Newsletter Referral Programs: An Actionable Guide

Learn how to build, run, and improve your newsletter referral program.

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Social media and search engine algorithms are drowning the voices of millions of creators, writers, and journalists.

As a result, these people turned back to good ol’ email to grow and keep in touch with their audience.

Email newsletters are booming, and every day more and more creators ride the wave.

In this guide, you’ll learn how to grow an engaged email list with a newsletter referral program.

Enjoy!

Newsletter Referral Programs: An actionable guide

Prologue

Creators, Writers, Journalists; what do they all have in common?

The fear of not being heard.

Writing something worth reading takes years of practice. You also have to put up with the pain of looking at an empty screen, unable to write.

Don’t even get me started about what happens after publishing– the anxiety of having to top yourself, the thought that this was your best work to date.

And as these weren’t enough, you also have to face social media and search engine algorithms.

Obeying the needs of a bot has come to be one of the biggest nightmares for people producing any content for online use, as most of the time, it doesn’t get in front of their audience.

As a result, potential readers never click on your article. They don’t ‘Like’ (sic) or engage in any way with your post, a post that could potentially improve their lives.

And there you are, back at the rat race again.

That’s a bleak intro, but there’s hope; because content consumers are also tired of being bombarded with headlines. They know that understanding a topic takes more than a keyword optimized article. They are looking for authority, a mentor.

That allows us an opportunity to overcome algorithms and land right in front of our fans.

For businesses, long gone are the days when every marketer out there was screaming “content marketing.”

Almost every type of business is on board- from eCommerce to startups. There’s even the up and coming Newsletter business (more on that later).

This brings me to this article’s main point/guide/whatever keyword Google wants me to put here.

At Viral Loops, we’ve been using our content to get more eyeballs from day zero. It’s not only a way for us to get clients but also an integral part of our brand. 

Over the years, we’ve tried numerous distribution methods for our content, but our #1 source of traffic has always been our email newsletters.

I guess it’s been the same for numerous other companies because the more we talked to our clients, the more it became apparent that an email list is crucial for your brand to overcome algorithms and be heard.

That’s why we built a product that will not only help you to maintain your relationship with your readers but also build your newsletter list faster:

The Newsletter Referral.

This product is a tool that will help you build a newsletter referral program; YES, a referral program that lives inside your email newsletter.

Throughout this guide, I’ll share all the knowledge that we gathered about referral programs and help you build your own newsletter referral campaign.

The end goal is for you to have a clear understanding of how you can get new subscribers for your list and get new customers with the combined power of word of mouth and email.

 Enjoy!

Newsletters: Past, Present & Future

Before we embark on this journey, we have to define what we’re talking about.

What is an email newsletter?

An email newsletter is an email sent by companies/brands to a subscriber list compiled by existing customers or business leads that gave consent to receive marketing material from said company/brand. Email newsletters traditionally are used for promoting new deals, but in recent years they became a distribution channel for tutorials, guides, articles, announcements, etc.
 
But what we often find nowadays in our inbox is just a modern version of something that started long before high-speed internet connections.

The birth of the newsletter

Around 1440, a goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Although the first printed book in history is the Diamond Sutra, dated 868 A.D., our friend Jo really nailed it.
 
From the moment the printing press became available, it only took about 300 years for the first newsletter to make its appearance, with 1704 ‘The Boston News-Letter.’ More and more publications like that emerged and turned into what we know today as newspapers.
 
I guess that printed media became quite a sensation because, in 1734, an O.G. content marketer named Benjamin Franklin (yeah, the guy on the 100dollar bill) published the ‘Poor Richard’s Almanack,’ an attempt to promote his printing business.
 
Soon, the Edison Electric Lighting Company jumped into the game, followed by Johnson & Johnson, and finally Michelin with their ‘Michelin Guide.’
 
Printed newsletters kept going strong for about 250 years- that’s when email came into play. 
 
Actually, my first personal experience with a newsletter came in a printed format. One of Europe’s biggest heavy metal record labels- Nuclear Blast, sent a printed newsletter catalog every six months. I can’t even think about how many hours I’ve spent going through these catalogs. 
 
Funny story: One of my best friends (and the guy behind the design of Viral Loops) introduced me to this newsletter.

Enter the email newsletter

Where were we? Yes, email newsletters.
 
In 1996 Hotmail introduced free email for everyone (btw, isn’t strange that the first free email provider became viral with a referral program, and now you’re reading about email referrals? ), and the game changed completely.
 
Marketers saw an opportunity, and companies of various sizes started sending emails to prospects. A few years later, email was established as a profitable marketing channel, but people became able to measure their campaigns’ performance.
 
But every rose has a thorn. Email became saturated, and by 2005 about 50% of emails sent were believed to spam.

Email marketing changed

With the introduction of social media, our content consumption habits changed drastically, leading many people to speculate that email marketing is dead. But that’s far from the truth.
 
Yes, inboxes are being spammed, Open Rates and Clicks have decreased. But did you know that 99% of email users check their email every day?
99% of email users check their email every day
Or that 58% of users check their email before they check out social media or the news?
 
That means that people are looking for an excellent email to read. Now, here’s where it gets even more interesting. As I wrote in this guide’s prologue, readers are not just looking for information;  they are looking for authority, a mentor. But not only do they look for individuals (writers, journalists, podcasters), but they are also willing to support them.
 
It’s exactly this that paved the way for Patreon, which eventually brought us Substack, a newsletter platform that allows writers and creators to make money through subscriptions.
 
This model proves 2 points:
  1. Email remains relevant as ever.
  2. It provides opportunities for profit and growth.
 

Why build a Newsletter referral

From what you read in the previous paragraphs, it’s evident that owning an email newsletter effectively communicates with people and cost-effectively brings new business.
 
The chances are that you already have a list with a bunch of newsletter subscribers. The challenge is to grow it and keep it clean (which is often overlooked).
 
Although I’m not planning to focus on the latter, I will say that a good way to keep an email list clean is by segmenting subscribers by interest and unsubscribing inactive users every year (e.g., people didn’t open any email in the past 12 months).
 
Now, there are quite a few ways to grow the number of newsletter subscribers:
  1. Create and distribute search-friendly articles and guides (like the one you’re reading)
  2. Social Media posts.
  3. Giveaways.
  4. Exit-intent pop-ups.
  5. Referrals
I think that it goes without saying that the cornerstone of every email list is the content you distribute through it. In other words, you can’t expect your list to grow if your content doesn’t stick with readers. They will give it a shot, get disappointed, and then either ignore you or unsubscribe.
 
The same applies to your social media posts. You need great (and optimized for the specific platform) content and great design.
 
Most of the ways to grow your audience require distributing content in an external platform like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Google (yes, search engines are external platforms). The problem is that these platforms are assets that you don’t own.
 
If said platform decided not to show your post, you’d have to bribe them to do so with paid advertising. I don’t have anything against buying placement- on the contrary, I think it’s essential, but it’s not scalable.
 
Email is the only asset you really own in terms of distribution; you decide when and what to show in a specific segment of people. And it’s within the power of those people to talk about you to their friends and network.
 
In other words, your existing audience is the best chance you have in expanding your list.
Ways to grow your newsletter subscriber list
 
That’s where referral marketing comes into play. It would be insane not to reward your readers to refer their friends.
 
In the past, if you wanted to build a referral program for your newsletter, you had to build a landing page to gather sign-ups and then manually send a unique referral link to a user. That belongs to the past, thanks to our new template, The Newsletter Referral.
 
Now you can run your referral programs entirely from your email campaigns and reward your subscribers when they refer their friends.
 
Let’s take a look at how some publishing companies that harness the power of newsletter referral to get new subscribers.

Companies that integrated a referral program in their email newsletter

TheHustle

TheHustle is not only one of the first cases that successfully combined a newsletter with a referral program, but it’s become one of the top case studies about referral marketing in general.
 
Initially, the publishing company uses its referral program to get its first 300K email subscribers. However, they are still using it today (right now, their subscriber count sits around 1M).
 
Although the readers of TheHustle’s email newsletter didn’t have access to the referral program directly from inside the emails (probably due to the lack of technology), ambassadors received their referral link and notifications for successful referrals via email.
 
TheHustle used a multi-tiered rewarding system (a.k.a the milestone referral) for their referral program, offering a wide range of rewards; access to a private community, branded merch, free event tickets, etc. 
 
Note:
Make sure you don’t miss the section about choosing effective referral rewards.

Morning Brew

 
Their daily email newsletter became a sensation, and readers couldn’t help but share the publication with their network. Morning Brew’s newsletter goes out six days a week, but it’s so good that people want more.
 
Based on that, Morning Brew sends an extra email newsletter every Sunday only to the people that participate in the email referral program and bring 3 friends to subscribe.
 
Their referral program uses the Milestone referral system to reward referrals, and it’s fully integrated into all the newsletters that go out.
 
At the bottom of each email, there’s a dedicated section (unique to every user) that includes the user’s unique referral link and some sharing options (email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn).
 
Apart from the extra email newsletter, the referral rewards include branded merch, access to a private community, but the most appealing is the free trip to the Brew HQ.
 
Note:
Make sure you don’t miss the section about choosing effective referral rewards.

TheSkimm

TheSkimm gave a little twist to email referral programs; to join it, you first have to prove yourself an ambassador.
 
If you want to get access to the referral rewards, you need to convince 10 of your friends to become subscribers. It’s a rather strange approach, but putting a gate on the referral program keeps away that land there just for the prizes.
 
About 10% of TheSkimm’s revenue comes from referrals, and keeping the community closed keeps their data clean and their conversion rates accurate.
 
After completing the ‘initiation test,’ users can further invite their network to join.
 
Similar to Morning Brew, TheSkimm has a milestone referral program in place and fully merged with their emails.
 
If you want more about how TheSkimm uses their unique referral program to grow their business, read our full case study. It’s a great read for publishers and writers.

How to build a Newsletter Referral program

The referral system

Before you get down with implementing your newsletter referral program, you have to design how you will reward your readers for inviting their friends.
 
Let’s see how your referral program should work end to end:
1. Someone subscribes to your newsletter and enters the referral program.
2. They get a unique URL.
3. They share their URL with a friend.
4. The friend subscribes as well.
5. The initial uses gets rewarded.
 
You could reward your readers for bringing just one of their friends to subscribe. But is it enough?
 
All the cases of newsletter businesses we saw above use multi-tiered referral systems; the more referrals someone makes, the more they are rewarded.
How a referral program works
We saw that TheSkimm requires 10 successful referrals before allowing a reader to unlock the main referral program.
 
You don’t have to go down that road. The Gist uses a straightforward Milestone referral program, inspired by Harry’s razors.
 
As you can see in the image below, The Gist offers 8 different rewards. Each reward requires a different amount of referrals to unlock.
the gist referral page
Creating a multi-tiered referral system from scratch can be a nightmare. But we made it ridiculously easy with The Newsletter Referral. All you have to do is decide the rewards you’ll offer and the number of referrals that each reward requires.
 
Make sure you read the chapter below about referral rewards.

The landing page

I don’t think that there’s a need to explain how important dedicated landing pages are for any marketing effort. The only thing that’s important for you to know is that you need one for grabbing emails.
 
Now, you have a choice; You can either build one landing page for referral traffic that includes a form that also includes information about the referral program, or you can only show the form to the people landing on the page and inform them about the referral program after they subscribe.
 
TheHustle chooses the latter approach; whenever someone visits their website (either from a referral or not), they see the subscription form.
thehustle landing page

The same applies to Popular Info, but they also have a dedicated page for those that participate in their referral program.

The page acts as a dashboard where participants can overview their progress towards a reward, the number of successful referrals, and share options.

popular information referral page

Embedding the program in your emails

Until recently, a newsletter email referral program could be communicated only via links to landing pages (similar to ‘The Hub’ described above).
 
You couldn’t embed the referral program inside your email campaigns. Well, technically, you could; but it required a lot of manual work and a developer. It takes time and resources.
 
Our new template was designed based on newsletters’ needs, and by using it, you can embed your referral widget directly inside your emails.
 
Now your newsletter can include a section like the DONUT included inside their emails:
thDONUT email referral widget
That way, your subscribers won’t have to go to another page to see their referral count or share their unique URL; they will do it from inside your email.
 

Choosing the right reward for your newsletter referral

I’ve said it in the past, and I’ll say it again; aside from being sure that your referral system works correctly, picking the right rewards to incentivize your subscribers to invite their friends is the easiest way to ensure that you’ll build a successful referral program and get more email subscribers.
 
There are a few things you should consider when picking your referral rewards:
  1. Don’t give rewards that don’t align with your brand identity. Yes, you can get more email subscribers by offering a new iPhone, but the goal is not just to expand your subscriber count; As I’ll explain later, your newsletter list should consist of active readers.
  2. A good referral reward is something that acts as an extra incentive to get your readers to refer their friends to your email newsletter. You want people to share their referral link because they enjoy your product, and also can benefit from your referral program. As I said in a previous section, the quality of your work comes first.
  3. Spot the things that your readers enjoy about what you do, and pick rewards that enforce that experience.
With these in mind, let’s get you some inspiration for referral rewards.
Tips for choosing referral rewards

Free membership

Whether you’re an online publication, a SaaS business, or really any type of subscription-based company, you can use your newsletter referral program not only to get new subscribers but also boost your conversion rate (more about that in the section about the important metrics of your referral program).
 
Ask people to refer their friends in exchange for a free month of your product. You might have email subscribers that never used your product or service. Giving them the opportunity to try it for free could potentially turn them into paying customers in the future.
 
The proposed amount of referrals for this reward: 10-20 

Exclusive newsletter

If people already enjoy reading your articles, they likely want more. If you can write more, you can build a separate newsletter only for your most loyal readers.
 
Morning Brew uses this as their first-tier reward. They unlock that option when a user invites three friends. In my interview with Tyler from Morning Brew, he commented on it:
 
“Basically, the whole thing is how can you get people from zero to one. Three is low enough that it seems very achievable for you to turn around in your office and find three coworkers, it’s very easy to do. If you’re our core-demographic and you enjoyed reading our newsletter six days a week, giving you the option to read more in exchange for three referrals is a very good incentive for you.
 
The proposed amount of referrals for this reward: 1-3

Free eBooks

This doesn’t need much explanation. Marketers use free eBooks as lead magnets for years. Why not use one as a referral reward. If you don’t have an eBook to give, I bet you already have the material for it lying around.
 
Take a bunch of blog posts that correlate to each other, merge them, give them a great title, and hire someone on Fiverr to design a cover and format it. There you; now you have an eBook.
 
The Proposed amount of referrals for this reward: 1-3

Access to exclusive communities

Humans need a sense of belonging somewhere. That’s why people still get married, although the divorce rates are off the chart, and Redditors go back to the platform even though they hate each other.
 
Offering your readers the chance to meet and engage with like-minded people is low-hanging fruit for getting more subscribers through word of mouth.
 
TheHustle gives access to people to their private Facebook community for 4 referrals. You can set up an online community in minutes. You can use Slack, a Discord server, or a Facebook group to get the party started.
 
The Proposed amount of referrals for this reward: 2-4

Merchandise

We all love swag, and branded merchandise is an effective reward for your referral program. You can go with the tested route of generic merch- like t-shirts, socks, mugs, hats, or hoodies, or you can think about what your brand represents and offer a suitable piece of merch.
 
For example, if you’re a publication about nutrition, you can offer branded boxes for meal prep.
 
The Proposed amount of referrals for this reward: 5+

Early access

If you have a new product, book, or literally any coming up, introducing a prelaunch campaign to your existing subscribers might give a great boost to your subscriber count. Again, if you have people hooked with your emails, it’s really possible to get on board as early adopters or customers- after inviting their friends to join your referral program, of course.
 
The Proposed amount of referrals for this reward: 1-2

Virtual coffee with your team

Do you know how people form lines or pay extra for a meet and greet with their favorite artist?
 
If a person likes what you do, it’s possible that they would love to meet you in person. You can provide them the opportunity to have a private chat with you. All they have to do is to make a referral (or two). 
 
You can organize private one-on-one chats over coffee, or you can hang out with a lot of people at the same time.
 
The Proposed amount of referrals for this reward: 3-20 (depending on how ‘famous’ you are)

Limited-time giveaways

Earlier I wrote: “Don’t give rewards that don’t align with your brand identity.”
 
Although I stand by what I said, you can make an exception for your most loyal fans by running a giveaway for a limited time. Anything goes in terms of prizes: laptops, smartphones, vacation packages, cars. The only limit is your budget.
 
Make sure you don’t make this giveaway the core of your referral program. It would probably be better if you reveal the giveaway only to a specific segment of users.
 
The Proposed amount of referrals for this reward: 1-2000

Internal currency

This excellent mostly for SaaS and services that charge their clients for expanding their experience with the product.
 
 
You can find a similar way to integrate that kind of logic into your email referral program.
 
e.g., If you offer multi-tiered paid subscriptions, you can upgrade your users’ subscriptions when they invite a specific number of friends.
 
The Proposed amount of referrals for this reward: 10-20

Measuring the performance of your newsletter referral program

Like any marketing campaign, an email newsletter referral program needs to be constantly monitored and measured.
 
In the past, I’ve written about the 5 most important referral marketing metrics. Here’s a quick recap:
  1. The Viral Coefficient (K-Factor).
  2. Participant Conversion Rate.
  3. Participant Share Rate.
  4. Invitation Click-Through Rate.
  5. Invitation Conversion Rate.
The Viral Coefficient (k-factor) is the total number of registrations per unique, inviting subscriber.
 
The participant conversion rate indicates how many unique visits to your campaign’s page turn into subscribers. If this number is low, you might have to reconsider the copywriting on your referral program landing page- also, make sure your referral rewards are a good fit for what you’re trying to achieve.
 
Your Participant share rate is the average number of unique shares per participant. There are a few things you can do to ensure that this number stays high. e.g., Give more sharing options, or offer high-value rewards to super ambassadors.
 
Btw, this works best in Milestone-type campaigns with multiple rewards. Our Newsletter Referral Template works exactly like that!
 
With the Invitation Click-Through Rate and Invitation Conversion Rate, things are fairly simple. They represent the percentage of people who click your participant’s invitation and the percentage of the people becoming subscribers from a referral, respectively.

The most important metric of your email newsletter referral program

One can expect that the most important metric of a newsletter referral program would be a number related to growing the list’s subscriber count.
 
That’s half the truth.
 
Even though such a referral program’s factual success is measured by its impact on the growth of an email list, you have to always keep in mind the primary goal of having a newsletter in the first place; engagement.
 
Newsletter referral programs don’t simply aim at building a subscriber base but rather building an engaged one.
 
Jenny Rothenberg explains this better in her article Engagement beats scale: Inside Morning Brew’s approach to subscriber growth.”
 
I quote from the article:
“Unsurprisingly, we’ve also seen that after a reader refers a friend, their engagement with the newsletter strengths and their lifetime with us is on average much longer than that of a reader who never refers.”
 
What’s also really interesting is that New York Times newsletter subscribers consume twice as much content, spend 80% more time on sites, and can make up a big chunk of direct traffic if approached right.
Like Morning Brew, you should monitor how your email referral program affects your newsletter’s overall engagement.
 
Engagement requires quality subscribers, and the best way you have to attain them is by structuring your referral rewards so that only your most loyal fan would care about them enough to refer their friends.