When should I add a newsletter referral program?

When is a newsletter referral program worth it? And how many subscribers do I need first? We crunch the numbers and share the expert opinion

Louis Nicholls

It’s one of the most common questions we get asked at SparkLoop.

Newsletter creators see how game-changing referral programs can be. How they've powered newsletters like Morning Brew, James Clear and The Hustle to millions of subscribers.

And they want to know when they should be getting in on the action too!

So when is the right time to add a referral program to your newsletter?

Here at SparkLoop HQ, we asked the pros and crunched the data on thousands of successful newsletter referral programs to get you an answer.

And we’ve come up with four big questions every newsletter creator needs to ask themselves before adding a referral program.

Let’s dive in with question number one...

1 Should you add a referral program at all?

The first question you need to ask yourself is whether a referral program will ever be right for your newsletter.

Do you have goals that a referral program can help you achieve?

Most newsletter creators are drawn to referral programs because they make your email-list grow faster. But there are other, less obvious, reasons to add a referral program too.

For example, you probably want to...

  • increase monetisation of your newsletter
  • improve subscriber engagement
  • spend less time or money on acquiring new subscribers

But you might not!

For example, let’s say you run a personal newsletter just for fun. In that case, there’s a good chance you don’t really care about growing your subscriber-base or trying to increase revenue.

So a referral program would be a waste of time and money.

2 Do you publish your newsletter often enough?

There’s a clear pattern across the thousands of newsletters using a SparkLoop referral program to grow faster...

The more frequently you email your subscribers, the better your referral program performs.

It’s no coincidence that daily newsletters — like Morning Brew, The Hustle, The Flipside and PunchBowl News — all see great referral results.

That’s not to say you should publish more often just to boost your referrals. Of course not.

But it does mean you need to be realistic about what your current publishing schedule means for your chances of referral success.

Here’s our quick rule of thumb...

💡 If you’re not publishing at least twice each month, you probably aren’t ready to add a referral program yet.

Hitting send at least once a week? You’ll be fine.

3 Do you have enough subscribers for a referral program?

There’s no getting around it…

How many subscribers you have makes a big difference to how well your referral program will perform.

After all, you can expect 5-20% of your subscribers to try and make referrals.

And 5-20% of one million subscribers is a lot more people sharing referral links than 5-20% of one hundred subscribers!

So at what point is it worth it?

A hundred subscribers? A thousand? Ten thousand?

The answer is… it really depends!

Some smaller newsletter creators see excellent results. Doubling or even tripling their growth rates overnight.

But most don’t. Because they don’t have the basics down yet.

So don't worry if you have enough subscribers to add a referral program to your newsletter.

Instead, ask yourself…

  • Do I publish regularly?
  • Do people enjoy my content?
  • Do I know exactly what kind of person should be subscribing (and why)?
  • Is my newsletter growing without referrals?

If the answer to all those questions is “yes” — then you’re probably ready for a referral program.

Example: Create & Sell newsletter

Brennan Dunn added SparkLoop to his Create & Sell newsletter from day one. When he only had ~200 subscribers.

Most newsletters that early would struggle to generate even 5-10 referrals...

But Brennan managed to get 91 referrals in the first week alone!


Because — unlike most early newsletter creators — Brennan had the experience (and got the basics right) from the very beginning.

(You can read more about Brennan's SparkLoop set up, here)

Brennan's newsletter referral section

Desperate for a guideline number?

💡 As a quick rule of thumb, most newsletter creators reach this point between 1-2k subscribers.

Once you have 5-10k subscribers, a referral program is a real no-brainer.

4 Will the results be worth it?

Just like with any marketing channel, a referral program is only worth it if the results outweigh the costs.

And — before SparkLoop — the time and money costs of setting up a referral program were pretty significant.

You’d have to…

  1. Go find a generic referral tool that “claims” it works with newsletters
  2. Either waste hours writing code to connect it to your email platform, or pay for a tool like Zapier to handle it for you
  3. Still spend hours each week on anti-fraud and manually importing and exporting new subscribers from one tool to the other

Expensive and a lot of work. Oh — and half the time, something would break and you’d lose all your referrals.

That changed with SparkLoop.

Now, you can get a fully-functioning newsletter referral program up and running in literally just a few clicks. No coding, no Zapier, no manual work or risk of things breaking.

But even if the costs are lower than ever before, you still have to think about the potential results.

So what can you expect there?

The most accurate way we can predict referral success at SparkLoop is something called your referral growth boost.

That’s a fancy term for how much faster your newsletter will grow with referrals than it would have done otherwise.

Based on results from the thousands of newsletters using SparkLoop, here’s roughly what you should expect from your own referral program...

  • Every weekly newsletter can expect a referral growth boost of at least 15-20% using free, digital rewards
  • Most weekly newsletters can boost subscriber growth by 50-200% with a combination of free and paid rewards, or regular referral giveaways
  • The average newsletter grows 35% faster once they start using SparkLoop

Let's take an example...

Say you’re currently growing by 100 new subscribers each month, without a referral program.

If you create a referral program using only free rewards and minimal work, you'd expect to get 15-20 referrals each month.

Willing to invest into a more involved reward strategy?

Then there’s a good chance you can boost that to 50-200 referrals each month.

So is it worth it?

For larger newsletters — with 10k+ subscribers — the answer is clear...

At SparkLoop, we’ve never come across an established newsletter where a referral program wouldn’t generate significantly more revenue than it costs.

For smaller newsletters though, it boils down to how valuable that growth boost is to you.

For creators like Corey Haines — who monetise their newsletters via paid products like courses — that value is clear very early.

When Corey started using SparkLoop, he only had a few hundred subscribers. But each new subscriber was worth $30 on average.

So — even though he was only getting 20-30 referrals each month at the beginning — that was still an extra $600-900 in lifetime value he was generating for free each month. A real no-brainer!

If you haven’t started monetising your newsletter yet, or you don’t know the value of a subscriber, you’ll have to decide for yourself how important that growth boost is to you.

Not forgetting the 'hidden' advantages of a referral program, too…

  • Referred subscribers are more likely to make referrals themselves
  • Referral giveaways are a great way to build a warm relationship with potential sponsors before asking them for money
  • Referred subscribers have higher engagement and lower unsubscribe rates

The big question…

Still not sure if now is the right time for a referral program after reading through this article?

I asked Jenny Rothenberg (who led growth and marketing at Morning Brew), what she thought.

Here's her advice...

"You should add your own referral program as soon as you notice subscribers sharing with their friends or colleagues."

Whether you’re ready to start today or in six months, your first step should be our free Referral University course.

You’ll learn everything you need to build an amazing newsletter referral program. Like...

  • how to come up with awesome, cost-effective rewards
  • how to design an effective newsletter referral section
  • how to boost your growth with referral giveaways

And lots more insider secrets we've learned from powering seven of the world's ten largest newsletter referral programs!

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