How to Optimize Referral Programs

Analyzing 15 start-up referral codes + landing pages

I’ve been hustling for jobs. The challenge is that the companies I’m most interested in don’t have an open position that fits my background and level of experience (May Scripps College econ & Mandarin grad who recently completed the growth track at Tradecraft). As part of my hustle, I’ve been passing along referral codes. I want to prove that I can add value.

The process began with Uber and Lyft rides. The driver would ask me about what I do, and I’d start talking about Tradecraft, my journey there, and some of my lessons learned. But then it dawned on me to take advantage of the one-on-one conversations with a stranger to practice pitching a startup — motivated by just wanting to survey thoughts about the startup, and how it could improve or be better marketed. I’ve focused on discussing Wealthfront, since it’s a company I’ve determined I would really like to work with.

Challenges with Referral Codes

At the beginning of my fun project promoting start-ups to Uber & Lyft drivers, I would casually mention the driver could get xyz free with my code. After practicing the “pitch” on a few people — they started asking me if I had a code!

After a few rides, a few challenges arose:

Improving Referral Codes

After challenges remembering my referral codes, I wondered if referrals increase if the code incorporates the person’s name.

I began my quest for solving this question by analyzing my referral codes.

Analysis of My Referral Codes and Sitelinks


Evernote —

Hotel Tonight — promo code IHERLIHY —


Lyft — code INA85 at

Munchery — promo code 6ZHJG67X —


Postmates — code 5l5lq —


Sprig — code HerlihyH9U — download the Sprig app at

SpoonRocket has a flawed referral program.


Uber — code qfjxo — or


I turned to to create personalized codes that include “Ina” — so they were easier to remember.

Other start-ups should follow Eventbrite, and allow users to create personal links without leaving their site.

I analyzed 15 referral codes, and only four (Airbnb, Hotel Tonight, Lyft, and Sprig) had my name automatically included in either the referral code or/and site link.
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Why Personalization Matters

Airbnb has a great culture of continuous learning, with their Tech Talks and blogging about lessons learned — so I wanted to see if their personalized referral program was because of insight from an experiment. It was!

Jason Bosinoff, Airbnb Growth Engineering Manager, blogged about how his team reengineered the referral program to increase user signups and bookings by over 300% per day. They selected their success metrics before beginning, after an inspiring Airbnb fireside chat to “keep score and win games” by Wealthfront CEO Adam Nash.
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Jason and his team created personalized referral codes and landing pages with a photo of the inviter. Referrals increased booking by over 25% in some markets.

Personalized Landing Page Variations

Shyp and Instacart have personalized landing pages with a photo and name, but no personalized referral code.

(*Sidenote on Instacart — I created an account through Facebook, and it automatically pulled my profile photo. I couldn’t find a feature to upload a different photo.)

Nextdoor has a personalized landing page with a name and photo when referred through their $25 Amazon card promotion for new neighborhoods, but no personalization through their standard email invite.

There are also variations to the inviter’s name:

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When personalizing referrals, it’s important to design it for your specific start-up. Andy Johns, Director of Growth & Revenue at Wealthfront, mentioned that Wealthfront doesn’t include an individual’s photo on their referral landing page, because of the sensitivity of investing.
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Use Rankings to Increase Referrals

Individuals are often incentivized by competition.

“A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up and outpace.” — Ovid
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Nextdoor leverages this behavioral economics insight by including a leaf with the number of each user’s accepted invites. It creates a fun competition amongst neighbors (or maybe just for me!) to see who can be #1 on the “View Top Inviters” page.

But this strategy doesn’t work for every startup whose referral codes and links I analyzed above. Users need to have public profiles on the site.

Referral Programs
3 Concluding Recommendations

Feel free to reach out on Twitter: @inaherlihy.

Product Manager @Walmart. I speak as many languages as I have passports (that’s three). Previous: Zumper and Nestlé

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