!)
Know What Benefits Your Customers Want
Once you've developed the copy and design of your email, it's time to distribute. You can do the work manually, or you could integrate an email marketing platform into your referral program.
Using any of these email marketing providers, you can automatically trigger email campaigns that ensure the right message is delivered to the right customer at the right time.
Examples of Referral Campaigns
Let’s look at some of our favorite campaign strategies, starting at launch and moving into more targeted efforts.
Referral Program Launch Campaigns
A launch campaign introduces your customers to your program as a whole and provides clear instructions on how to participate. These emails should also clearly state the value customers can expect to gain from participating. It’s important to keep things simple and easy to understand, and to use language that resonates with your audience.
Take a look at this email from Bombas:
The message here is clear: refer a friend, get free socks. Without diving into a detailed tutorial, Bombas manages to distill its referral program into easily understood steps and makes a point to take us through the entire referral journey. The email also takes on Bombas’ brand voice by being fun, quirky, and relaxed.
The key takeaway here is to not overload customers with information when you launch. Provide a simple message include a strong CTA where they can learn about the program in more detail.
Brand Advocate Campaigns
A brand advocate campaign targets your most loyal customers and encourages them to invite their friends and family to join your program. At the end of the day, brand advocates are going to bring the most value to your referral program because they are most likely already referring people to your brand.
By launching a referral program and reaching out to brand advocates, you will show them that this program is expressly meant to thank them for their loyalty.
Check out this email we got from one of our customers, One Love Organics:
This one hits all the marks. It explains the program’s value in just one sentence, includes the referral link, and even gives a brief step-by-step guide on how to participate. Best of all, the personalized messaging in the email shows the utmost appreciation for the customer’s loyalty.
Nudge Referral Campaigns
A nudge campaign is great for keeping your brand top of mind between purchases. It doesn’t need to be very fancy or include too much information. The key here is to just provide that quick tap on the shoulder to remind customers you’re still there. This is especially important if your industry is on the lower end of the purchase frequency spectrum.
Airbnb does a great job of using a simple nudge to keep customers engaged:
This email is pure direct marketing—it’s all about communicating benefits clearly and with brevity. As always, Airbnb exhibits their elegant art direction with a visualization of the referral program, all wrapped up in a well-structured email with a clear call-to-action. Follow Airbnb’s lead with your nudge campaigns, and you’ll be sure to maintain the momentum of your program.
Post-Purchase Referral Campaigns
While nudge campaigns remind customers you’re still there, post-purchase campaigns are all about encouraging participation when your brand is still top-of-mind. There are two moments post-purchase when you should use this campaign: immediately after purchase and once the order is fulfilled. Depending on your products and audience, one of these touchpoints could be more effective than the other.
Casper decided to promote their program post-fulfillment:
I’m a big fan of this one because Casper puts the customer experience first and the referral program second. Increasing program engagement with email doesn’t mean you have to put it front and centre all the time. Beyond post-purchase and post-fulfillment, you should be constantly reminding your customers of your program in subtle ways. Including brief CTAs in every communication will help your program become part of the brand itself, making it a memorable source of value for new and existing customers.
Delivering the Best Referral Campaign Possible
The best campaign for your store comes down to your product, your brand, and your audience. By following our email marketing best practices and examining the examples above, try to create a unique experience for your customers that fits your brand’s voice.
Most importantly, don’t overthink it! Email marketing is naturally iterative, and demands you experiment and test different ideas. Have fun with it, and you’ll be engaging your audience in no time.