5min read

Referral Rewards 101: Guide to using merch & swag as rewards

Top tips for how to use swag as a reward and explode your newsletter growth

Louis Nicholls

When you think “newsletter referral rewards” what comes to mind?

For most people, the answer is “merch”. Branded, physical items like t-shirts, mugs, hoodies and stickers.

These are the kind of rewards used by some of the most successful newsletter referral programs ever. Like Morning Brew, The Hustle and The Skimm.

And that begs the question...

if merch can be such an effective reward... should you be using it in your own referral program too?

Before today, the answer was probably “no”. Fulfilling physical rewards was just too much of a manual, time-consuming (and expensive) process for most publishers.

But that all changed this morning… with the announcement of our new SparkLoop <> Printful integration!

Now you can completely automate the fulfilment process of physical merch rewards in just a few clicks.

So should you be using merch in your newsletter referral rewards going forward? And — if so — what kind of merch should you be using?

Here’s everything you need to know…

Would merch work for my newsletter?

When publishers ask us about using merch, they always have one big concern:

I like the idea of merch… but I’m not sure it’s a good fit for my audience.

The truth is, we’ve seen merch work as an effective reward for all kinds of audiences. From college kids through to professionals and retirees.

So the real question isn’t “does my audience want merch” — it’s “does my audience want merch from my brand?”

And there are two tests to figure that out…

1. The “will they buy it” test

The most obvious sign that merch will be a great reward for your referral program is kinda simple…

… if your audience is already buying merch from you (or asking to buy it), there’s a great chance it’ll work well as a reward too!

2. The “logo” test

Haven’t had requests from your audience to purchase merch from you?

That doesn’t necessarily mean merch wouldn’t be a great reward option. After all, it’s a super high bar to clear.

The second test is more realistic:

  1. Come up with a few things strongly associated with your newsletter. Like your logo, sayings/catchphrases, memes or images
  2. Now imagine your newsletter’s 100 most passionate fans
  3. How many of those fans would be able to accurately describe your answer to #1 (eg your logo) without looking it up?

If you think the answer is “close to 100% of them” then that’s a good indication your brand is strong enough for merch to be an effective referral reward.

And that leads us on to our next big question…

What kind of merch works best?

There’s a lot more to great merch than just a pack of stickers and a t-shirt with your logo on it.

On Printful alone, you can find hundreds of different merch options.

From clothing to accessories and more. All easy to use as a completely-automated referral reward in SparkLoop with just a few clicks.

What’s most important is that you choose a combination of item + design that really resonates with your audience.

And there are three key points to getting this right…

1. Emotional resonance

Choose merch your audience can really relate to. If you have a travel newsletter, for example, use merch that’s travel related.

Or — if you’re a daily newsletter like The Pour Over that people read each morning with their coffee — go for a coffee mug!

2. High quality

Don’t skimp on quality of merch. You want people to use/wear it and share with their friends, after all!

The quality and feel of Morning Brew’s sweatshirt reward was a big factor in how many people wanted to win it.

3. Creativity

Of all the designs you could put on your merch, how likely is it really that your logo is the most exciting option?

Some of the most effective merch rewards we’ve seen at SparkLoop have featured creative, unique designs.

Like this popular slogan from the Everyone Hates Marketers newsletter…

Most popular merch rewards

Not sure where to start?

Here are the top five generic merch items we see performing best at SparkLoop…

  1. Coffee mugs and drinking glasses
  2. Water bottles
  3. Hoodies/sweatshirts
  4. Caps and hats
  5. T-shirts

How many referrals to unlock my merch reward?

Fulfilling your merch through Printful is affordable. But it still has a price-tag attached.

So you probably don’t want to use merch as your trigger reward for under 5 referrals.

Instead, here's your rule-of-thumb guide...

  1. calculate how much you’re willing to spend on acquiring a new, engaged email subscriber (eg $1)
  2. find the cost of the item to fulfil (eg $20)
  3. divide the cost by the per subscriber spend (eg 20/1 = 20)
  4. and then halve that number for the correct referral tier for your reward (eg half of 20 = 10 referrals)

A normal range for smaller merch items (caps, mugs and t-shirts) might be anywhere from 5 to 25 referrals.

Sweatshirts, bags and more valuable items can range from 20 up to 100 referrals or even more.

How to create your merch

By far the easiest option for creating your merch is with an online tool like Printful.

You just…

  1. create a free account
  2. choose the item and any custom details like color variants
  3. upload your custom design artwork and check that it looks good

When it comes to designing the custom artwork, you can do this yourself or work with your in-house design team.

Or — an option we highly recommend at SparkLoop — is to turn to a platform like Fiverr and hire a talented, affordable designer with experience to create something unique for you.

As with all marketplaces, Fiverr and Upwork have freelancers of varying quality.

But Fiverr’s “Pro Services” feature makes it easy to find a guaranteed high-quality designer at pretty affordable prices. Normally $50-150 with a 24h turnaround time.

Another effective option is to crowdsource design ideas from your existing audience.

Or — if you run a local newsletter — consider partnering with a local artist.

How to completely automate your merch fulfilment

As we mentioned in the intro, the big challenge with physical rewards is that — unlike a digital reward — you need the mailing address (and sizing options) of the winner to be able to ship them.

And then you actually need to do the shipping too.

At least that used to be the hard part. But not anymore thanks to our Printful integration.

Here are the three best options for fulfilment of your merch rewards. Ranked from least to most work for you:

1. SparkLoop <> Printful integration

Yep, you guessed it!

Using our new Printful integration you can completely automate sending merch rewards with just a few clicks.

We take care of everything, from getting the winner’s mailing address and sizing options, to making sure the item is shipped by Printful.

You don’t have to touch a thing. Just set and forget.

Here’s a short video explaining exactly how to set it up in your SparkLoop account:

2. Coupon codes

If you have a unique merch item that can’t be fulfilled through Printful, the next easiest option is to use our coupon codes feature.

This involves creating an online store if you don’t have one already. For example with Shopify or Woocommerce.

You can have SparkLoop send a unique 100% discount code to each reward winner via email.

They then input their own shipping details at checkout, and everything runs through your normal online store fulfilment process.

3. Manual fulfilment

No online store and no Printful integration?

In that case, the easiest way to fulfil merch rewards is to create a “shipping details” form of your own (using a tool like Typeform or Google forms).

SparkLoop will automatically send a link to this form via email to the winner.

And — when they input their sizing details and shipping address — the form results will be sent to you to process and fulfil (we recommend storing them in a spreadsheet).

How to get started

Thanks to our new Printful integration, using merch as rewards to boost your newsletter growth is now quick and easy.

Read the full support article here.

Or browse the Printful product library for inspiration!

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