Key takeaways

  • SaaS referral programs offer many benefits, including increased brand awareness, lower customer acquisition costs, and improved customer retention rates.
  • To set up a successful program, you'll need to choose the rewards that appeal to your audience, make it easy for people to refer, and promote the program regularly.
  • If you're a sales-led or hybrid B2B business, choose referral programs that can handle multi-step sales processes and integrate with your CRM.

What do referral programs from Dropbox, Airtable, and Canva have in common?

They’re all SaaS referral programs.

Referral programs work for all types of businesses, but they’re especially effective for SaaS businesses. If you’re looking for a marketing campaign that speaks to (and rewards) your best customers and creates a sharing loop, a referral program can do just that. Here’s how to start a SaaS referral program of your own.

What is a SaaS referral program?

A referral program is a marketing tactic that SaaS businesses can use to increase word of mouth. It works by motivating existing customers to share your service with others, and rewarding them whenever a referral converts to a qualified lead or customer.

With SaaS products typically running entirely online and in the cloud, a SaaS user can easily join a referral program, share their unique referral code through social media or direct messaging, and redeem their rewards – all in a few clicks. And if you choose the right referral tracking tool, a successful referral campaign is easy to set up and run automatically.

5 benefits of SaaS referral programs

SaaS referral programs (and all other customer referral programs) work by engaging your existing users. Instead of paying for pricey ad placements, you’re rewarding every successful referral and building a stronger customer base. Here are some other benefits of running a SaaS referral program:

1. Increased brand awareness: By encouraging word-of-mouth marketing from those who already love your service, referral programs build positive brand awareness, social proof, and interest in your brand.

2. Faster, reliable conversions: Research shows that a high-impact recommendation from someone you know “is up to 50 times more likely to trigger a purchase than a low-impact recommendation” from companies.

3. Lower customer acquisition costs (CAC): Aside from the initial setup and service costs, referral programs are a pay-for-performance marketing strategy. You only pay for rewards when a referral successfully becomes a new customer or lead. (Note: As a SaaS business, you can lower your CAC even further by offering something that’s virtually no cost to you, such as a free month of service or limited-time upgrade.)

4. Increased conversion rates: When existing users promote your SaaS business, they generally refer like-minded leads who are ready to convert. Not only are your users already familiar with your service, they’re also likely to know other businesses who will also benefit. Plus, having a personal endorsement of your brand increases the odds that others will readily try your service.

5. Increased customer retention/customer lifetime value: SaaS companies run on subscriptions and recurring revenue. This makes referral marketing programs even more beneficial, as referred users are 18%  more likely to stay with a brand than those who weren’t referred.

Word of mouth chart

How do I create a SaaS referral program?

The beauty of SaaS referral programs is they can work with the tools and processes you already have. Follow these steps to create a high-quality SaaS referral program that brings in more customers:

1. Give customers a reason to share

To build a successful referral program, you must first have an amazing product or service. While incentives and rewards do attract users, customers won’t refer their personal network unless they think your SaaS product actually provides value.

So, first thing’s first: Offer a great product that fits your target audience’s needs, and delivers exceptional customer support. Make sure your current users are happy with your platform before creating a refer-a-friend program. How? Start by reading all your online reviews and customer feedback. See if there are any obvious pain points or areas you can improve.

You can also reach out directly to some of your loyal customers and ask them to fill out a survey, or schedule a 1:1 feedback session. (Throw in a free upgrade or discount for their time!)

2. Choose the right incentives to motivate customers

When selecting your referral incentive, first figure out what would best motivate your users to share. Then, when choosing your reward value, ask these questions: What is the average value of a sale? What is sustainable for your business to keep paying out? The higher the value of a sale, the higher your reward value should be.

Here are some of the most common SaaS referral incentives:

1. Cash back: Customers love cash back because they can use it towards anything they want. Cash direct deposits are one of the top-performing referral rewards across all industries.

2. Referral fees: This commission is paid to the program participant for every new user they bring to your company, as a percentage of the total sale. SaaS referral fees can range from 5-50%, depending on the size of your business, the value of a sale, your target customer, and whether you want to offer the commission in tiers (i.e., 10% for the first ten sales, 20% for every sale after that). 

3. Subscription discount: Discounts are great for companies looking to build customer loyalty through increased engagement. Since discounts are applied toward future purchases, they help build long-term relationships.

4. Free month of subscription: One of the hardest things is attracting new users, so why push them away? Offering a free month of service is a great way to show your value to newly referred customers, and get them to start using your platform.  Existing customers will appreciate the savings (and be more likely to stick around).

5. Gift cards to other businesses: Like with cash, customers love that they can put a gift card towards whatever they want. Add another element of choice with Referral Rock and Tango’s gift card menu, where customers can choose their preferred type of gift card as a referral reward. 

6. Unlocked features or upgrades: To increase the odds of users upgrading their plan, pull back the curtains a little and let them have access to all of the extras in another price tier. By offering features and upgrades as a “reward,” you’re also positioning your offer as something of high value.

Reward builder - percentage of sale option
The reward builder in Referral Rock lets you choose a fixed reward amount or a percentage of a sale.

3. Decide on your rewards structure

Once you’ve decided on an incentive, it’s time to decide on your reward structure: who will get the reward and when they will get it.

For best results, we recommend using a dual-sided program. Dual-sided incentives reward both parties – the current customer and the referral they bring in – when the new customer starts paying. Incentives should also be cumulative, where users earn a reward (or “credits” towards a bigger incentive) for every referral they bring in.

You might consider a tiered program, where customers can earn larger, cumulative rewards as they bring in more referrals. For instance, they might earn $20 cash back for one referral, a free online course from your brand for three referrals, and a high-value tech item for 10 referrals. This is a great motivator for users to share with as many people as they can.

If your sales process is longer, we also recommend multi-step rewards, or giving out a smaller reward for bringing in a qualified lead and a larger reward for bringing in a sale.

No matter what type of reward structure you choose, make sure your users are automatically rewarded. Don’t make them wait to receive their cash or upgrade. And if they’ve earned a tangible incentive, immediately send them a notification that their reward is on its way.

Manually sending out individual rewards can get overwhelming, especially as your SaaS referral program grows. To make things easier, try out a tool to automate reward management.

4. Get attention with a compelling headline

You only have about six to eight seconds to grab someone’s attention and convince them to start sharing. Your referral program’s headline gets that attention by advertising your referral reward and how people can earn it. Here are real-life examples:

  • “Get 16 GB free space by inviting your friends to Dropbox.”
  • “Refer a friend and earn $10 in Groupon Bucks.”

You’ll use your headline in promotional emails, as well as on your main referral program page. In both cases, follow the headline up with copy that explains your referral program in 3-4 simple steps, and a call-to-action button that gets customers to click and share. 

5. Remove friction with One Click Access

Making sharing frictionless convinces more customers to become members of your program, and this increases the number of referrals they bring in. One of the best ways to remove friction and make sharing easier, is to remove the tedious step of logging into your program.

Using Referral Rock’s One Click Access links means your customers can start sharing your business right away. This way, they’re already enrolled in the program, and don’t have to take the extra step of signing up or filling out a form. They’ll only need to enter minimal information about their peers to send referrals.

Include One Click Access links in all the emails you send to promote your referral program. This includes newsletters and transactional emails (and not just emails focused solely on your referral program). 

With Referral Rock, you can also let new and existing members access their referral portal with popular social logins like Google and Facebook, so they don’t need to enter a password.

6. Make it quick and easy for users to share

A major factor in a referral program is to make the referral process as easy as possible. Provide users with multiple ways to share your offer, including email, social media channels, and SMS, based on where they already share info with peers regularly. Also, create a unique referral link for every user who joins your SaaS referral program, so they can send it however is most convenient for them.

Remember: you’re asking your customers to do you a favor by spreading the word about your SaaS. The more time and effort it takes to send a referral, the more likely they’ll get frustrated and bounce. The fewer steps, the better.

  • Ensure that referring someone only takes 1-2 clicks or taps.
  • On your referral program landing page (or portal), concisely explain the program in 3-4 bullet points. Be sure to include the rewards and other benefits of sharing.
  • Provide ready-to-use messages that users can send to their friends right away (no need for customers to think about what to type). Make sure the message sounds conversational, and that it’s written from the referring customer’s perspective.
  • If there’s any extra info you need to share, include it in a separate FAQ so the main referral page isn’t too overwhelming. 
If you’re planning a program for B2B SaaS, we cover this more in-depth in our article on B2B referral programs.

7. Promote your SaaS referral program

Once you have your key pieces in place, it’s time to promote your program. After all, the more participating members you have, the more chances you have to bring in successful referrals (and bring in more revenue). 

A great place to start is your website: you can add a referral link to your footer or navigation bar or use pop-ups to attract users depending on where they are in the customer journey. You can also promote your offer in announcement bars or use pop-ups to attract users.

Another place to promote your SaaS referral program is in-app (aka right in your app). Like with most things in marketing, timing is everything. Promote your offer when a user completes a task or hits a certain milestone. You’re looking for those “aha” moments when engagement is high and users see value with your service.

Also, make the most of your other marketing channels. 

  • Add the referral program to your email newsletter (the footer is a great spot!) and reach your entire user base in one fell swoop.
  • Or, post about it on social media to capture a wider targeted audience.
  • You might even advertise your program in invoice emails (when a user is charged for a subscription renewal). 
One Click Acccess link for Hubspot
It’s easy to create custom share links in Referral Rock and share them with your audience over email, in-app, and more. In one click, they’ll see their unique share link and custom share messaging.

And of course, don’t be afraid to reach out directly to your best customers. Send each one a personal note thanking them for their loyalty and inviting them to start referring.

8. Keep existing members engaged and sharing

It’s just as important to keep your referral program top-of-mind for all your users who have already signed up, but who may need a push to keep sharing. A great way to do this is with automated, strategically timed emails.

For instance, you can send a reminder email 3-5 days after someone registers for your program, send emails congratulating a member whenever they’ve earned a reward, and use Referral Rock’s Monthly Summary emails, which share a personalized overview of each member’s referral program activity every month. 

In addition to this, we recommend sending referral program promotional emails at least once a month in the first year your program is active. After the first year, send email promotions at least once every quarter, along with using other promotional methods.

9. Track ROI

Whether you build your program in-house or use a dedicated service, it’s important to track, test, analyze, and optimize your program. How many invited users joined your SaaS referral program? What channels are most used to share with others? Marketers need to keep track of all these metrics to know if your referral program is working or not, what to improve, and to see if it’s worth keeping. The simplest way to think about it is in terms of cost vs. revenue.

  • Your cost is how much you’re spending on rewards, plus the cost of running the program
  • Your revenue is how much you’re gaining in sales

If your referral revenue exceeds your customer acquisition cost (CAC), then you’re getting a positive ROI on your SaaS referral program. This should guide your decision about any next steps you want to take in your referral marketing strategy.

Thankfully, there’s a lot of good options that makes it easier than ever to create, automate, and customize your program in minutes. But it’s important to note that many of these tools are targeted to e-commerce, and don’t account for the complexity of B2B or subscription products or sales.

Make sure to look for a platform (like Referral Rock!) that supports multi-step and recurring reward structures, automated payout options, a flexible API, and integration with your CRM  and other workflows to track referrals and trigger rewards. In-depth analytics and reporting is another must-have.

Top 10 SaaS referral program examples

By now, I’m sure you’ve thought of a few referral marketing strategies and ideas to try out. But in case you need more inspiration, here are some examples of well-executed SaaS referral programs. We dig into them in detail to explain exactly what makes them stand out.

1. Trello

Trello is a collaboration platform to help you keep all your tasks on track. At a quick glance, you can see who’s working on what, what work is being done, and where someone is at in the process. Trello’s referral program uses a simple cumulative structure: When you refer a friend who signs up, you get a free month of Trello Gold (their premium plan). You can refer up to twelve friends. That’s a whole year of Gold for free!   trello saas referral program 1 trello saas referral program 2 What makes Trello’s referral program so effective? If you look at how they explain their program, you discover they use encouraging messages (“adding collaborators to your boards” and “start collecting free gold”) that speaks the language of their users. Plus, not many users knew about Trello Gold.

The referral program and reward itself also helped promote the company’s premium plan, introducing users to the additional features and further converting them into higher paying customers. As you can see in this B2B SaaS referral program example, having a good product  users already love is a good sign they’ll be willing to share it with others.

2. Hiver

Help desk software Hiver makes their sharing process simple to understand by breaking it down into four easy steps.  Plus, the testimonials on the referral program page can remind customers why they love Hiver and should share this help desk service. We also love all the eye-catching imagery Hiver uses, and the FAQ and chat features that remove friction and get people sharing sooner.

Hiver referral program example

As for compelling incentives, Hiver uses multi-step Amazon gift card incentives to reward customers for bringing in both qualified leads and sales. Then, when customers refer enough qualified leads, they become eligible for added bonuses like a Kindle and an iPhone.

hiver b2b referral program rewards

3. Evernote

Evernote is a cloud-based SaaS that take notes, organizes files, and invites collaboration with others – all in one secure place. The Evernote referral program is based on a points system to help attract more referrals. Your first three referrals earns 10 points each, which is equal to three months of Premium. And if your referral converts to Premium, you earn five more points. Evernote SaaS referral program Evernote did a great job of laying out its program in a clear and simple way. The sharing process is explained in three short paragraphs. Plus, by using in-app incentives, Evernote was able to drive down costs and build customer loyalty.

4. Shoeboxed

Shoeboxed is perfect for freelancers and contractors looking for a way to track their business expenses. The platform makes it easy to scan receipts using a mobile app or e-receipt reader. And for less tech-savvy users, it even offers prepaid mail-in envelopes.

The Shoeboxed referral program uses a dual incentive model to attract more customer engagement. When you refer a friend who signs up for a premium plan, you both will receive 10% off of your monthly payment. What makes this B2B SaaS referral program unique is that the discount is applied to the entire year, or until your friend cancels their subscription.

Shoeboxed does a great job of streamlining the process, bringing new customers directly to their referral landing page with a welcome message, and giving a quick rundown of the referral bonus and sharing options. You want to make your referral program as easy to find as possible, and Shoeboxed does a great job at just that. Shoeboxed SaaS referral program

5. Airtable

Airtable is a collaboration tool that allows you to organize anything, anywhere. It positions itself as part-spreadsheet, part-database, with functionalities that enable teams to stay organized and get things done. Airtable’s platform is broken up into bases. For every referral that signs up, you receive a $10 credit that can be used to upgrade any base you have admin access to. You can also opt to use your credits to extend your current plan. airtable referral program

6. Drift

Drift provides a modern buying experience for potential customers, generating more qualified leads and dramatically accelerating the sales cycle. The platform enables users to build chatbots and conversation flows in minutes, with absolutely no code. While most of the incentives we’ve covered have either been discounts, cash, or credit, Drift’s referral program uses swag to drive referrals. Drift influencer referral program  

  • One referral gets you a special edition Adidas jacket and sticker pack
  • Five referrals will land you an all-access pass to Hypergrowth’s conference
  • Ten referrals gets you a free lunch with Drift’s founders, David Cancel and Elias Torres

By offering unique products geared towards their user base, Drift does a great job standing out with its B2B SaaS referral program. These types of fun rewards might not work for every brand, but you might try testing it out if your branding is especially strong. Keep in mind, though, that users might not want all their rewards to be branded swag. Mix things up like Drift, by offering cash or gift cards in addition to swag.

7. ActiveCampaign

ActiveCampaign is an email marketing and marketing automation tool for businesses of all sizes. Their referral program stands out because all customers are automatically enrolled in the program – no need to enter extra info to refer friends. Customers can instantly access the program from their user account dashboard, and they’ve got multiple sharing options, including a click-to-copy referral link.

ActiveCampaign offers different rewards to the referrer based on the type of plan their friend buys – the more expensive the plan, the bigger the reward for the referrer. Plus, the reward is double-sided, with $10 in ActiveCampaign credits paid out to the referred friend when they purchase a plan.

It’s easy for customers to track the status of referrals and rewards, so they know when a referred friend clicks their link, signs up for a trial or purchases a paid plan. 

ActiveCampaign referral program

8. Shortcut

Shortcut is a project management SaaS for businesses Not only are Shortcut’s referral rewards double-sided, they also cover different stages of the sales process. This works well for Shortcut’s multi-step sales structure, and may be a structure worth borrowing if your B2B SaaS also has a multi-step sales process.

Their rewards look like this:

  • Tiered swag prizes for the individual referrer, awarded once the referrer gets a certain number of friends to start a trial
  • Two months free on any paid plan for the referred friend, after their free trial period ends (to encourage new customer acquisition and retention)
  • $500 account credit for the referrer, once their friend pays for two consecutive months of Shortcut (to encourage customers to bring in friends who stay loyal to Shortcut)

shortcut referral program

9. LiveChat

livechat referral program

LiveChat’s referral program starts out strong with an eye-catching CTA, which immediately shows the $39 app credit reward – and what customers must do to earn it. “Invite” is even in bold! 

They’re committed to an easy-to understand referral program. A three-step process, with graphics, explains the program and shows just how easy referring is, and an FAQ section (at the bottom of the page) clears things up if customers have other questions about the program

Rewards in this program are double-sided – the referrer receives $39 in LiveChat credit when their friend first pays for LiveChat, and the friend receives 50% off that first payment. The discount on the friend’s side is especially effective in encouraging that first purchase!

10. Dropbox

If you’ve done your fair share of referral marketing research, chances are you’ve seen Dropbox a couple of times. The file-sharing service dropped their referral program over a decade ago and was one of the first SaaS companies to use referrals programs effectively. But Dropbox didn’t do anything crazy. In fact, what made the Dropbox referral program so effective was how simple and direct their message was: every customer referred gave existing users 16GB of free storage space. dropbox referral program In a time where no one else was really thinking about referral marketing, Dropbox was able to utilize their existing user base and bypass other more expensive marketing channels. The numbers speak for themselves:

  • Dropbox doubled their growth every three months
  • In just one month, users sent out 23 million referrals
  • 3,900% total growth in registered users over 15 months

Start your own referral program

If you want to start a SaaS referral program, remember: you need to have a service worth sharing (is it actually good?), an attractive incentive to motivate sharing (what’s in it for me?), and a frictionless referral process (is it easy?).

It could also help to look at some of your competitors with a SaaS referral program. Take note of what they offer and how they promote their program. And of course, choose the right referal software to streamline the setup process, make promotion easy, and get data on brand awareness and conversions generated from referrals.

Good luck on running a SaaS referral program that stands out from the rest!

Looking for more info on starting a strong SaaS referral program? Check out these resources:

You can also check out our dedicated guide to B2B referral programs (or book a consultation to learn more about how referral marketing could work for your business).