How Morning Brew’s referral program built an audience of 1.5 million subscribers

The inner workings of one of the most powerful growth tools in email.

Tyler Denk
Aug 19, 2019 · 21 min read
Image for post
Image for post

Back in 2017…

My goal was simply to build anything that would grow the audience.

Rule #1: Start with the product

When looking to maximize growth, there are two essential criteria to consider:

  1. How can you build growth mechanisms natively into the product?
  • Dropbox gave free additional storage to those who referred others.
  • Harry’s Razors created a milestone-based referral program providing free product before they even launched.
  • Wealthfront has an Invite Program that gives both the referrer and referee an additional $5,000 managed for free. And it works really well (you can use my referral code here).

The Tech

Our referral program is entirely custom-built using Ruby on Rails and a few integrations with our ESP (email service provider), Sailthru. Here’s how this works:

  1. Using this referral code, Morning Brew generates a unique referral link for you to share with others (mine is https://www.morningbrew.com/daily/r/?kid=d8aabc).
  2. When someone (whom we’ll refer to as subscriber X) signs up using your unique referral link, they are forever linked to your account. You will always be their “referrer.”
  3. Morning Brew uses a double opt-in process to confirm every email is legitimate (nice try poop@gmail.com). After subscriber X signs up, they’ll be prompted to confirm their email.
  4. Clicking the link to confirm their email triggers an action on Sailthru to send an API request to our database.
  5. That request will tell us that subscriber X has just confirmed their email, meaning that you (as the referrer) should receive credit for that transaction.
  6. My referral count will be incremented by 1, and you may or may not receive a transactional email alerting you of the update (depending on how many referrals you have…but more on that in a bit).
  1. Receiving an email every time someone hits a milestone that displays all of their referrals’ emails (it’s very easy to identify fake and/or disposable emails).
  2. Having a list of 600 (and growing) fake email domains that we blacklist.
  3. Blacklisting said nefarious actors from being able to refer any additional people.
  4. Blocking specific IP addresses from submitting emails at any time.

The Rewards

Over the years, we’ve been able to take advantage of the intimacy of email and garner tons of tangible feedback from our readers — they just have to hit “reply.” We also leverage the passionate community of Morning Brew Insiders (more on that in a moment) conduct polls and facilitate discussions.

Image for post
Image for post
A graphic we use to display all of our rewards
  1. It’s completely free for us. We don’t need to purchase raw goods, ship products, etc. You share the Brew three times, and we’ll add you to an additional email list at no real cost to the business.

Referral Hub

With the tech built and the rewards in place, the next step was creating a central hub where users can learn about the rewards, track their progress, and utilize tools to help them share the Brew seamlessly. Said in broader terms — the page’s main goal is to educate, motivate, and assist the end user to continue to share our product with others.

Image for post
Image for post
Screenshot of the referral hub on desktop

1. Educate

People first need to know you have a rewards program (and how it works) before it can become effective.

2. Motivate

We motivate users by providing a real-time counter that tracks how many referrals someone has, along with some encouragement: “You’re only X referrals away from receiving Y!”

Image for post
Image for post
Progress bar on previous version of referral hub

3. Assist

This is where you do all you can to make actually sharing your product as easy as possible. The ultimate goal here is to remove any bit of friction.

Image for post
Image for post
Additional mobile-only options provided on referral page

Landing Page

Let’s continue to work our way down the funnel. After a reader opts to share their unique referral link with someone, the goal now is to make sure that someone becomes a subscriber.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Initial landing page (left) and different concept for referrals (right)
Image for post
Image for post
Google Optimize screenshot testing different language and designs

Newsletter share section

If I broke the entire referral process into a funnel, it would look like this.

Image for post
Image for post
Our referral funnel
  1. ~45% of people open the newsletter on any given day
  2. ~X% of these people click the “Click to Share” button (which links to their unique referral hub) on any given day
Image for post
Image for post
One of the many newsletter share sections we test
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Newsletter share section promoting Light Roast (left) and t-shirts (right)

Transactional emails

Aside from our daily email, which is considered a “campaign” or “bulk email” because it’s sent to a significant number of people all at once, we also send many one-off “transactional” emails to our readers. The primary objective of the emails is to boost the effectiveness of the referral program, and it can be broken down into three main categories: the initial ask, milestone, and nudge.

The Initial Ask

The reality is that the vast majority of our readers have 0 referrals. Convincing someone to go out of their way to share our product (or any product) is a challenge, so most of our focus goes into enticing them to get from 0 to 1 referral. Once a reader gets their very first referral, it’s apparent that they:

  1. Are incentivized by the rewards
  2. Understand how to share their unique link
  3. Have received some sort of gratification for doing so
Image for post
Image for post
A sample 5-way split test of our initial “7 day email”
Image for post
Image for post
Cohort of users and the # of referrals broken down by day after signing up

Milestone emails

These emails are triggered after your first successful referral and at each subsequent referral milestone in which you unlock some sort of reward (5, 10, 15, 25, 50, 100, 1,000). The purpose of these emails: to acknowledge the reader’s accomplishment, show them how to redeem their reward (if necessary), and to motivate them to hit the next milestone.

Nudge Emails

The lowest hanging fruit in the pipeline is what I call “nudge emails.” Essentially, readers who have been stuck for two weeks just one referral away from a milestone (2, 4, 9) receive an email to nudge them to get that one last referral.

Giveaways

If you’ve been a subscriber of Morning Brew for more than a few months, you’ve probably noticed that we do a big giveaway every 4–5 weeks. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s a massive stimulant to the referral program.

Image for post
Image for post
We replace the image on our referral hub with a dedicated image about the giveaway

Conclusion

Over 225,000 people have referred at least one person to subscribe to Morning Brew. During the summer of 2018, we had months where we averaged over 1,000 referrals per day (it’s obviously increased since, but that’s all I’m going to give you here).

  1. How can we continue to optimize the language around the referral program to entice a larger portion of our audience to participate?
  2. Should we introduce additional sharing functionality to provide more options for readers to share, or in contrast, remove some features to simplify the process?
  3. Can we coincide this rewards program with organic social media campaigns to showcase subscribers reading the Brew and wearing our swag?
  4. Are there parts of the pipeline where additional nudges are needed, or are there redundancies that can be removed?

Mission.org

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to…

Sign up for Mission Daily

By Mission.org

Mission Daily Newsletter Take a look

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Tyler Denk

Written by

Senior Product Lead @ Morning Brew

Mission.org

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple. Mission.org

Tyler Denk

Written by

Senior Product Lead @ Morning Brew

Mission.org

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple. Mission.org

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store