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The attributes of a successful referral program

Posted by Sheera Eby on January 2, 2014

Marketers are searching for new ways to develop and execute referral programs. These programs are popular because they benefit everyone involved: Employers look smart and savvy by providing perks to their employees, and employees in turn benefit from participating. Referral programs are also perfect for any business that faces a tight budget and aggressive sales goals, since they can work without the support of a sales force.



So when the business-to-business team at FirstEnergy Solutions, an electric generation supplier, requested that we create a program that wouldn’t put a dent in their budget but would offer tangible, measurable results, we knew a referral program was the way to go.

The process of creating a successful referral program is no small thing and depends on a number of key elements to pull it off smoothly. Because referral programs depend on active, ongoing participation, it’s important to keep everyone engaged and informed. Garnering trust and motivating individuals are also important factors for a successful program, but they’re not all. Success depends on the coexistence of a number of factors.


Consider the following steps, which we applied to FirstEnergy Solutions’ Friends and Family program, to achieve your referral program goals:



Create advocates out of customers. Half the battle for marketers is getting prospects to trust that the product or service being sold to them is legitimate and worthwhile. People trust what’s familiar. By leveraging existing customer relationships, as referral programs often do, marketers can directly contact and engage prospects.


But in order to make the effort truly grassroots, something participants can get excited about, communications should highlight the uniqueness of the program. FirstEnergy Solutions’ Friends and Family program, for example, allowed small-business employees to qualify for a special, exclusive rate on electric generation, just for being employed by a company that gets its own generation from FirstEnergy Solutions. Working as an invisible sales force, advocates of the Friends and Family program focused their message on FirstEnergy Solutions being a smart, sensible choice for electric generation, given the exclusive offer.



Remove marketing barriers by employing clear, relevant messaging. Program participants can’t properly advertise a product if they don’t know what they’re selling. The last thing marketers want prospects to think is, “What’s the catch?” Avoid this challenge by supplying participants with simple but comprehensive materials to spread the word. Consider incorporating a simply stated list of frequently asked questions that addresses information essential to the program. For the FirstEnergy Solutions Friends and Family program, this included eligibility, enrollment steps, contract details, fees and contact information.


To further avoid consumer apprehension, make sure that the design of the program is simple and approachable. The visual concept for the FirstEnergy Solutions Friends and Family program was consistent with the FirstEnergy Solutions brand, but also neutral enough to allow for the inclusion of the participating company’s logo. All components of the program were co-branded and steered clear of any flashy or gimmicky art.



Make sharing the program simple and easy. A turnkey referral program, or one that’s ready to use, is perhaps the most important factor to success. Providing all the necessary marketing materials encourages participation because it involves little to no actual work on the part of the participant. This might be as simple as providing customizable templates for brochures and posters to place around the office, or may go so far as to create a microsite or streaming video, depending on your goals. Whatever marketing channel you choose to pursue, make sure that every communication and engagement device works to inform and educate.


Knowing that businesses don’t have a lot of time in their day, we made sure to provide them with online and print materials for the FirstEnergy Solutions Friends and Family program, including emails, signage, a downloadable enrollment form and a special landing page for employees. These last two examples were especially important to the program, as they provided direct avenues for action, or enrollment, in FirstEnergy Solutions.



Engage in an online community. Anyone who uses social media, but especially Facebook and Twitter, can attest to how fast information travels online. According to HubSpot, about 46% of online users turn to social media when mulling over a purchase decision. And businesses use it to promote sales, introduce new products and services, and bring together those who share an interest in their brand. Leveraging social media to promote a referral program makes perfect sense because many people who use it often do so to refer their own friends and family to things they love with wall postings and status updates.


Social media also makes it easy for users to forward information. Individuals can post to prospects’ Facebook or Twitter feed. They can recommend and “like” certain products, which automatically notifies everyone in their social circles about their activities and interests.

As you can see, the role of the marketer in referral programs is to prepare participants to launch and sell the product or service in as seamless a way as possible.

The steps listed above helped make FirstEnergy Solutions’ Friends and Family program a success. The results were immediate. Not only did the program sell itself as we’d intended, but 15% of companies agreed to participate, resulting in increased enrollment in the first few months.



Topics: Utility Industry

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