A wide tree illustrating referral program ideas helping to outgrow your competition

Competition is a natural obstacle for any industry, but it also can facilitate inspired innovation (like referral program ideas) and help develop your most successful initiatives. However, outgrowing your competition requires a strategy. In its simplest form, consider how trees handle their natural competition.

“Trees have different strategies to deal with competing neighbors. Some grow quickly and tall, overshadowing the others, but die young. Others grow more slowly, but outlive the fast growing ones and cast shade on them over a longer period,” says Nickaus Zimmermann from the Swiss Federal Institute of Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL.

Both these strategies have their cons. But by combining the right referral program ideas companies are able to harness the high velocity growth of the first strategy and combine it with the long life of the second strategy to obtain to a solid foundation for revenue generation.

To distinguish a referral strategy that will provide you with inspired and constant growth, let’s explore some tried and true referral program ideas. Jump to the section you’re interested in or read through to get the whole picture.

5 referral program ideas from companies who have succeeded

Referral program ideas #1: Have your referral program enable key departments
A main component of referral program success is making sure that sales and customer success/service is enabled and has the tools to support the referral program.

Trisha Winter, CMO of Amplifinity referral software, notes that “The companies that have tremendous success in launching a referral program are those that include the people in your organization (sales and customer service/success) that already have personal relationships with your designated advocates in the launch. If those people have the ability to directly reach out and invite perspective advocates to the referral program, then that program has a much higher rate of success.”

In RingCentral’s experience, integration with a CRM was a must for sales. The collaboration needed between sales and marketing means that the two way communication between marketing and sales software is crucial for creating a seamless referral lead flow. This allows sales to reach out to customers they already are engaged with and personally invite them to the program. In addition, verbal referrals allowed the RingCentral sales team to create a constant flow of trackable referral leads while adapting to customers’ preferred referral method.

For ADP, sales ownership of customer advocates and their referrals helped increase sales participation. By having the referral lead gets routed to the advocate’s sales rep instead of the normal lead routing rules, it benefits both the advocate and the sales rep. This is because:

  • The customer advocate want to refer their friend or peer to the sales rep they have built a relationship with so that they know their referral will be as well taken care of as they are.
  • Lead routing or lead ownership incentivizes sales to better foster relationships with customers. increase customer participation in the program and nurture referrals. This is based off the knowledge that when their advocate refers someone they stand to gain a commission from that referral.


    • Look for a system that has the flexibility to enable sales to drive participation in the referral program.
    • Ensure that your referral program can adapt to your advocates preferred referral method.
    • Implement referral lead routing/ownership within your referral program to increase advocate engagement and incentivize sales to take better care of advocates and referrals.

Referral program ideas #2: Design authentic and engaging referral promotions

An important element of promotions is making sure the promotions speak to your advocate group and are a consistent representation of your current branding. DIRECTV has experienced a very high rate of referral success from their promotions. This is due to their creative referral marketing ideas executed through video and website promotions that catch customers’ attention with raunchy humor. This type of promotion aligns with DIRECTV’s overall branding.

On the other hand, TSYS uses their video to increase awareness. Through a clear and concise message they explained the benefits of their referral program and how to use it. This video avoids any humorous themes and instead quickly explains to advocates the advantages of referring. The minimal animation and quirky music keeps the promotion light and informative without going off brand.


  • If humor is not part of your current brand guidelines, don’t try to include it in your referral program. Keep your promotions authentic.
  • You can always try to be lighthearted instead of comical.
  • Identify promotional channels that have worked in the past and use them to gain traction.
  • Have the promotions emphasize the benefits of referring to your advocate group.

Referral program ideas #3: Incentivize and empower sales to drive marketing promotions

The most important part of a referral program promotional strategy is keeping the program at the forefront of customer or partners’ minds. Any company that chooses to go the launch it and leave it route will not have success in generating referrals. One of the keys to keeping your referral program at the top of mind for customers and partners is getting sales to drive promotions.

For instance, Cable ONE Business has successful made their sales team a part of marketing’s referral program promotional strategy. They have done this by:

  • Creating marketing collateral in the form of hardcopy brochures for all sales reps to hand out to partners so upon talking to their partners they had something tangible to give to them.
  • Having marketing design program specific branding for the referral promotions which were put up around the office to drive sales reps’ promotional engagement.
  • Creating a rewards program that awards sales reps points for referrals which can then be used on an online store similar to amazon.
  • Rewarding successful sales referrals by giving sales associates 1x that of the referral customer’s first bill.
  • Creating a separate bathroom campaign where fliers where put up in all the stalls with what they referred to as ‘cheesy pickup lines’ that sales could use to engage customers.
  • Implementing a special offer for sales to earn up to $4,000 during a specific time period by hitting revenue goals with one requirement being they submit at least 4 referrals
  • Creating a relationship approach for sales that included conference calls and home visits to explain the program which ended up quadrupled referrals. This referral program ideas delivered what had been a month’s worth of referrals in one week.

RingCentral was another business that found success in using their sales team to promote referral marketing collateral. RingCentral’s marketing team created a special offer in the form of a raffle that advertised to their customers that for every referral submitted during a three month period a customer would have another entry put into the raffle to win one of two drones. This worked to increase advocate enrollment and referrals.


  • Special offers to sales helps re-invigorate sales participation.
  • A relationship-oriented approach supported by marketing where there is a 1-1 interaction has greater success.
  • Incentivizing sales is as important as incentivizing advocates.
  • Create special offers that sales can promote to customers.

Referral program ideas #4: Research your competition

Study what competitors in their space are doing. The success of referral marketing ideas is many times not as generalized as one might think and it can be specific to an industry. Often you’re not the first to try referral marketing. A competitor’s past inspiration and execution of their referral program ideas can help guide you in your own development.

For instance, Citrix researched how their competition was incentivizing their referral program and that is how they landed on offering 20% of the annual value of the deal.


  • Look into referral strategies that have and haven’t worked in your industry.
  • If you are the first one in your space initiating a referral program, evaluate your customer base and mold your referral program to fit their customer journey and expectations.

Referral program ideas #5: Create a structured referral incentive

When deciding on a reward to increase referral leads, many companies originally try to go what they consider the inexpensive route by offering swag. While this will get a bit more participation, most business professionals have branded coffee mugs falling out of the kitchen cabinets. With this strategy, you’re looking at a one-time referral at best. Meaning, a customer doesn’t want your branded blanket and backpack and coffee mug (No hard feelings).

ADP has had tremendous success from their referral incentive program. Upon analysis, ADP determined their likely average number of successful referrals per customers per year was a little over one. Based on this they implemented an escalating reward structure that offered a $100 credit for each of the first three referrals, with the fourth offering the highly prized free payroll for a year. This worked as intended, making the average successful referral per advocate rise significantly. The escalating forth referral incentive acknowledges the extra effort the advocate has to put in to get the fourth referral and provides them with a reward that would be highly valuable to their group of advocates.


  • Evaluate the likely number of successful referrals/advocate and create escalating rewards to motivate advocates to take the extra effort.
  • Remember that not all rewards have to be a form of cash. Charitable donation or training credits can also be valuable to certain advocates.
  • If you have multiple types of rewards you want to try considering adding reward choice to your referral development so every potential advocate can gain value from the referral program.

To get more detailed referral marketing ideas, explore additional referral marketing resources to help spark your imagination and build your referral program.