Looking for a way to get more email newsletter subscribers? A newsletter referral program can help quickly grow your list. By rewarding existing subscribers for sharing the newsletter with others, you can tap into one of the most effective promotion strategies – personal word-of-mouth recommendations. In this article, we cover the benefits of a referral program for your email newsletter, how to set up an email referral program, and break down today’s most successful newsletter referral program examples.

What is a newsletter referral program?

Referral programs use strategic word-of-mouth marketing to help businesses across all industries acquire new customers. In a newsletter referral program, you motivate your existing subscribers to recommend the newsletter to people they know, by offering valuable rewards. These types of personal referrals are proven to bring in the most value. A study by Nielsen reveals 84% of people think word-of-mouth recommendations are the most trusted form of advertising.

For more proof that email newsletter referral programs work, check out these stats from successful companies:

  • The Morning Brew referral program helped the newsletter grow from 100,000 to 1.5 million subscribers in just 18 months. 30% of Morning Brew’s initial subscribers came from referrals, and referrals have a conversion rate of over 85%. 
  • The Hustle gained 300,000 subscribers in just a few months thanks to its successful referral program.
  • theSkimm was one of the first to start a newsletter referral system. Today, it attributes 20% of subscribers to referrals.

Of course, not every newsletter will experience this kind of exponential growth from a referral system. But when done right, newsletter referral programs are a proven way to gain more subscribers through people who already read and enjoy your content.

7 benefits of newsletter referral programs

Why are newsletter referral programs so successful? Below, we list some of the top benefits of running referral programs for an email newsletter: newsletter referral program benefits 1. Boosts brand awareness: A referral program motivates subscribers to spread the word about your newsletter. When it comes to digital media channels, such as an email newsletter, exposure can quickly increase brand awareness.

2. Effectively acquires new subscribers: Newsletter referral systems work because your subscriber’s peers trust what they say more than they trust a company’s mass promotions. When it’s a friend or family member referring someone to your newsletter, that person is much more likely to hit subscribe.

3. Empowers subscribers as advocates: By rewarding your subscribers for referring others, a referral program motivates more people to spread the word about you as often as possible.

4. Increases subscriber loyalty: Since there’s already a relationship between your existing subscribers and their referrals, a referral program brings in new subscribers who are more likely to stick around for a long period of time. Your existing subscribers already have a shared interest (the topic of your newsletter!). When their friends and family members subscribe to the same newsletter, they can talk about your content with someone they know (and have even more reason to keep reading).

5. Creates a viral loop: As we’ve seen with The Hustle and Morning Brew referral programs, this type of marketing can create a viral loop. In a viral loop, subscribers refer their friends, who then become subscribers and refer their own friends. The cycle keeps going to create a system where your subscriber base continues to grow.

6. Reduces subscriber acquisition costs: Growing a newsletter is all about acquiring new subscribers without breaking the bank. Referral programs encourage existing subscribers to promote your newsletter for free, so the only money you spend is to set up your program and reward subscribers. And since you’ll only give rewards for successful sign-ups, a referral program costs much less than ads and other promotion methods.

7. Harnesses word of mouth as a channel: A good newsletter referral system lets you track your word of mouth in an actionable way, and use the data to improve your success. After all, your happy email subscribers are already talking about you. Why not make the most of that free publicity with a marketing program you can measure?

Referral software for newsletters [Free Tools]

These referral tools for newsletters are a free and easy way to help you start your referral program.

Free Tools + Services:

Want a fully automated referral program for your newsletter business? Run your referral program with us at Referral Rock. Find out how we can build your program with you (and tailor it to your unique needs)

Before you start a program

Some companies may not be ready for a referral program. If you’re considering a newsletter referral program, it’s best if you have the following factors in place:

A strong, satisfied base of subscribers

  • Your subscribers drive the newsletter referral system. It’s best to have a good base of subscribers who already like your content and are willing to recommend you.

Familiarity with your existing subscribers

  • What are their demographics and interests?
  • What types of rewards will motivate them to refer?
  • What platforms do your readers use to communicate with their friends (email, social media, text, etc.)?

A unique value you offer to subscribers

  • What motivates your subscribers to sign up?
  • What motivates them to keep reading?
  • Keep these subscribers in mind when writing content and copy to keep your audience engaged
  • Create an engaging newsletter experience tailored for your target audience

 Setting up your program: 4 key steps

Once you’re ready to launch your referral program, there are a few best practices that can lead to success. Here are some of the ones we found being used by the most successful newsletter referral programs:

1. Design a cost-effective rewards structure

Referral rewards are key to motivating subscribers to share, but you must be strategic about how you offer these rewards. For your marketing strategy to be sustainable, it needs to minimize costs while still attracting new customers – especially if your content is free and most of your revenue relies on ads or sponsorships.

The most successful newsletter referral programs use tiered, cumulative referral rewards. Subscribers are offered different types of rewards for each referral, with the opportunity to earn bigger rewards the more referrals they make.

To add to the experience, email newsletters often add gamification to motivate subscribers to send more referrals and reach their next reward. Interestingly enough, the most important reward is what you select for the lower referral tiers.

It’s vital for a newsletter to keep its costs per subscriber low. As Tyler Denk, senior product lead at Morning Brew, explained to Digiday, Morning Brew “strategically placed [their] awards where they are.” For instance, one of their early rewards is a set of stickers, and stickers cost only 20 cents apiece to produce. And they previously offered access to a Sunday newsletter, which cost nothing to offer.

“Our premium newsletter costs $0 for us to produce outside of human capital. It’s free on our end, but it still encourages people to share,” explains Denk.

As a result, while Morning Brew’s average cost to gain a subscriber is $2-$5, the cost of gaining a subscriber through the program is significantly lower.

How to design your referral rewards structure: To reduce your subscriber acquisition costs, your first few referral rewards need to be motivating, but still cost-effective. It also helps if your subscriber needs to make multiple referrals before they earn their first reward.

  • Some examples of first referral rewards include access to exclusive content (i.e. an added weekly newsletter, an ebook, or access to a podcast), an invitation to private online communities, or small swag (i.e. fridge magnets, stickers, or notebooks). These rewards typically cost less than a dollar per piece to prepare and distribute, especially if they’re digital.
  • For the next reward tier, you can then offer larger swag, such as t-shirts and mugs. These cost relatively little to order in bulk, but still offer value to the subscriber. Swag also serves as another promotional tool for your newsletter, further reducing your subscriber acquisition costs.
  • Finally, offer your best rewards for the devoted subscribers who send high amounts of referrals. For example, The Hustle’s referral program offers a high-quality camera and microphone to advocates who refer 250 subscribers.

If you’re planning on using a tiered rewards structure, choose your referral software carefully. Some choices are only designed for the simplest ecommerce rewards structures, and can’t handle tiered programs.

Referral Rock can manage any rewards structure you choose, including tiered referral programs. Plus, we let you set up custom rewards, including swag rewards, for maximum flexibility.

Here’s more on how Referral Rock can help you optimize rewards >

2. Focus on promoting your program right in the newsletter

From our years of referral marketing experience, we’ve seen one key factor either make or break a program – promotion. After all, a referral program won’t gain any traction if your subscribers don’t know about it. It’s crucial to continuously promote your program.

Yes, sharing your program on social media and through dedicated referral emails can be effective. But the number one way to reach your subscriber base is to promote your program right within the newsletter itself. In every issue.

How to promote your program in each newsletter: Dedicate a section of your newsletter to promoting your referral program. Here are a few options:

  • Regularly spotlight the program and its rewards at the end of every email (similar to Morning Brew and The Hustle)
  • Add a small banner about your program in the body
  • Add a sentence or two to promote your program in your intro (use sparingly)
  • Place a call-to-action button at the top, which takes readers to your program hub/landing page

You don’t have to use the same promotional approach or the same wording in every newsletter. In fact, switching up your referral messaging helps grab the reader’s attention. Whichever way you choose to promote your referral program, adding a line or two in every newsletter issue is key to keeping it top-of-mind. Keep reading to see how the best newsletters promote their programs.

3. Make sharing easy

If your program is easy to see and share, people will share. Make sure your readers can learn about your referral program and share your newsletter in as few steps as possible. 

The best way to make sharing easy is by letting subscribers refer others right from your newsletter. Include your subscriber’s unique referral link in each email (in a spot that’s easy to find!). This allows subscribers to instantly copy the link and share it in any way that works for them.

How to facilitate subscriber sharing: Another way to increase sharing is with a referral program landing page that has all key information about referrals:

  • Keep the program’s instructions and terms simple, with a clear referral call to action
  • Help subscribers share on any channel that’s most convenient to them, such as email, text message, and social media platforms
  • Add the subscriber’s referral link to the landing page for even easier sharing

Referral Rock’s One Click Access links let customers instantly access their program landing page without signing up. Include these in all your newsletters (and all program promotional emails) along with direct referral links, for maximum ease of sharing.

Here’s more on how Referral Rock offers the best referral experience to your subscribers >

4. Automate the process with software

Although Morning Brew designed their referral program completely from scratch, this process is too time-consuming and frustrating for most businesses. It’s easier for most companies to use referral software to run their program.

Software reduces the hassle of manually managing referrals, automatically tracks the referrals you receive, attributes the referrals to the right subscribers, and instantly distributes earned rewards. And it’s much simpler to set up the referral program you want in just a few days.

Plus, newsletter referral software generates unique referral links for every subscriber,which they can easily copy and share anywhere. The referral codes within these links let the software track (and create reports on) key metrics, which you can use to refine and improve your program.

Referral Rock software integrates with over 50 key tools to further automate the referral process. If you send out newsletters using an email delivery system, you can easily integrate it with Referral Rock so subscribers can instantly access and share their unique referral link. We integrate with MailChimp, Klaviyo, HubSpot, ActiveCampaign, Emma, and other leading email platforms.

Referral Rock software is advanced enough to handle tiered referral programs, so you can design a program that mirrors the templates used by the pros. Track referrals and send out your rewards right away, to keep subscribers happy.

We let you measure the brand awareness your subscribers generate – even when their friends don’t sign up for your newsletter right away – so you know the full impact of referrals.

Plus, a dedicated onboarding specialist will guide you through every step of setting up your program, following best practices.

Here’s how we can help you create a referral program that runs on autopilot >

The best newsletter referral program examples

Now for some inspiration for your own newsletter referral program. We’ve handpicked four of the most successful referral programs from email newsletters, and broken down exactly why they’ve worked so well.

1. Morning Brew

Morning Brew, a daily newsletter for young business professionals, runs one of the most successful newsletter referral programs, a case study for any newsletter wanting to start a referral program of its own.

Thanks to their program, Morning Brew was able to grow its revenue by $10 million in just one year. The newsletter also jumped from 100,000 to 1.5 million subscribers in 18 months, with 30% of those new subscriptions coming from referrals.

What makes the Morning Brew referral program so successful? Morning Brew places most of its referral promotions within the newsletter itself, to remind its existing subscriber base of the program. At the end of every daily edition, a dedicated section explains how sharing with friends will earn subscribers branded rewards, such as a Morning Brew coffee mug or t-shirt.morning brew rewards 2023

Every email includes the subscriber’s unique referral link – and makes the link easy to find – for easy sharing on any platform.

Morning Brew also includes a call-to-action button that takes subscribers to their personal referral widget, where they can share via email, social media, and (again) directly via referral link. The referral link ensures every new sign up is permanently tied (and credited) to the referring subscriber’s account. morning brew referral program 2 morning brew current referral hub Morning Brew’s referral program uses a tiered rewards structure. Subscribers earn bigger and better rewards as they refer more friends – a great way to keep up motivation.

  • Most of the tiers are spaced in a way that makes getting the next reward feel attainable.
  • Plus, the newsletter often highlights the subscriber’s current referral count, and encourages subscribers by letting them know how many referrals they need to earn the next reward. Subscribers can also find this info in their referral hub.
  • They’ve also offered the ultimate work-from-home makeover as a top reward (for 1,000 referrals), letting even the most prolific referrers have a top incentive to work toward.

In addition to their regular referral program, Morning Brew often runs flash contests, where referring within a certain time period enters the referring subscriber and their friend into a MacBook Pro giveaway. These contests run several times a year, giving subscribers even more incentive to refer others. When the contest runs, Morning Brew promotes it at the start and middle of their newsletter.

(Every now and then, Morning Brew will change things up and place other referral program promotions at the start and middle of the newsletter, in a similar fashion to the MacBook Pro promotion.) morning brew macbook giveaway

The rewards structure and promotion strategy aren’t the only reason for Morning Brew’s referral program success, though. Morning Brew also uses strategic notifications to motivate referrals from individual subscribers. For instance, they send a “nudge” email if someone hasn’t referred a friend within a week of subscribing, and a “push” email if someone is just one referral away from the next reward (to get them over the hump). 

Referral Rock lets you automate referral program emails for maximum engagement. Send out emails a few days after signup, when subscribers are nearing new reward tiers, or any strategic time you choose.

Plus, our Monthly Summary emails help keep referrers engaged, by sharing a personalized overview of each subscriber’s activity every month.

2. The Hustle

The Hustle is another business newsletter known for its creative copy, informative, slightly humorous tone, and top-notch content that distills the news of the day. But that’s not the only reason The Hustle gained its first 300,000 subscribers in a matter of months – its referral program played a huge part in its growth.

Similar to Morning Brew, The Hustle’s referral program offers tiered, branded rewards. At the bottom of every newsletter, they invite subscribers to share with a personal referral link. Plus, they track the number of referrals the subscriber has sent, so the subscriber knows how close they are to the next reward (an effective motivator).  

2024 hustle referral rewards

But some unique touches have made The Hustle’s referral program really stand out from the pack. For instance, at one point, after a subscriber successfully got three friends to subscribe, they were invited to become a Hustle Ambassador. Ambassadors were granted access to an exclusive Facebook group for networking, as well as ambassador-only content. For a personalized touch, loyal subscribers got an invitation right from Sam Parr, the newsletter’s co-founder and CEO, when they were invited to become an ambassador. And the “ambassador” title itself was another way to keep them invested in The Hustle’s success, 

Even without the “ambassador” element, the current reward system is just as thrilling, and the tiered system means the more referrals, the more rewards.

  • Three referrals earns subscribers a notebook
  • Tiers from 5-25 referrals reward advocates with creative Hustle swag to trick out their desk
  • 50 referrals means they’ve got a useful tech organizer to keep cords at bay
  • 100 referrals earns them a roomy backpack
  • 250 referrals earns them a high-value “glow-up” kit for Zoom meetings, recording, and podcasting

The unique rewards make subscribers feel like true insiders, and the tiered reward structure provides even greater motivation.

Every time advocates reach a referral milestone, they receive an email from Sam Parr, thanking and congratulating them for their achievement. This further empowers subscribers and makes them feel integral to The Hustle’s success.

And not to be outdone by their newsletter competitor, The Hustle sometimes runs their own version of a flash referral contest. But instead of holding a drawing, The Hustle awards an amazing prize to the super-advocate who makes the most referrals in a given time period. One time, they even awarded a business worth $25,000 to the person who made the most referrals in a month’s time. 

Hustle refer-a-friend contest 1

Thanks to its crafted newsletter referral system, The Hustle has enjoyed smashing success. According to Digiday, The Hustle’s referral program “accounts for at least 10% of the free newsletter list’s growth,” and they’ve recruited over 10,000 ambassadors through the program.

3. theSkimm

As one of the first email newsletters to start a referral program, theSkimm knows a thing or two about driving word of mouth. Their Daily Skimm newsletter’s content and tone, perfectly aimed at distilling hot topics for young women, already got their subscribers talking. And a referral program was the perfect way to accelerate all the sharing.

theSkimm’s referral program acts as a feeder for its perk-filled brand ambassador program. Subscribers gain access to a personal referral link from the moment they get their first newsletter. In fact, part of the welcome email is dedicated to introducing the referral program, and concisely tells subscribers everything they need to know to start sharing. Subscribers can then share the referral link any way they please, including through email and social media.the skimm welcome email ask for referraltheSkimm also injects their signature tone into their newsletter’s “Skimm Share” referral section, included at the end of every issue. The section’s basic format always remains the same (with a “share” button, referral tracker, and personal referral link for easy sharing). Every day, the company creatively changes up the wording to catch subscribers’ attention, with a new type of friend its readers should refer. Check out two examples below: theskimm share But the rewards – and magic – truly begin once a subscriber successfully refers 10 friends. After 10 referrals, a subscriber becomes a “Skimm’bassador” and gains access to a whole host of incentives. This includes exclusive content, early access to Skimm content and products, membership in ambassador-only groups to help them network and reach their goals, the chance to earn branded swag for more referrals, and access to exclusive events and opportunities. Skimm’bassadors also get to provide direct feedback to the newsletter’s team, making them even more invested in theSkimm’s success. This ensures that theSkimm will continue to wow its most invested subscribers.

Even though access to rewards and perks is fairly gated, it hasn’t deterred theSkimm subscribers from referring others. Referrals account for around 20% of Daily Skimm subscribers.

4. The Daily PNut

The Daily PNut’s referral program follows the same tiered referral reward pattern of some of its competitors, but it stands out from them in three ways: First, at the top of every newsletter, the PNut includes an “invite friends” button with a link to their referral landing page. This lets subscribers learn more about the referral marketing campaign without needing to scroll all the way to the bottom of the email. A simple yet effective promotion. daily pnut referral program promotion Second, some of the PNut’s rewards are especially unique and valuable to their audience. This includes membership in an exclusive Slack discussion group (for 10 referrals), and year-long subscriptions to several top news outlets, such as the New York Times (250 referrals).

Third is the way the PNut displays the rewards: The referral landing page layout stays clean, starting with simple illustrations of each reward. Clicking or tapping on each reward brings up its creative description. The fun “PNut Power” and “Brainiac Pack” rewards especially entice you to click to learn more, since they require the most referrals but aren’t easily explained from the illustration.

Plus, the PNut uses a referral tracker and adds a message about the subscriber’s next available reward. While this is done in most other top newsletter referral programs, the PNut pairs the tracker with an animated arrow that points to the next referral reward the subscriber can earn. daily pnut referral rewards listdaily pnut referral rewards list

Launch your own newsletter referral program

As we’ve seen, a referral program is a powerful way for your newsletter to grow your email list at a low cost. A few best practices we’ve outlined in this article are to:

  • Offer enticing but cost-effective rewards
  • Promote the program in your newsletter itself
  • Make the program easy to find and share with others

Take inspiration from the successful program examples we shared above as you design your own newsletter referral program (or any type of email marketing).