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Newsletter referral program: build an engaged subscriber base

How to start a referral program that works

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Natalia Dorzheeva

May 02 2021

4 mins read

Reach 1.5 mil subs in less than 2 years? Easy. Ask the creators of Morning Brew. Their “secret sauce”? A custom-built referral program. In 2019 it massively accelerated their growth. 

30% growth in subscribers thanks to referrals

Not too shabby. 

How about getting 300k+ devoted readers in a couple of months? Once again, a referral program from The Hustle proves how effective it can be. Again and again.

These two newsletters became classic success stories of referral programs done right. 

Today, we cover the basics of running your own newsletter referral program. By the end of this article, you’ll have a good grasp of how referral programs work, and what you need to start one for yourself. Plus we’ll show you how you can roll out of your own referral program with Letterdrop in just a few clicks.

What is a newsletter referral program?

Word-of-mouth in a digital form. It's heaper and more effective than paid ads when done right.

Why do you need it?

To get more subscribers, free or paid.

Does your newsletter need a referral program at all? 

Before you introduce a referral program make sure you have active and loyal readers who genuinely enjoy your content. 

And even then not every newsletter benefits from such a program.

Is your newsletter more personal or business-oriented? 

Business readers can expense their subscriptions. They also might not want to share your great newsletter that helps them stand out at work or beat the competition broadly. A pack of stickers isn’t going to incentivize them to share the link to your newsletter either.

Consumer-oriented newsletters have a better sense of community and people are more likely to share them with friends who have similar interests. However, it’s entirely possible that they might not want to keep their personal interests to themselves too.

When is a good time to introduce referrals?

Typically, if you publish at least twice a month and have about 500-1000 engaged readers (core base of subscribers who do open your emails and react to them). 

Note that only 5-20% of your subscribers will make attempts to refer new readers. Some types of readers won’t refer. 


Because not all people are incentivized by rewards. 

Speaking of which, here are the three main reward types (and some examples).

Exclusive perks 

  • Premium content
  • Access to a private Discord chat
  • Invites to community events

Monetary rewards

  • Subscription discounts
  • Commissions
  • Feature in a newsletter post/an ad 

Physical gifts

  • Merch
  • Anything from mugs and t-shirts to 
  • In-person meetups

How to reward subscribers

Different prizes for different tiers: do remember to factor in costs with your rewards. How much is each new subscriber worth to you? If you spend $100 on rewards, do you get more than $100 in value from the additional readers? A 1000 t-shirts in rewards might cost you more than you earn from premium subscribers over their lifetime for a paid newsletter. 

Take the time to know your subscribers better and understand what they like. Learn their demographics and interests as well as what social media they use the most. Update your rewards as you learn more about your audience.

What software do I need to build a referral program?

The biggest newsletter platforms allow you to run referrals via third-party tools. And that adds to the cost of running a newsletter. Extra integrations may be overwhelming, especially if you aren’t tech-savvy. 

We did our best to make it easy to run your own referral program without any coding or fumbling with integrations. The necessary tools are built-in.

How it works 

Letterdrop's referral program is fully customizable. Here's an example. You can set up your tiers and rewards in minutes.


Once it’s all done, your subscribers will see a unique link at the end of each newsletter that they can share.


It also tells them how many more referrals they need to get to the next tier.

Take a look at what happens when you press the "Share" button.


And here's what readers see if they subscribe and unlock a new tier.


It’s up to you to decide how to reward your readers. Make sure you have the time and resources for it.

You can connect your Letterdrop newsletter to any platform (Shopify etc.) to automate the rewards. 

Wrap up

A referral program can be a very cost-effective marketing tool. Use the enthusiasm of your existing readers to spread the word. Reward them for their loyalty, give back for their help. 

A newsletter referral program is a powerful tool to grow your mailing list at a low cost. It accelerates word-of-mouth growth that’s already happening.

We are proud to make this feature available for creators on Letterdrop.

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