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5 min read

How to acquire users through referrals

Messaging & Positioning | Sales Enablement | Customer & Market Research | Growth

Whether it’s good or bad if someone’s had a memorable experience with a brand they’re not shy about it. But, while the negatives seem to get aired on social media, the positives bring new footfall directly to your door - and for free. Safe to say, we all strive for the latter.

According to research, more than eight in 10 (83%) people say they completely or somewhat trust recommendations from their friends or family; with that in mind, when you think about it, the damage really can be quite widespread.

The slippery slope of word of mouth

Let’s say you’re a restaurant owner. Someone dines with you, isn’t pleased with their meal and becomes further disgruntled when their complaint isn’t handled to their taste (pun intended). They tell their mum, dad, brother, sister and three closest friends about their experience. Next time all of the above goes out for food they avoid your restaurant and tell their fellow diners why…

It’s a vicious, downhill spiral that could soon turn double figures away from your door.

Now, start that story again in a positive light. You get raving reviews, more customers, and all without spending a penny; it’s the dream scenario.

More and more businesses are understanding the power of referrals, but, unfortunately, sometimes customers need a bit of a nudge (i.e. an incentive) to recommend your product or service to their network. So, here are eight tips to make referrals work for you.

1. Ask

Let’s start simple: if you don’t ask you don’t get. Yes, it’d be great if your customers started shouting about how great you are unprompted, but that just doesn’t always happen.

Make use of your marketing channels and customer touchpoints and actively ask them to refer you to someone they know. If you’re not sure where to start here’s some food for thought:

  • At the end of your onboarding process
  • On social media
  • During (positive) customer service calls
  • In dedicated marketing emails
  • On your collateral, like webpages, receipts, email footers, etc.

2. Choose the right time

If you just missed your monthly target and rocked up to work late twice in five days you probably wouldn’t pick that week to ask for a pay rise, would you?

Well, the same works for referrals. Don’t ask a customer to recommend you if they’ve got an open dispute or haven’t had a chance to see what you’ve got to offer yet. Wait until they’ve had a positive experience and then strike while the iron’s hot - the odds of getting the result you’re after will shoot right up.

3. Make it easy

Whatever industry you’re in and whatever product you sell your customers are busy people. Between their commute, work, meal prep, weekly shop, house chores and potentially children, finding the time to refer might just not feel feasible to them.

So, to stop this from being a deterrent, make your referral journey as easy as possible by:

  • Keeping your instructions short and sweet, and

  • Making your process quick and easy - i.e. limiting the number of fields in the form and/or providing them with a template to forward on to their contacts.

Here’s a great example of a LinkedIn template you could give them:


I don't know if I've mentioned it before, but I've been working with [Your Name] for a few months. The other day, I was talking to him about some of the things that he and I have done, and I realised that I should put you two together. So...

[Referral], meet [Your Name, with a LinkedIn profile URL].

[Your Name], meet [Referral, with a LinkedIn profile URL].

Can I leave the rest to you guys?

Talk to you both later.

4. Offer an incentive

They say there’s no such thing as free in life, right? If you’re struggling to hit the targets you set without an incentive see if applying one helps. It doesn’t just have to be cold hard cash either, it could be:

  • External gift vouchers,
  • A discount off their subscription,
  • A freebie, or
  • Putting their name into a draw.

It might take a bit of trial and error to understand what does and doesn’t make your customers tick so don’t be too disheartened if you don’t see a spike in referrals right away. Experiment with a few different variations (i.e. discount value, type of freebie, outlet for vouchers, etc.) until you find one that does the trick.

That said, try not to chop and change too much. Leave it a decent amount of time (say every three months) so you can build up a bank of meaningful data first - that doesn’t mean you don’t have the autonomy to shake things up a bit if you’re lagging behind one quarter though.

5. Turn it into a campaign

Your referral scheme is a type of marketing so don’t skimp on your assets. Invest in some great artwork, put the time into clever wording, and plan out your activity as you would with any other marketing initiative:

  • Which platforms can you spread the word on?
  • When will you start your messaging?
  • How will you monitor the success?
  • Who’ll be in charge of overseeing everything?
  • Who else in the business needs to know about the campaign?

Not sure where to start spreading? We touched on a few opportunities a little earlier but here’s a more robust list:

  • Direct mail
  • Email signatures
  • Bespoke email campaigns
  • Newsletters
  • Paid and organic social posts
  • Landing pages
  • Website pop-ups
  • Customer service calls
  • Onboarding calls
  • Anniversary emails
  • Offline collateral - like brochures, business cards and flyers.

6. Share referral stories

People can be dubious when it comes to winning prizes or incentives, so make your referral scheme real by sharing stories of people who’ve successfully referred and received a reward in return.

When you’re getting the info for your story, ask questions like:

  • How has our product/service helped you?
  • What did you use your reward for?
  • Would you recommend us again?
  • How did you find our referral process?

All will give you useful nuggets to simultaneously sell your business and promote your process.

7. Exceed expectations

Delivering nothing short of excellence from start to finish is one sure-fire way to win yourself some referrals - and probably for free, too.

So, take an A to Z look at your customer journey and see where improvements can be made, what is and isn’t needed, and regularly refresh all your customer-facing colleagues on what fantastic service looks like - it’s an incentive within an incentive, but you could even look into running an internal campaign for employees who provide the best customer experiences.

8. Refer other companies

If you work with a bunch of partners or suppliers, if applicable, why not make an arrangement whereby you refer them to your customers and they refer you to theirs? Remember to make it a two-way street though, it can’t be all take and no give.

Important caveat: when you send your customers to another company you’re advocating it so only point them to people you know and trust - if you send customers to a company who provides a less-than-satisfactory product, service or experience you could put your relationship with them on the line.

Written by:

Richard King

Richard King

Founder, Product Marketing Alliance

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How to acquire users through referrals