E-commerce emails have three primary purposes: to engage the customer with the brand, to confirm receipt or provide information, or to instigate a customer to take an action. In a referral program, emails need to accomplish all of that and more. A successful email gets the customer excited about both the brand and the referral reward, and gets them talking and sharing about your brand in a way that brings in plenty of new customers.

We help eCommerce brands build their own referral programs. We’ve worked with over thousands of stores, big and small, and generated over $110 million in referral sales, so you can imagine how many emails we’ve sent out in the meantime.

Most of them are pretty great—a member of our Customer Success team works with every customer on improving referral program results, and to offer tips on improving email layout and design and copy. But every once in a while, we’re blown away by the ingenious beauty and creativity of some of these emails and how they manage to accomplish so much with a minimalist look.

There are some basics we won’t go into, like subject lines, ESP deliverability and sender reputation, unsubscribe links and so forth. Let’s take a look at five amazing referral emails and break down what makes them so great.

1. Inform your customers about referral programs.

ZooShoo elegantly lays out the referral rewards and how the program works.

For those of you who’s never heard of a referral program before, an advocate receives a referral link with a special offer they can share with their friends, family or social network. For each friend referred or new purchase made in this way, they receive a reward.

This is a bit of a mouthful to explain to a customer and could clutter up the email with a chunk of text. Luckily, ZooShoo dances around this problem with a gorgeous graphic:

ZooShoo’s referral email explains the program in emoji-inspired graphics

A graphic explanation makes things clear.

Let’s zoom in closer on the first half of the image, which is also on ZooShoo’s refer-a-friend page:

Note that the referral program is explained three times, in three different ways:

  • Hero Image Shouts “Give $10, Get $10”: The pointy heels pointing at the offer help catch the eye and focus the attention
  • Subtitles Clarify the Terms and Conditions: Just to avoid the dispute, the next piece of text spells out the offer will be applied
  • Emoji-Inspired Graphics Explains the Steps: Not only does this spell out the steps but also makes it easier to explain to a friend, say, using a text message with emojis.

Now that their customers understand the referral program and what’s on offer, it’s the best time to strike. Right beneath the explanations, ZooShoo offers three different ways to share, with the referral link and Facebook/Twitter sharing buttons. Their call to action could not be clearer.

You won’t be surprised if I told you ZooShoo sold shoes—it’s in the name and clearly represented in the images. But there’s another way to take branding and visual design to the next level and really make your email pop.

2. Make a gorgeous first impression.

POPRAGEOUS makes compelling design choices to showcase their brand story.

First impressions are important, and much like their leggings, POPRAGEOUS makes a striking first impression.

Just like the brand, POPRAGEOUS’s referral emails are striking, vivid and eye-catching

Based in LA, POPRAGEOUS offer trendy printed apparel inspired by art and pop culture. Their strong visual designs are colorful, energetic and eye-catching, and this is reflected in the elegance of their email that seems to pop out of the screen:

  • Bold black border around a white background and simple black text? Check!
  • Beautiful hero image featuring vivid colors and bold, POPRAGEOUS outfits? Check!
  • Enthusiastic copy that sounds like founder Cher Park is chatting directly to you? Check!

Bold branding for a bold brand.

The fashion eCommerce landscape is hypercompetitive, and branding becomes difficult when there are just so many brands and clothing designs can be copied or mimicked. POPRAGEOUS stands out with its visual style (how they look) and personality (how they speak to their customers), and it’s even echoed in their referral landing page:

POPRAGEOUS helps you look good in front of your friends; not just with the spectacular outfits you’ve got on, but also when you offer them a POPFERRAL so they can look great too.

People purchases from POPRAGEOUS identify with their brand identity; youthful, energetic and full of flair. Our next email example also plays strongly on the consumer’s identity but adds a timely twist of their own.

3. Catch your customer at the right time.

Riff Raff & Co times their referral email offer for the maximum response rate.

Riff Raff & Co make special toys for toddlers which engage with three of their most important senses; sight, touch, and sound. Instead of looking at their email layout, but we’re going to tear down something special they do—the timing of their referral offer.

Right after you complete checkout for a purchase, a pop-up appears with their referral offer, at the same time this email is sent to your inbox:

Riff Raff & Co catches their customers with an email right after purchase, offering an exclusive referral reward. Also, note the huge Share on Facebook button

Some companies choose to send out referral offers after the product is received because it takes some time for the customer to receive the product via shipping, and to start using and fall in love with the product. Riff Raff & Co turns it all on its head by reaching out to customers right after the purchase, when their parental pride and identity is strongest.

A proud parent is a proud customer and a proud advocate.

Imagine you’re a new parent. You want the best for your child. You probably also know a few other new parents, with whom you’ll swap tips and ideas and share support. You’ve just bought a toy comforter your child will love—what better time than to share it with a friend? And, look: if five of them take you up on the offer, you can get a second, spare, for free.

The customers’ will have the strongest connection with the brand right after their purchase. Reaching out to them during this time will make the biggest impression on them—and even if they don’t share the links immediately, they will return to the email after they have had some time with the product.

Happy parents sharing their Riff Raff & Co experience on Instagram

The results speak for themselves; just search online for intrepid parents posting blogs about their Riff Raff & Co toy, or even making video reviews on YouTube! You can read a deep dive with revenue numbers on Sumo.com.

Riff Raff & Co also offers a subtle twist on their referral program with tiered rewards. Advocates don’t receive any benefit, at least for the first four referred purchases – they are only rewarded for the fifth purchase. This adds a bit of impetus for the parents to share more widely—they’ll need to reach five purchases for their reward. But our next email shows how you can encourage customers to max out their referral reward tiers.

3. Stack the benefits of referrals.

YouFoodz dangles the reward offers for maximum effectiveness.

Is there no such thing as a free lunch? Well, if you refer three friends, YouFoodz offers you an entire week of free lunches. And you’ll know this from the first email you get from them:

1 friend = 1 meal, 2 friends = 2 meals, 3 friends = 7 meals!!!

Like with the Riff Raff & Co example, YouFoodz dangles the most attractive reward tier in the lead image and also in the explainer graphic. The user will aim for the big prize, but even if they don’t hit three referrals, they will be reassured that they will still win something so long as they make a successful referral.

The minimum reward of one free lunch appears especially achievable, considering the price point (10 AUD), the immediate value to the friend (who doesn’t love a free lunch?), and the appeal to a broader audience (people who need to eat lunch), compared to parents of young children.

A pre-written message makes copy and pasting easy—and clicking the Facebook Share button easier!

To encourage users that rewards are within reach, YouFoodz follows up with a pre-written message and a Facebook share button so that users don’t need to think – they just need to click. With the lead image featuring YouFoodz meals and promising a week of free lunch, the call-to-action is set up for success and maximum conversion.

(As an aside, the #WinWin hashtag looks like a missed opportunity to use a unique, branded hashtag and to get the promotion trending.)

Whereas ZooShoo used the space in its email to explain a referral program, YouFoodz bets on their audience being familiar with such programs, instead focusing on the multiple reward tiers available.

YouFoodz showcases the escalating reward tiers and makes claiming a free lunch as simple as one click.

But there’s an even better referral email that encompasses all of the above, that makes an offer that’s not just electric, but absolutely Ludicrous.

5. All of the above, plus an unbeatable value proposition.

Tesla makes you an incredible offer you won’t refuse.

We should clarify before we start with a disclaimer: Tesla built their own referral program and has gone through multiple iterations.

We are focusing here on the first and original referral email, but actually, we don’t even have the actual email. All we have is the copy, posted to Reddit by an enthusiastic user (corroborated by news sites). But this is the most spectacular referral email we have read ever:

Via the r/TeslaMotors community on Reddit. Note the cheeky referral link being shared.

To provide context for the program, a Model S Tesla (circa 2015) cost US$75,000 for the cheapest model—this is not for everyone, and sharing on Facebook will not have the same impact.

At the same time, the community around Tesla is an extremely tightly-knit group of enthusiasts, many of whom have a genuine interest in the car and have shared about it through word-of-mouth. In a way, their identity as proud owners of Tesla cars is more important than a discount of $1,000 (slightly over 1.3%).

To this small group of committed, engaged customers, Musk delivers the right message. He spends the first four paragraphs laying out his thought process and rationale for the program, and reaffirming that Tesla does not spend on marketing.

The referral rewards aren’t even mentioned until the final two paragraphs, and then only as an afterthought. In doing so, Musk puts the focus on Tesla’s brand mission and the goal of growing the community of Tesla Owners. While the first tier reward ($1,000 off) is negligible, the second tier reward (tour and party at the Gigafactory) will be extremely attractive to the community.

Of course, offering an exclusive Founder Series Model X (not available to the public) is just the icing on the cake. This top tier reward (which was claimed!) was so effective the second iteration of the program offered an exclusive Ludicrous enabled Model S P90D.

How effective was this referral email letter? In Europe, the winner of the first two referral programs was Bjorn Nylan, the operator of a YouTube Channel—unsurprisingly named ‘Tesla Bjorn’—who has since created 557 different videos featuring the Tesla.

And how effective was this referral email at selling a $75,000 car? Sylvain Juteau of Canada, (who won the first and second iterations in the North America category) estimated referrals led to over 5,000 sales or a third of all cars delivered in the 4th quarter.

And of course, there were over 100,000 views for Bjorn’s video on a robot at the Gigafactory.

Ultimately, claims Juteau, most Tesla owners were only able to refer one or two friends, meaning that most participants only received a 1% discount. From Tesla’s point of view, though, if every customer referred a friend, their customer base will have at least doubled.

Turning it into a contest with incredible prizes was one aspect, but the key-takeaway from Musk’s email must be the way he appealed with emotive, motivational language.

Wrap up

Five very different emails from five very different brands, each of which focuses on a different aspect of the customer-brand relationship and adds their own tweaks to the referral email:

  • ZooShoo used emoji-inspired graphics to explain the referral program
  • POPRAGEOUS combined image, design and copy to make their emails distinctively branded
  • Riff Raff & Co played with the timing of the email to catch customers at their most engaged and committed
  • YouFoodz showcased the three tiers of its referral rewards and made each tier look easily achievable
  • Tesla drove one-third of quarterly sales by offering a 1.3% referral discount …and also by appealing directly to customers’ love for the brand, by explaining the value of their referral program, and offering an incredible exclusive prize

A willingness to try something new and find a new angle for persuasion helped these five brands write effective emails that moved customers.