Referral Marketing Definitions You Should Know

Posted by Chris Tweten | Jul 1, 2021

Welcome to GrowSurf's Official Referral Program Dictionary!

Within it is all of the core terms that you will be using, making reference to and needing to understand if you are considering creating and running a referral program of your own. Each term comes with its own definition and many have links to deeper explanations. But first of all, the most important term to understand:

What is a referral program?

A referral program is a structured and recognized method used by companies and businesses to encourage and enable their users or customers to spread the word about their company or business. It is also regularly referred to as the refer-a-friend program or a customer referral program. The concept is to encourage, incentivize, and reward those customers who are most loyal to the company. Rewards often come in the form of discounts, merchandise and special offers.

Components of a Referral Program

Now that we’ve covered the widest of terms, let’s dig into the most frequently used terms related to the construction and makeup of a referral program by looking at the components that it is made of:

A referral link is a link that is created by the owner of the program, distributed to the referrer and is completely unique to each user. They are created in a way that makes them incredibly easy to track and monitor, as well as being simple to share. The link, when shared by the referrer, grants certain rewards of offers when used by a third party. These links can be shared manually, embedded in emails or social media and placed on websites.

The links are able to be tracked individually, allowing detailed analytics to be collected on each referrer and, therefore, allows companies to better understand the most effective and successful referral campaigns that they are running.

Here's what a Share URL might look like:

referral link definition

Referral Code

A referral code is a unique combination of letters, numbers or even words. These codes, as they are unique to each individual referrer, enables tracking of successful referrals. Not only are the referrers able to be tracked in the number of referrals made, but the company can trace customers back to their original referrer.

The code is sometimes used in itself and shared manually on emails, social media or websites but can sometimes also be found within referral links as a unique URL or slug.

Referral Trigger

A referral trigger is an event that starts a referral reward being sent out to your participants. For example, if you wanted to send rewards only to users that spend $100+ via Stripe, your trigger would be all Stripe transactions valued at $100+.

The Emails of a Referral Program

Company-to-Customer Email

Sometimes known as the 'referral email', the company-to-customer email is the start of the referral program process. It is sent to potential referrers to let them know that a referral program exists. It encourages potential customers to take part and become referrers by sharing the incentives and rewards.

These emails need to have care taken in their craft as they can lead to a major uptake in a new or growing referral program. Writing the perfect referral email takes time and practice.

Note: The referral email is different from the referral message, which is the message content sent by a referrer to their network.

Customer-to-Customer Email

The customer-to-customer email is the email sent from a customer to their network to spread the word about your referral program. Participants of your referral program send these emails to friends, family and colleagues with their unique share URL for referral tracking.

customer-to-customer referral email

Referral Message

The referral message is a message sent from the referrer to their network, which could include friends, family, colleagues or other business contacts. These messages often include either a referral code or referral link. Some referrers go to great lengths to craft the perfect referral message in order to maximize the opportunity for referral rewards. These messages can be emailed, instant messaged, text or just shared in person.

Referral Portal (Friend Landing Page)

The referral portal, or friend landing page, is the page that a person will land on when they have clicked on the referral link sent to them by a referrer. These pages typically include information on the offer, multiple clear calls-to-action, incentives to purchase and links to the product or service page. The aim of this page is to maximize the number of people who will go on to make a purchase, and therefore become a conversion.

Referral FAQ

The referral FAQ is the page where all referrers can access information to solve the most frequently asked questions regarding the referral program. When creating a referral FAQ, companies should look to clearly share the referral process, what referrers should expect whilst taking part in the program, information about the referral program’s terms and conditions, and general tips that should make the program as successful as possible.

When you run a referral campaign through GrowSurf, you'll have a referral FAQ with some of the most commonly asked questions attached by default.

referral program FAQ

Call-To-Action (CTA)

Call-to-action or CTA is a phrase often used within the digital marketing realm, essentially it’s a short piece of text that compels a reader to complete an action such as visiting a product page, downloading a piece of information, watching a video, or purchasing a product. In referral programs, the owner of the program will use CTAs to encourage users to sign up for their referral program. Then referrers will use CTAs to encourage their network to complete the referral offer.

The best CTAs are clear, concise and easy to complete. Try not to overly complicate the action you’d like the reader to take, or ask them to complete multiple tasks (actions) at the same time.

For a referrer, your CTA might be "Join our referral program".

For a referred person, the CTA of a referral message might be, "Refer a friend and get $25."

The People of a Referral Program

Referral programs work because of the people within them. They are the creators, the sharers and the potential customers, each of whom are integral to the success of the referral program. There are a fair number of people involved in the referral process, but these 3 are, arguably, the most important:

Referrer (Referred Person, Member, Advocate)

The referrer is the workhorse of your referral program. They are the ones sharing your referral offer with their network and driving more potential customers to your business. Through your referral program, they receive incentives, rewards and offers related to their performance.

referrer example


The referral is the referrer’s friend, acquaintance or connection who has taken up the referral offer. It is important to note that they remain a referral even if they do not go on to make a purchase (and therefore become a customer).

Referred Person (Referred User or Customer)

The referred person is someone who was referred to your business or company by a referrer and have, subsequently, become a user or customer. As they became a user or customer through a referral rather than organically they are known as a referred user or a referred customer.

Subscribe to GrowSurf

Get our weekly newsletter for our latest referral marketing guides.

Successfully subscribed!

Error subscribing! Please try again.

Referral Incentives (Rewards)

Referral programs work because people are incentivized to take part. These incentives encourage people to share your offer, tell more potential customers about it and, therefore, drive up your conversions. Choosing the right referral incentives is absolutely essential to getting your program to be a success. In fact, they are so important that they could be the difference between a successful campaign and one doomed to failure.

The rewards you choose to offer can fit into more than one of the following categories.

One-Sided Incentives (Single-Sided Incentives)

The one-sided incentive offers a reward to either the referrer or the friend that they are referring (the referral). In this instance only one party receives a reward for taking part in the referral program. An example would be, a referred person receiving one month free by signing up through a referral link, the referrer receives nothing in return.

Two-Sided Incentives (Double-Sided Incentives)

The next step on from one-sided incentives, the two-sided incentive, rewards both the referrer and the referral (friend, colleague etc). This adds to the motivating factors for the referrer to share the referral offer as not only is the new customer getting rewarded, they are also being rewarded for their efforts. At its launch, Uber used two-incentives in their referral program whereby the referrer received credit and the referral customer received a free ride (up to a certain value).

referral program incentives

Cumulative Incentives (Milestone Rewards)

Cumulative incentives are repeat incentives that encourage long term participation in a referral program. They tend to work on the basis that the referrer will receive x for each time that a new referral signs up, such as “$5 credit voucher for every person you refer to our platform”. Options include credit, gift cards, discounts, free months (subscriptions) and more. In order to be successful, cumulative incentives should be able to be used in stacks, allowing customers greater opportunity to purchase.

Leaderboard Rewards

Leaderboard rewards involve offering a reward for your top referrer for the time period. For example, you might award a $100 Amazon gift card to the person who referred the most new clients in one month. These rewards can be given out monthly or at any time period that works best for your company.

Tiered Incentives

Tiered incentives, in much the same way as cumulative incentives, encourage long term participation through an increasing level of reward depending on the number or value or referrals sent to the business. The more successful referrals that a referrer sends, the greater their rewards become.

This could be in the form of a growing % discount, an increasing monetary value ($5 for the first 5 referrals, $10 per referral after that up to 10, $20 per referral after that and so on). The tiers available can be open ended and, depending on your model, can encourage some friendly competition between your referrers.

Referral Reward (Referral Offer)

The referral reward is why your referrers are willing to participate in the program. It is the reward that they receive when a referral successfully completes a purchase or signs up to a service. The referral reward can also refer to the outline of the rewards within the referral program notes. It should be made absolutely clear what the rewards are and how participants will receive them.

Referral Program Tracking

In order to make the most out of a referral program and for it to be a success at all, you’re going to need referral program tracking. The tracking will enable you to track who is participating, who is successfully making referrals, what those referrals are worth to you as a business and more in depth information (such as demographics, psychographics and more).

There are myriad of metrics that you can track within a referral program but main KPIs would be those which directly impact your sales and marketing efforts.

Participation Rate

The participation rate is simply the percentage of all of your users who are actively referring their network through participation in your referral program. This is actively tracked by cross referencing the total number of users vs the total number of referral program participants.

Share Rate

The share rate is the level that the referrer is sharing the referral program to their network. This could be as simple as how many times the code is shared on a daily/weekly/monthly basis. This is tracked by seeing how many times the referral link or code has been sent out.


Conversions are what you are hoping for in business. They are triggered when a customer or referral completes an action that you have requested they do. This could be signing up to a mailing list but is usually used to refer to completed purchases or sign ups. In the referral program, a conversion is completed when a friend signs up or purchases when using a referrer's code or link.

Conversion Rate (CR)

The conversion rate is calculated by dividing the total number of successful referrals by the total number or potential customers the referral link or code was sent to. This rate is important to see how effective the referrer is at getting their network to participate in the referral program.

Customer Lifetime Value (CLV or LTV)

The customer lifetime value, also known as the CLV or LTV refers to the value that a customer goes on to be worth or their projected value for the future. The metric is important within referral systems as it is possible that, even though the company may not make a high margin on the initial referral (seeing as they are giving out rewards) the CLV or LTV may outweigh this and make the scheme worthwhile over longer periods of time.

It is also worth noting that those who are referred by their close acquaintances or friends are more likely to become loyal customers than those who come through paid advertising or organic channels.

Return on Investment (ROI)

Return on investment, more commonly known as ROI, shows how much profit you are making based on the activities of the referral program. We calculate this rate by taking the sales value as a result of the referral program, minus the associated costs attributable to the referral program. This is important when considering setting up a referral program in the first place. Whilst the initial cost might be high, the ROI will usually heavily outweigh the startup costs thanks to CLV.

Referral Program Growth Terms

When discussing referral programs the conversation inevitably turns to growth. Successful programs need growth to scale and within the referral world there are particular terms associated with the growth of referral programs.

Virality (Viral Growth)

Virality refers to when a product, service or even a piece of information goes viral, meaning that it attracts a large audience or customer base very quickly in a short period of time. Virality relies entirely on peer to peer sharing, but in a slightly different way to standard word-of-mouth which happens organically. Virality, instead, happens through a series of planned processes and steps which encourage a product or service to go viral. Some products may even have virality built into them by design.

Virality is achieved by:

  • Making your product eminently shareable
  • Learning what incentives will make people share your product
  • Building a product that regularly solves a problem for the user so that it becomes a habit and they naturally share it with others
  • Incentivizing the user base with a referral program

Viral Loop

The viral loop is achieved when users or customers share the product or service with their network, this network in turn becomes new users, these new users go on to share the product or service with their network, and the loop continues (hopefully) ad infinitum. The viral loop is often created through the use of a successful referral program that uses the two-sided incentive system, thereby creating a network where both the referrer and new referral benefit (and the new customer will likely go on to be a referrer thus growing the network further).

Social Proof

Social proof is based on the concept that people are more likely to purchase a product or service if they see others in their network using it first. The more advocates, brand evangelists, and those enamored with the brand, the greater the power of the social proof.

The greatest amount of social proof comes from those closest to us, as we implicitly trust their opinion and actions more. Therefore, if a close friend is part of a referral program, and refers you to a service or product, based on their own personal experience, that referral is far more likely to be successful.

Social Currency

Social currency held by an individual is the power they have over their network and how that network perceives them. It is, for want of a better word, how cool they look. Through social media, people will naturally share services, products and information in order to make themselves look good to their friends and network.

Brands are also able to hold social currency based on how they are perceived by those they are marketing to. If a brand holds high levels of social currency then the public are far more likely to share information about the company and, vitally, share their products and services. It is unlikely that someone will complete these shares (or spend their social currency) if they believe that it will damage their social standpoint. It has to better or enhance their social standing.

Therefore, a referral program requires people to buy into it, to spend some of their social currency, because if they fear that sharing it with friends and those they want to be held in high regard by will damage their reputation, they simply won’t.

Referral Marketing Terms

Within referral marketing there are certain terms that will crop up time and again. Each of these terms has specific meaning within the referral program field.

Advocacy Marketing

Advocates are those who stand by your brand and, to an extent, everything you do. They believe so strongly in your product or service that they will share the message far and wide. They will, naturally, spread brands and products through word of mouth but, at least initially, they will be incentivized to do so through a properly set up referral program. These people are often the ones that one sees wearing branded gear or using branded items, even if they are potentially indirectly related to the actual product.

Relationship Marketing

Relationship marketing focuses on the long term goals with a person rather than short term actions. Instead of focusing on the likes of individual sales, relationship marketing looks to develop deeper connections with the user base over a longer period of time. It works by developing and promoting loyalty through various methods. A referral program, especially one that offers tiered rewards that grow in significance over time, can develop deeper relationships with customers.

relationship marketing

Partner Program

Partner programs offer incentives and rewards to other companies in exchange for promotion of your products, services and brand. They may be rewarded using shared brand awareness, cash incentives or collaborative marketing efforts.

Affiliate Marketing

Affiliate marketing aims at the digital sphere, where those with an online platform place product or service links within their blogs, social media channels and websites which then pay them a commission if sales are generated through them. The key difference between affiliate and referral marketing is that affiliates aren’t marketing to those within their immediate social circle, they are marketing to their traffic.

Influencer Marketing

Brands make use of influencer marketing by leveraging the authority that those held in high regard have over an audience. Influencers are typically celebrities or those who have found a large follower base through social media but there are those who are influencers without necessarily being famous. Some influencers will promote anything and everything, therefore it is important for brands to align themselves with influencers who they feel have the best connection to their own audience.

Brand Ambassador

Brand ambassadors are your best friends when it comes to marketing. They are those who are so into your brand that they genuinely care about your mission, they live your core values, they use all of your products and, generally, can’t stop talking about your brand.

These relationships can be formalised through the use of an ambassador program, whereby members can become official ambassadors of your brand. They are sent your products, information to share and often get rewards for doing so.

Key Takeaways

There is a whole lot of information and technical terms to absorb when it comes to referral programs, but by taking the time to understand each of them and, importantly, how they can affect your business and your marketing efforts, the rewards can be reaped.

Subscribe to GrowSurf

Get our weekly newsletter for our latest referral marketing guides.

Successfully subscribed!

Error subscribing! Please try again.

You might also enjoy

Card image cap

Why Every SaaS Needs a Referral Program (with Examples)

SaaS referral programs are one of the most cost-efficient ways for startups to gain new signups and paying customers. Here's 5 reasons why and examples to study

Posted by Amanda Laine | July 23, 2021
Card image cap
StartupsReferral Marketing

The Perfect Refer a Friend Email Recipe (With 11 Examples)

Yes, refer-a-friend emails can be an effective tool in any tech startup's arsenal, but how do you craft the perfect one? Read on and find out!

Posted by Sandra Petrova | May 14, 2021
Card image cap
Referral Marketing

The Psychology of Referral Marketing: Why Referrals Work

Referrals marketing works because it's based on human psychology. Customer referrals will still be effective 100 years from now and here's exactly why.

Posted by Sandra Petrova | April 16, 2021
Card image cap
TipsReferral Marketing

41 Referral Program Examples

Looking for referral program inspiration? In this post, we've compiled 41 referral program examples, with screenshots of their websites, emails, and user flows.

Posted by Kevin Yun | April 10, 2021
Card image cap
TipsReferral Marketing

4 Powerful Ways to Optimize Your Referral Program

While referral programs are an effective way to promote your products and services, they’re not always easy to optimize. Here are 4 powerful ways to optimize your referral program.

Posted by Lars Arboleda | January 8, 2021
Card image cap
StartupsReferral MarketingNewslettersSaaS

10 Crucial Tips To Promote Your Referral Program to Success

Once you've launched your referral program, it is not enough to sit back and wait for referrals to come in. Getting the message out to your users is critical to successful referral marketing. Learn how to spread the word with these 10 crucial tips.

Posted by Kevin Yun | March 9, 2020