If you’ve ever been invited to a referral program, you’ve come across a referral code example. Referral codes are used to track promotions and attribution from sources. They can be created with referral code generators or with a referral program software. Referral codes are sent to everyone who participates in the program (through a referral link) and are an essential part of a well-run referral marketing campaign.

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In this article, we’ll run through what a referral code is, how other companies use them, and how to create and distribute codes (either manually or with software). Let’s go!

[Note: If you’ve come to this article looking for a referral code to use at checkout for a discount, this isn’t the place for you! Check out a resource like ReferCodes to find referral codes for different brands.]

For a quick run down, check out our explainer:

What is a referral code?

A referral code (or referral tracking code) is a unique combination of characters used to identify the participants in a customer referral program. Referral codes are assigned to every customer as soon as they’re invited to a program. They help connect each referral made to the person who sent it, as every participant in your program has their own distinct code. Referral codes make running a referral program and generating word-of-mouth marketing easier by:

  • Streamlining referral attribution: The code identifies who sent each new referral (and who brought in each new customer) so you aren’t left guessing about the sources of new business.
  • Allowing you to engage current customers as brand advocates on a larger scale: Instead of only relying on sales reps to ask for referrals, for example, you can empower your customers to share on their own with unique referral codes. 

Promo and discount codes vs referral codes

First let’s talk about “marketing codes” in general, which are used for tracking and/or ways to encourage usage through an offer of some kind. 

Types of marketing codes:

  • Promo codes
  • Discount Codes
  • Coupon Codes
  • Referral Codes

Codes let you track where your customers come from. You’ve probably come across them on a daily basis. You know those codes you hear on the radio, see on TV or social media. Those are usually promo codes. If you’ve ever used a discount coupon to purchase something online or in store you’ve got a good idea of how they work.

The main difference between a discount/promo code and a referral code is that referral codes are linked to an individual person (i.e. a friend) letting you track WHO a new customer is coming from, not just WHERE.

Referral code vs. referral link

Many people will use “referral code” and “referral link” interchangeably, but there’s a difference:

  • The referral code is the unique identifier that tracks who sent each referral. Often, it’s placed inside a customer’s referral link.
  • The referral link is the entire link that customers share with friends when they participate in the referral program. It contains the URL that the referred friend is sent to, plus the referring customer’s unique referral code (to identify who sent the referral/friend to your site).

Rather than having to manually log every participant and reward, a referral link (with code inside) helps to automate and track every step of your program.

For an online referral program to run successfully, it’s the referral link (with the code in it!) that really matters. Below, you can see how Doordash’s referral links contain a code at the end for referral tracking: Doordash referral code example

How does a referral code work?

Here’s how the referral code journey happens:

1. Create a referral program: As you may have guessed, you’ll need to first create a referral program (aka a refer-a-friend program) manually or with software. This involves choosing referral incentives and building a landing page or central spot for customers to join your program, as well as a place for referred customers to land. 

2. Assign customers a unique code: As soon as existing customers join your referral program, they should be issued and shown a unique referral code that they can access via email and a portal (or hub). This is a point of high engagement with your customer, and you want to help them start referring right away! Read on to find out how to create a referral code. 

3. Ask customers to share their code: It’s easy for people to send referral codes to their network via email, social sharing, and messaging apps. But you’ll need to directly encourage this sharing. A big part of running a successful referral program is regular promotion and reminding people your program exists (and that there’s something in it for them!). Some of the most popular program promotion channels are email and in-app (after checkout, for example).

4. Track or collect the referral code during purchase: For online transactions, such as in e-commerce stores or subscriptions, new customers will simply enter their peer’s referral code during checkout and you’ll know who sent them. You can also create a dedicated landing page on your site to collect the referral code during purchase. For offline transactions, you can have the referral or your staff manually enter the code during the checkout process (which is why it’s best to keep in-person codes simple). 

Note: Multi-step or enterprise sales processes often have a more complex referral process. Using referral program software (like Referral Rock!) can make the entire set-up and experience much easier, so you can reward or qualify referrals at different stages, e.g. giving one reward when a referral hits a “lead” stage in your CRM and another when they make a purchase.

5. Reward the referring customer and/or the referral (new customer): Once the purchase is confirmed, you can either manually send customers their rewards (e.g. gift cards, free products), or connect referral software with your CRM or e-commerce platform to trigger rewards based on certain actions (e.g. a checkout, or a “closed won” deal).

[Referral code generator]

Here’s our free random code generator that can be used to make your own referral or coupon codes.


Referral Codes Explained for Businesses [+ Free Generator] 1

7 referral code examples

To give you a better picture of how a referral code works, let’s go over a few examples from companies with large customer bases that have used referral programs to fuel their growth.

Example 1: Zipcar

Zipcar’s referral program assigns each customer their own referral link, which they can instantly start sharing with others. As highlighted in the screenshot below, you can see the unique referral code is found at the end of the link — the whole link is easy to copy and paste so that customers can share it in an email, text, or on social. zipcar's-referral-code-example

Example 2: Airbnb

Airbnb is a company known for its popular referral program. In this referral code example, they combine the user’s name with a series of numbers to create a unique referral code that goes in a customer’s referral link. airbnb-referral-code-example

Example 3: Ibotta

Ibotta, an app that lets you earn cash back for in-store and online purchases, is another company with a popular refer-a-friend program. However, this referral code example is a slightly different: It’s a unique code, without a link. With this type of referral code, the referral (the new user) has to download the company’s app and manually type in the code. The program also offers the option to invite friends through social media, which automatically adds the referral code to the new user’s first purchase (see more mobile app referral program examples). ibotta-referral-code-example

Example 4: Dropbox

Dropbox is a tech company that grew to be a household name thanks to its popular referral program. Its dual-sided reward structure gives free storage space to both the referring customer and the referral. This motivates everyone to use the product and refer even more people!

This referral code example is a bit longer and more complex than the previous ones shown. But since Dropbox runs a purely online product and referral program, customers don’t have to worry about manually typing in the code — they can simply copy and paste their personal referral link and send it to their friends and family. dropbox-referral-code-example

Example 5: TabbedOut

TabbedOut, an app that makes it easier and more secure to pay tabs at bars and events, translates this ease to their referral program. It’s super easy for customers to tap and copy their referral code, which is front and center on the app’s referral page. Plus, customers can also use the sharing buttons to instantly send their code through email and social media.


Example 6: Morning Brew

Morning Brew is a daily email that invites subscribers to share the good news with others. A subscriber’s referral status is included at the bottom of every email, along with a “Click to Share” button and easy-to-copy referral code. Like most of the online referral code examples we’ve seen, Morning Brew’s code is placed at the end of a referral link. Since the referral process is completely online, subscribers may not even notice the referral code. They can simply share the link on their medium of choice (email, text, social) or hit a button to access their rewards hub. morning brew referral code example

Example 7: Lyft

Here’s an example from Lyft, with the name at the front of the link and the code at the end (referral programs with coupons or credits are a super common marketing tactic among ride-sharing apps like Lyft and Uber!). Lyft referral program

How to create a referral code

There are four main ways you can generate referral codes for your customers:

Manually tracking codes using a spreadsheet can be time-consuming. We recommend using our free Random Code Generator and Referral Tracking Tool. The generator creates unique codes while the tracking tool simplifies the tracking and management of referrals.

Be sure to keep an updated record of all your referral codes. You can create a spreadsheet, or use accounting software or a CRM (our free referral tracking tool auto-generates codes in Airtable).

For more on easily tracking your referrals (including with referral codes and links), check out our in-depth guide to referral tracking >

Or, if you’re ready to fully automate referral codes, turn to Referral Rock. In Referral Rock, codes are generated automatically when you add customers to your program. You can issue customers a randomly generated referral code, a personalized code based off of their first name, or a personalized code based off their first name including a set prefix. The software keeps track of every referral code, and the ROI generated through each code, for you.

Referral code generator in Referral Rock
Referral code options in Referral Rock.

Referral code best practices

No matter how you decide to create your referral code, here are some best practices to follow:

  • Keep the code easy to read and case insensitive.
  • Try not to use O’s, zeros, ones, capital I’s, or lower case L’s. These are easily confused with one another.
  • Personalize the referral code for the customer, not the brand.
  • Keep the referral code short enough to be memorable, but long enough to be unique. 
  • Keep your referral codes in the same format for each of your referral programs.

Generate referral codes with our free referral tracking template

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Is a referral code required to run a referral program?

Technically, no. But if you’re dealing with a bigger number of customers and referrals, it’s highly recommended. Imagine having to track of every customer who joins your program, and every referred friend they send to your business. You also need to check which referred friend actually ends up making a purchase, and immediately reward the referring customer.

No matter how simple your referral marketing strategy is, there are a lot of details to take care of so it runs smoothly. Referral codes can automate most of these steps for you and make your program more scalable. They also formalize your referral marketing program, make sure all the rewards are sent on time, and establish more customer loyalty and trust, even if you choose to not use extra graphic designs or software.

Common referral code questions from customers

Once you launch your referral program, it’s normal to get questions about how it works or where customers can get their referral codes. To reduce customer confusion, we recommend putting together a referral program FAQ or link to a knowledge base on your customer referral program landing page. Include any screenshots or images that will help your customers better understand the referral process. (Some businesses also find it helpful to create a few FAQ explainer videos.)

Giving loyal customers all they need to know about your referral program will not only save you time on customer support inquiries, it’s also a great way to refine all the smaller details of your referral program before launch. Here are a few common questions to include about referral codes:

  • How do I get my referral code?
  • Where do I enter my referral code?
  • How do I share my referral code?
  • What if I forget or lose my referral code?
  • Where can I promote my referral code?
  • Will I be notified when someone uses my referral code?
  • What if a customer I referred forgets to use my referral code?
  • How do I collect and track my rewards?

Note: Some of the above questions might not be relevant to your referral program. Run through the list and only include the ones that will be of help to your customers!

Take the next steps in starting a referral program

Referral codes are a key component in the best referral programs. Without them, it’s hard for marketers to track new referral customers (and the brand awareness they generate!) and give participants the referral rewards they deserve.

Now that you know more about referral codes, and have seen some examples, it’s time to start thinking about the best ways to integrate them into your own referral program or digital marketing campaigns. Here are a few resources to help: