Wouldn’t it be awesome if all you needed to do to attract new customers was to keep your existing ones satisfied? Well, that wouldn’t be too unorthodox a strategy!

Happy customers CAN be your biggest brand ambassadors  — referring your course to their connections and influencing purchase decisions. And since 92% of consumers turn to their friends and family for recommendations, you should be taking advantage of the opportunity.

But here’s the catch: the idea that your students will refer you to their families and friends simply out of goodwill or because your course is exceptionally value-driven — or even exceedingly effective — is rather far-fetched. 

Now, if they had a solid reason to promote your course, that’d be a different story altogether, wouldn’t it?

Yes, we are talking about killer referral incentives like lucrative discounts, free products, and loyalty points! In fact, we recommend you go full measure and create an epic referral program from scratch to take word-of-mouth referrals to the next level.

In this article, we’ll deep dive into such kick-ass referral strategies that can make your course endorsement worthy as ever.

What is a referral program?

A referral program is a trust-based marketing tactic where customers make digitized referrals on behalf of your brand in exchange for lucrative rewards. These rewards usually range from business-related gifts, huge discounts, bonus points to cashback rewards, access to new products, or free memberships, among other incentives.

All this to and fro between affiliates and customers is tracked through a referral link, taking the burden off of course creators and affiliates. Pretty straightforward so far? Well, that’s pretty much all there is to it. 

The basic tenet of any referral program is to generate leads for your business — and not just any leads – only people who actually stand to benefit from your course and will buy it. 

For example, the online learning platform upGrad offers INR 3000 worth of benefits to students whose referrals lead to their course sales.

People are 4x likely to make the final purchase if the product in question is recommended by someone they know. Also, customers acquired by such referrals tend to have a 37% higher retention rate, with 80% of these willing to engage with your reward programs.

All of these numbers point towards one undisputed fact — referral marketing sure as hell works!

But, are referral programs effective for online courses?

Online coaches and instructors usually adopt content marketing techniques like free previews, crash courses, email marketing tactics, and other acquisition-first strategies to attract potential customers and improve course sales. 

But to build long-term customer relationships, your focus should be on promoting loyalty and trust towards your brand. 

And a customer referral program, or as it is commonly called, a “Refer a Friend” program, is the most reliable and influential way to do so. 

That’s not just a tall claim per se; the Harvard Business Review itself concluded that “customers obtained through referrals are both more loyal and valuable than other customers.”

It makes a whole lot of sense too. We tend to trust our friends and families more than an ad or email. If your friend shares a Spotify song with you, you listen to it. If they recommend a clothing brand, an art workshop, or a yoga course, you are likely to check it out.

From online marketplaces like Airbnb to file-hosting platforms like Dropbox, numerous successful businesses worldwide rely on customer referral programs to drive purchase decisions.

In the currently booming eLearning industry as well, an effective referral program can do wonders in enhancing your visibility among unwitting crowds and driving mammoth profits! 

Established and seasoned course creators — whether in the field of culinary, lifestyle, fashion, tech, art, or humanities — have already been harnessing the power of referral programs to get their message to target audiences.

If you’ve heard of Tony Robbins, you will know what we are talking about! The brilliant life coach and motivational speaker has a series of top-notch professional and personal development programs to his name.

His website hosts a referral program wherein promoters of his course (aka affiliates) earn a 15% commission for every sale made through them. All they have to do is share his training programs with business associates, family, or friends, and encourage them to purchase preferred programs using their referral link. 

Millions of people attend his live webinars and seminars regularly through this strategy alone. That’s a fabulous example of a referral program at work!

So, yes, word-of-mouth referrals are damn effective at driving course sales! And if you have an online course, a top-grade referral program should be your go-to marketing technique to tap into the power of student recommendations.

Knock it out of the park with referral marketing

So, what is it about referral marketing that helps improve course sales?

Well, let’s say you’re past the back-breaking task of creating your online course. You’ve kept it digestible and engaging, added visual aids, incorporated different content formats, etc.

Say you even did a fine job promoting your course to your target audience — all of which are already complex and time-intensive tasks, by the way! But despite it all, you hit a sales plateau. 

Having exhausted potential leads you could directly market your course to, you may now want to consider indirect marketing strategies so that your state-of-the-art course does not get lost in the noisy hustle and bustle of the web.

Referral marketing can help you with this.

1. Boost brand exposure

Whether through a simple Facebook post, a WhatsApp text, or a full-fledged referral program, you can request your connections and existing clientele to promote your course to their connections.

This way, you have the chance to reach audiences that might have otherwise never known about your course or even bothered to check it out if they did. 

Case in point, Bizgurukul, an online digital entrepreneurship school that offers affiliate marketing courses to experts and budding entrepreneurs. They have a referral program where course buyers can earn up to 70% commission on referring and convincing a potential lead to buy their course. 

As a result, the online school currently has over 100+ trainers and a learners base of 35,000+ worldwide!

Students who take up the course promote it across their social media platforms and amongst their friend circles, colleagues, and so on, creating their personal brand and establishing an online presence along the way.

With strategies like SEO and Adword optimization, you may be promoting your course to an audience that wants to buy your course. On the other hand, referral marketing attracts people who aren’t even looking for you! Sounds kinda neat, right?

2. Reach the right audience

Apart from serendipitously reaching unintended audiences, referral programs provide the added benefit of strengthening your hold on your target audience — especially when partnering with affiliates in your niche. 

So if your course is related to Psychology, the ideal affiliate partners for you would be mental health experts and professionals who are best qualified to spread the word about your course.

Check out this clinical psychologist and therapist business coach Doctor TK who, apart from promoting her “Private Practice Bootcamp” on social media, routinely partners with affiliates in her niche to harness the power of their audience. 

3. Cut-down marketing costs

Referrals barely cost anything to acquire despite being highly valuable. This is simply because you pay rewards only when you earn an actual customer, none for impressions or clicks as we see with Facebook and Google ads. Therefore, there is a reduced risk of sunk costs.

In fact, referrals are not just beneficial to you; they allow affiliates to monetize their handles as well. So, even monitoring every sale is unnecessary since they are already motivated to build your brand. Instead, they’ll sing your praises to their niche audience, who in turn are highly likely to buy your course, thereby helping affiliates establish an online presence.

4. Turn students into fans

Students who willingly recommend your course are generally the ones who found it valuable and resonate with it. It possibly transformed their lives or helped them learn a new skill.

So, when you reward them for referrals, you are essentially thanking them, which in other words, solidifies your relationship with them and helps earn their trust. And as we know, establishing consumer trust is the holy grail for improving retention rates!

Check out this fitness enthusiast-turned-ambassador’s heartfelt post on becoming an active part of the online fitness training program, Tone and Sculpt.

All this is to say that referral marketing is a low-risk, low investment technique known to provide positive ROIs and increase overall brand exposure. There may not be an exact science to back it, but referral marketing also generates legit backlinks, thereby improving your SEO. Yes, there you have it!

Bangin’ examples of Referral Programs to inspire your own

If you’re a beginner in referral marketing, it makes sense to learn from the giants in your field who are killing it with their referral programs. 

For instance, take the example of Marie Forleo’s online B-School, which is primarily focused on female entrepreneurs. As you can see, like much else of her digital branding, she’s able to connect with the potential affiliates at her affiliate partner page:

The enrollment for the high-ticket program opens only once every year, but she pays her affiliates equally well. Her course is priced at $2499, and affiliates earn $1000 per sale! Check it out:

Marie follows a strict criterion in finalizing affiliates, usually favoring students who’ve taken her course before. 

Sounds easy, right? If you have a business-related course, that should spark some ideas for your referral program.

Let’s take another noteworthy example of Brian Tracy, a household name in the field of self-improvement with courses that also cater to business development. 

Brian Tracy’s affiliates partner with his brand privately and earn 30% commission on every sale. One of the highlights of his programs is the best-in-class customer support available to affiliates. They also have the option to choose an affiliate program better suited to their skills — email marketing, web advertising, or social promotions.

Here’s one other inspiring program by Vishen Lakhiani’s MindValley wherein they only partner with potential affiliates who have a highly engaged audience of over 200,000.

They provide a retargeting campaign free of cost and a cookie lifetime of 30 days. Affiliates also benefit from a dedicated marketing manager who helps them devise campaigns and improve conversions.

The idea is to provide your affiliates the necessary resources and guidance to excel in their domain, thereby effectively harnessing their audience’s power.

You can find numerous other epic referral programs on popular course-building sites like Udemy, Udacity, and Codecademy. 

Get inspired by what eLearning leaders are doing and decide the best mix for yourself! Then, all you’ve got to do is ensure your final strategy is tailored to your course and audience. In that sense, you will have the flexibility to get creative with your rewarding strategies and bowl your competition. 

4 effective ways to reward your rockstar customers

When you finally kickstart your referral program, you can decide on an attractive incentive(s) for your affiliates — one that adequately displays your gratitude and simultaneously inspires them to build your brand.

Make sure to personalize your rewards — you’re looking to build real and sustainable relationships with them. 

Therefore, apart from following the general pay per commission strategy, here are some interesting ideas that you can look into to reward your affiliates:

1. Value-added benefits

You could offer a free course or one-on-one session for students who refer three or more friends. Take inspiration from the India-based company Flintobox that offers free products on successful referrals.

2. Discounts

A generous percentage off on their next purchase is never a bad idea.

3. Gifts

Gadgets or business-related books, an Amazon gift card – basically anything that appeals to them. Everyone loves surprises!

4. Cash

Cut to the chase and dedicate a fixed amount to customers for bringing in referrals. For instance, Lamba School rewards people with $500 in cash if referred students enter a Lambda School program.

In that light, you can also gamify your incentives by combining different rewards. For instance, referring to one friend could earn the student free study material, referring three friends could make them eligible for a one-on-one session, and referring five or more friends can get them access to two paid courses for free. This list can go on, and it’s your call to pick the right incentive!

Referral programs are extremely valuable in today’s noisy world. Just so you don’t get left behind, utilize the power of referral programs for your online course and see your course sales skyrocket. Believe us, there’s nothing that cuts through the web’s hustle and bustle like word-of-mouth reviews!