How to Choose the Right Referral Incentives For Your Referral Program (With 20+ Examples!)

Setting up a referral program for your business can seem daunting, but knowing how to choose the right referral program incentives can be especially difficult for busy merchants. Customers ask us all the time if it’s better to offer percentage discounts, flat values or percentage discounts – it depends, but we’ll help you figure it out. Here’s our comprehensive guide (with examples!) to walk you through how to choose the right referral offers to kickstart your referral program.

Click on the following links to jump to your relevant topic:

Why is choosing referral incentives important?

Referral rewards are like the rules of a referral program – get the rules right, and the program will run by itself as the customers are confident and know what to do. Over the years, our merchants have shared their struggle with choosing referral incentives. When we delved into their problems, the answer fell into one of three categories:

  1. Desire to get it ‘perfect’: Referral incentives will impact your sharing rate (how many referral links get shared) and your referral conversion rate (% of referral link clicks that result in purchases). Set your referral offer too low, and customers may be uninterested, but set it too high and it can quickly get costly. Some merchants spend a long, long time trying to pick the ‘perfect’ incentive offers.
  2. Overwhelmed by options for offers: Flat amount or percentage? Store credit or cash? There are many, many different ways you can choose to set up your referral program’s incentives, and retailers can get stuck in ‘analysis paralysis’.
  3. Resistant to ‘incurring costs’: Incentive offers for referrals have a financial cost– either in terms of cash paid out, or in profits foregone. The good thing, though, is that you only pay these out when successful referrals are made. So technically, it’s more costly not to act, because then you’re forgoing the new referrals you’d be getting.There are also costs to managing a referral program (sometimes called a referral incentives program), mostly around the attribution of incentives. One way is to manage it digitally, using referral program software, but these come with associated fees and a cost in time. That can look imposing for merchants.

We’ll deal with these in the article, and going over how to make decisions while setting up the program. But first, let’s complicate it a little: there are actually two types of referral program incentives to calibrate: the referral reward and the friend offer.

How do you reward customers for referrals?

The referral reward is the reward you give to your advocates or happy customer for successfully referring their friends to the store. You’ll want to dangle something that’s attractive enough to nudge someone into taking action.

ReferralCandy allows you to pick from 4 different options for your referral reward: Direct cash payouts, single-use coupons, multi-use coupons, and custom-fulfilled rewards.


1. Cash

Pros: Practical, universal, useable everywhere. We’ve found that customers are most motivated by cash – and it doesn’t even need to be a large amount, $5 or $10 will do. As an added benefit, cash is scaleable as a referral reward – your customers will get the same value whether they refer 3 friends, 30 friends, or 30,000 friends and social media followers. Think of it like a referrals cash bonus or referral compensation in larger companies – a great model of cash working well as a reward.

Cons: Cash payouts are complicated to manage, especially if you’re manually doing it. The best way is to use referral program software to automate the cash payments – which we’ve built ReferralCandy to be able to do.

2. Discount Coupons

Pros: The biggest advantage of store referral discount coupons are customer loyalty and repeat purchases. Store coupons are most valuable when you know the customer is going to make repeat purchases, for example fashion or pet food, or if you have an extensive store for your brand. Since the referral reward coupons can only be used in your store, they should be pretty attractive – but the advantage is that the referring customer is going to spend it in-store. Repeat purchases make for loyal customers (and vice versa). There are different types of store coupons you can offer as referral rewards. They can be percentage-off (eg 10% off your next purchase) or fixed amount-off (eg $50 off your next order). If your store works via a subscription model, a free month is the equivalent of a store coupon.

Store discount coupons are perfect for Friend Offers, since they offer a big incentive to make the first purchase at your store. A referral discount is exactly what might tip a potential customer to make a purchase – especially when backed up by a friend recommendation.

The friend offer or referral offer is the incentive you give to referred friends and new customers to make their first purchase at your store. Again, you can think of it as a little sweetener or push to get them more ready to try and buy. Since the goal is to make

You can also try ReferralCandy to see the custom options on offer.

Cons: Store coupons are less relevant for stores which have longer purchasing cycle or high prices. For example, mattresses or electric cars are big-ticket purchases that will last a while – customers are unlikely to make another purchase, so the coupon becomes less alluring as an incentive. Cash or Custom rewards might be better alternatives

3. Free Subscription Month 

With more and more businesses shifting to a subscription model, a free month is also an attractive offer for both referral rewards and friend incentives. For example, Goodshave, a razor subscription business, offered 10% for new customers and a free month per successful referral. YouFoodz, a fresh meal delivery service wildly popular in Australia, rewarded customers for referrals with a free meal – up to a full week of free lunches!

Read more about GoodShave and other tantalizing subscription box referral program examples


4. Custom Rewards

These are a little more complex to handle, but the idea is to offer something that’s outside of the conventional sales transaction. For example, it could be an autographed version of the book or CD; a special gift at 5 referrals like Riff Raff & Co, or even a special experience that an existing customer would value – this could even be a special badge in your forums, or a mention somewhere on the website. You can look towards Kickstarter tier rewards for inspiration.

Back to Top


How to calculate the value of your referral program incentive

  1. If your product costs more than $100, offer a flat discount amount (eg $30 off)
  2. If your product costs less than $100, offer a percentage discount amount (eg 15% off)
  3. Be sure that your referral incentives don’t cost more than your product (or profit margin)

Referral program incentives – both the friend offer and referral reward – need to be factored into the costing of your product as well. It makes no sense to give away $100 for a product you’re selling at $10, and when you compute discounts and coupons, you need to think about this too. The math changes a little when you consider subscriptions – then the customer lifetime value (and the expected subscription length) needs to be taken into account.

A fixed discount is a flat amount (for example, Bevel Shavers offers $30 off), while a percentage discount applies on the customer’s next purchase (MATTER apparel offers 15% off all products). Which is better?

Some part of it depends on the economics and operations of your business – but in presenting the referral offer, we suggest you make use of the Rule Of 100:

Bigger numbers look more impressive and eye-catching.

For a $25 product, $10 off and 40% off comes to the same value – but wouldn’t you agree that 40% off looks much more attractive (I mean, it’s practically half priced!) The same goes for a whopping discount of $250 off over a 10% discount on a ticket price of $2500. There’s no trickery here – it’s just good copywriting.

An easy rule of thumb – if your product costs more than $100, the ‘flat’ discounts sound more impressive. If your product costs less than $100, then a percentage discount sounds more impressive.

How to Choose Referral Rewards – Will your customers make repeat purchases?

If your advocates are likely to make repeat purchases, give discounts.

If you’re in fashion or a similar industry, where you have regular customers who keep coming back to buy more, you’ll almost definitely want to go with discounts.

The reasoning is simple: your existing customer is now primed to make another purchase. Plus, he or she is likely to make a bigger purchase to make use of the value of the discount. As an added bonus, you now have a new customer in your system (the referred friend)!

If you’re setting up a referral program for subscriptions, an industry trend has been to offer a free month of subscription, which helps you retain your customers and deepen their brand loyalty, like Threadbeast.


 If your advocates are unlikely to make repeat purchases, give cash.

If your product is something that your customers are only going to buy once in a long while (a mattress, an annual calendar, budgeting software), then giving them discounts on future purchases will simply annoy them – it’ll be too long until they can use it again.

Instead, we’ve found cash rewards are always going to be in season.


Mattresses should be replaced every 5-10 years, but cash – or donations – are always in season.

If you’re doing preorders or early access, you can give a “cash discount”.

If you’re doing a crowdfunded/preorder type product, you might want to give your advocates a cash discount on their preorder. Kitchen hardware startup Mellow gave advocates a $20 discount on their purchase for each new successful referral they made.

The referral program helped catapult Mellow to $200,000 preorder sales in less than a month

Even in pre-sales, it was a win-win proposition: excited customers could get their preorders for free if they referred enough people, and Mellow got a bunch of new customers and pre-orders!

Custom Referral Rewards – What is something only your brand can offer?

We’re getting into extra credit territory here, but custom referral rewards are something to think about. ReferralCandy allows you to offer a custom referral reward that the retailer or merchant must fulfil, but that opens up many interesting options for referral incentive offers. For example:

  • Riff Raff & Co, makers of cute sleep toys, offer free shipping for the friend offer. The advocate gets nothing for a successful referral, but five successful referrals wins them a free Riff Raff & Co sleep toy. It’s perfect if you think about it: the second toy can be for a younger sibling, or a spare while the first is in the wash, or even as a gift.
  • Tesla’s referral programoffered advocates and friends $1,000 in credit for referrals. It may seems like a lot (rule of 100!) but even Elon Musk pointed out that a Tesla cost between $70,000 and $150,000. The real referral reward comes at a higher tier; five successful rewards meant an invite to the Gigafactory for a party, and ten rewards unlocked an exclusive, limited-edition “Founder Series” Model X.
  • As part of their launch, Girlfriend Collective gave away free leggings for anyone who shared their post (and paid for shipping. You can’t say no to that – and as a side-effect, their launch was covered by plenty of publications and raved about for months after.
  • Marketing automation software GetResponse offered $30 off their bill for each successful referral – but hit 3 referrals and the reward is a digital marketing certification worth $200 to burnish the CV of any marketer.

Your customers love your brand and want to tell their brands about you – a custom reward allows you to create a unique, branded experience for your customers. That’s something money (or $10,000 in referral rewards) can’t buy!

Back to Top

How to Choose Friend Offers – What do your current customers care most about?

Every merchant needs to figure this one out for themselves. Think about the motivation of your advocates and their friends. What do they care about, what do they want to do?

Greats, for example, choose to give $10 of store credit to both advocate and friend.

You get $10, I get $10, and we can both discuss which sneaker to buy

Here’s what their CEO has to say about referrals:

“It’s all about deeply understanding your core customer and why they share. Young, milennial, digital native. Loves style. Love to hook up his crew. They’re all about sharing. We give them social validation. Referrals just accelerate that, so they’re constantly referring people to the brand.” – Greats CEO Ryan Babenzien

In contrast, DapperTime gives $10 in cash to advocates, because they felt it would be more novel and interesting to their customers.

Literally giving money away.

Back to Top

Still considering? Here are some examples for how to set up your own referral program incentives.

Examples of businesses that use cash as a referral reward in their campaigns:

  • Mattress company Leesa knows that people aren’t likely to buy a second mattress right after they’ve bought their first one, so they give referral cash rewards instead– $50 cash Paypal’d to you, and $50 off for the friend you refer. The mattress typically costs $890, so that’s about a 6% discount.
  • Watch company DapperTime gives $10 cash to advocates and 10% off their friend’s order (as long as the order exceeds $30). When chatting with DapperTime’s marketing team, we learned that they chose cash over discounts because it would be more novel and interesting to their customers. “We’re actually trying to give you money here.”
  • Supplements company Powder City gives a 6% cash reward to the advocate upon successful referral, while offering the referred friend 10% off their purchase.
  • Payment gateway Paypal literally gave away cash as a referral incentive offer in the early days. Similarly, e-wallet company MatchMove gives its customers $3.88 of credit for each referral, up to $500.
  • Stock Video brand Videoblocks gives advocates $20 per successful referral, and 90% off (!) their annual subscription (down to $99.)
  • A good example of a referral program for apps would be budgeting software YouNeedABudget gives both advocate and referred friend $6 cash upon successful referral. The software costs $60, so that’s 10% value.

Examples of businesses that use discounts or credit as referral rewards:

  • Airbnb and Uber give credit towards their services– $10 off your next Uber ride, $25 off your next Airbnb stay, $75 cash if you rent your place out on Airbnb.
  • Footwear brand Greats gives $10 credit to both advocate and friend– which works out well for them, because happy sneakerheads often purchase multiple pairs of shoes and talk about them to their friends
  • Engineering toy brand Goldieblox offers advocates & friends 20% for each successful referral – and since every toy set is different, satisfied customers would be happy to make repeat purcahses.
  • Designer fashion portal Amuze gives both advocate and referred friend $25 off their next purchase.
  • Dropbox gives 500MB free storage to both advocate and referred friends, up to a limit of 16GB. So you can get rewarded for referring up to 32 people to the service. (Pro accounts get double that– 1GB per referral up to 32GB.)

In general, businesses use discounts or credits as referral rewards when they expect their advocates to be repeat customers.

To summarize:

  • If your advocates are likely to make repeat purchases, give discounts to encourage them.
    • If your product costs more than $100, a flat discount is usually more enticing ($500 off a $2,000 laptop)
    • If your product costs less than $100, a percentage discount is usually better ($10 off a $50 t-shirt is better phrased as 20% off)
  • If your advocates are unlikely to make repeat purchases, give cash.
  • If you’re doing preorders, consider giving cash discounts on the advocates’ existing preorder.
  • Remember to focus on your customers’ interests and motivations. What do they want?

Speaking of that some customers also ask us how to allocate your referral incentives. Is it better to split the rewards, or give them all to one party?

Back to Top

Should you use two-sided incentives? And, do you give more to the referrer or the friend?

To frame it in concrete terms, is it better to give $25 to each party, or is it better to give $50 to one of them?

Obviously it would be better still to give $50 to both advocate and friend, but if you’re willing to spend $100, then the question becomes– is it better to give $50 to each, or $100 to one of them?

A 2007 study by Pittsburgh and Korea University has some answers.

We wrote about the study and conclusion in a separate article (Referral Programs: Who Should You Reward?) but in summary, a study was conducted with approximately 300 mobile phone subscribers of 3 telco companies in Korea. One telco had a much stronger brand (53% market share than the other two (31.5% and 15.5% market share).

The subscribers were offered a choice between two referral incentive programs:

  1. A one-sided Reward Me (approx. $50 of free calls in incentives for the advocate)
  2. A two-sided Reward Both (approx. $25 of free calls in incentives to the advocate and friend each).

Note that the total value for each condition is the same: $50. This was then compared to a “No Reward” scheme where neither party got any rewards for a successful referral. The results of the referral study were as follows:

1: Offering a reward increases the likelihood of making referrals

This may seem simple, but now we have proof: in all cases, referral incentives work, and people are likelier to do something if there’s an incentive to motivate them. Both Stronger Brand and Weaker Brand benefited from referral programs, although Weaker Brand benefitted more.

2: Stronger Brands should offer equal, two-sided rewards. Weaker Brands should consider offering Referrers more, or equal rewards

For the Stronger Brand, Reward Both worked better than Reward Me. Researchers speculated that this could be due to existing customers of the stronger brand being less price sensitive, or customers already having a high affinity for the brand (and likely to refer anyway), or the one-sided reward being perceived as unfair.

For the Weaker Brand, rewarding the referrer performed slightly better than rewarding both equally. Researchers believe that their customers were more price-sensitive, and therefore more likely to value the bigger referral reward more highly.

If your brand is strong, you should offer two-sided rewards, inclined towards new customers, since your existing customers are already less price-sensitive. A more attractive friend offer may also incentivise your new customers to switch to your brand.

If your brand is newer, or less strong, it may be worth offering a bigger reward to existing customers, both to deepen their brand loyalty and motivate them to make the referral.

Remember, referral incentives only modify behaviours, not create new ones

The extrinsic aspect (cash, discounts) should sweeten the deal, but the most important thing is that your advocates must personally want to make the referrals in the first place. The study also found that referrals are influenced by the relationship between the customer and the referred friend.

“For a recommendation between strong ties (e.g., close friends), rewarding either the new customer or both the new and the existing customer can increase referral likelihood (though not by much), but rewarding the existing customer does not.

That is, they found that exiting customers seem more interested in giving their close friends a reward than in making money off their friendship.

“Conversely, rewards are important for increasing referral likelihood between weak ties (e.g., casual acquaintances). In such cases, to increase referral likelihood effectively, the recommender should be rewarded.”


After reading all that, it’s time to try ReferralCandy (or use ReferralCandy for Shopify).

Still need a little more help? You can reach out to us and we’ll be able to assist you, or connect you with eCommerce experts like the developers and designers at Ask Lorem to get you started.

Further reading:

P.S. If you enjoyed reading this, subscribe to our newsletter where we share our latest articles and helpful resources.


Visakan Veerasamy

Visa is ReferralCandy's former Blog Editor [2013–2018]. He also co-founded, a fashion ecommerce label selling witty t-shirts. He's mildly Internet-famous for his elaborate Twitter threads. He hopes to enjoy a glass of scotch onboard a commercial space flight someday.

1 comment

  • I actually chatted with my wife about this to ask her what she thought, as her consumer. In her own words: “For fashion and clothing, I’m guessing % discounts will bring me back most often. I just wanna keep getting clothes i love from my favorite store and feel like they love me back, so I pay less.”

Get our latest articles
in your inbox