A guide to growth with subscriber referrals
The subscriber referrals feature is a simple way for you to grow your audience on autopilot. This tool allows publications with free or paid subscription options to reward subscribers for spreading the word about your Substack.
Some writers likeare already seeing growth in the first week after announcing referrals to their subscribers.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through:
How to set your rewards
How to write a great reward email
How to announce referrals to your subscribers—the most important step!
How to remind subscribers
What is a referral
How to set your rewards
Subscriber rewards can be set at three tiers. You can set the number of referrals subscribers must make before they unlock a reward. While it might be tempting to offer swag, handwritten notes, or something personalized, we encourage writers to choose rewards that do not require ongoing management or create new work. We’ve designed subscriber referrals so you can set it and forget it with little to no ongoing management.
To do: Set up your rewards from the referral section of your settings.
For paid publications, you can simply set the default reward to a complimentary paid subscription to your publication. An automated comp as the reward can range from 1 to 12 months. Once a subscriber unlocks the first-tier reward, further rewards will be stacked on top (e.g. if the Tier 1 reward is a one-month comp and the Tier 2 a three-month comp, the subscriber will receive four months complimentary access).
Free and paid publications can also set a custom reward by writing in anything they’d like to offer subscribers, from a copy of their e-book to a special shoutout in an upcoming issue of their newsletter.
When you are deciding what rewards to offer, ask yourself: Why do readers value my work? Getting clear on why people value what you do can help guide what you offer as rewards.
If subscribers value your unique insight on a topic, offer a PDF version of your best posts, a special resource, an article, a playlist, or an illustration.
If subscribers value access to you, offer a way to connect with you, like a coffee chat over Zoom, the opportunity to ask a question one-on-one via email, or record a video for them saying thanks.
If subscribers value the community around your publication, offer a way for them to go deeper with special access to events you host or discounts on merch.
Here are some creative custom rewards writers currently offer without much added work:
PDF.sends subscribers who share ByteByteGo with one friend a PDF of 50 of his best posts.
Discount.offers his Garbage Day subscribers who make 25 referrals six months comped and a coupon for 50% off anything at the Garbage Day merch store.
Community access.offers subscribers with three referrals permanent membership to Summit Squad, a private email he sends out to his most engaged subscribers.
Your time.rewards subscribers with a copy of the Process e-book and a mini portfolio review.
A special story.will write anyone who gets 25 referrals a story about their favorite moment in baseball history and publish it on JoeBlogs.
Something special for the top referrers.has made a game of the leaderboard. She plans to send a handwritten thank-you note and one of the books she’s recommended to the top referrer each month.
You might even consider offering “special thanks” as a reward and shoutout top refers in your newsletter plus customize your reward email to make them feel extra special.
Writing reward emails
When subscribers unlock rewards for referring friends, we automatically send them an email to let them know. You can customize the template email just as you do with any standard Substack post, plus add videos, audio, images, PDF attachments, e-book embeds, and more.
Consider this an opportunity to surprise and delight your subscribers. Write a poem, draw something they can save, include a link to your favorite song, record a voice note of gratitude, or give them a behind-the-scenes look at your writing space via video. These people helped you grow your audience. They are your best marketers. Make them feel extra special and appreciated.
Read more: How do I embed media in my post?
Announcing referrals to your subscribers
Once you’ve set up subscriber referrals and reviewed the automated emails, it’s time to get the word out so you can channel the power of your community to grow your audience.
In the referrals section of your settings, you can find a template announcement post to send to your subscribers. In the template, we’ve included instructions for how to share your publication and buttons that automatically create a unique tracking link for your subscribers.
Update the post so that it reads in your voice. Consider:
Highlighting the power of your community.announced referrals by celebrating how special the Hung Up community is and inviting subscribers to welcome friends to the space they’d created together. Read.
Thanking your subscribers.acknowledges the ways The Cottage subscribers have already helped grow the community. She thanks them for their support as she introduces referrals. Read.
Writing a manifesto.announced referrals and used it as an opportunity to reflect on the work he’s done to date and his vision for the future, rallying subscribers around JoeBlogs. Readers subscribe at different points in your writing journey, making manifesto-style posts an important tool to attune readers to your origin story and values. Read.
Making your rewards crystal clear.writes a concise note to subscribers to invite their friends to subscribe to Refactoring. If you’re offering a complimentary subscription as a reward, be sure to explain what is included in your paid tier so people know what they can unlock. Read.
Including some of your greatest hits.finishes her announcement post with a roundup of a few of her best issues, in case subscribers missed them. This can give your subscribers inspiration for how to introduce your Substack to their friends. Read:
Over time, subscribers will continue to share your work when they are inspired and find extra value in new posts. Continuing to remind them to do so will ensure that you and your subscribers get the most out of subscriber referrals.
Here are a few tools you can use to continue to get the word out:
Leaderboard. When you turn on referrals, a new tab in your navigation bar will take subscribers to the leaderboard. Here they can copy and paste their unique referral link and see how close they are to unlocking new rewards, along with their ranking among the subscriber community.
Welcome email.updated his welcome email for Refactoring to introduce referrals. Learn more.
Headers and footers. Headers and footers are often overlooked growth tools. They are a great place to highlight in your own voice the most important, repeatable things you want readers to know and actions you want them to take—like sharing your post to earn rewards.manually included a blurb about referrals at the top of his regular post. The headers and footers tool allows you to automate this message on all posts that go out via email. Learn more.
Buttons. Anytime a subscriber shares a post from a share button on it, that counts toward their referrals. Be sure to include “share” and “refer a friend” buttons on all of your posts and opt for using the share button with a caption so you can add a short blurb about referrals. Learn more.
Celebrate referral milestones publicly. Continue to share when subscribers unlock new rewards on social media to drive awareness, like.
Remind readers of rewards at shareable moments.announced referrals at an important milestone: the 100th edition of Process.
What counts as a referral?
A successful referral is counted when an existing subscriber helps you get a new free or paid subscriber. Today, both a new free or paid subscriber count the same toward unlocking rewards. In the future, we plan to offer you more control to reward subscribers in different ways for new free versus paid subscribers.
Referrals are credited to subscribers who share your Substack and successfully help you collect a new subscriber in the following ways:
“Share” buttons on posts, both the default buttons and ones you add
“Refer a friend” button on a post
The unique share link subscribers can find on your leaderboard page
Restacking a post
Buying a gift subscription for a friend
New subscribers from gift referrals
Note: Paid publications have the option to offer gift subscriptions to paid subscribers as a further incentive to share with friends. Unlike subscriber referrals, gift subscriptions for paid subscribers offer an immediate perk (paid access for a limited time) for being referred by a friend. This feature can be turned on in one click from the referral section in settings.
Congrats! You’re on your way to growing your audience on Substack. If you’re using subscriber referrals, share what other tactics and methods you’ve tried in the comments.