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How to boost subscriber growth with a newsletter referral program

· 12 min read · Email marketing · Jan 10, 2024
Deividas, Lay and Amy, marketing team

Growing your subscriber list is hard! So the idea of a low-cost, low-effort way to boost subscriber growth is music to the ears of most newsletter operators.

Newsletter referral programs make this promise by encouraging your existing subscribers to share your newsletter with people they know. 

They can be extremely effective: Morning Brew’s referral program has driven around a million subscribers. 🤯 And while Morning Brew is a big brand with a custom solution, there are easy-to-use tools that make these programs available to anyone. 

This article will define newsletter referral programs, highlight some best practices you can use when creating one, and show you how to use Partnero’s 60-day free trial to build one for your MailerLite newsletter.

A newsletter referral program is a way of growing your subscriber list by incentivizing readers to share your newsletter with people they know. Each subscriber gets a unique link to share that also tracks their referrals.

You promote the program from within your newsletter and subscribers receive a gift when someone they refer signs up. These programs can encourage repeat referrals by offering bigger gifts to people who make multiple referrals.

A newsletter referral program typically has 4 main steps:

  1. Promote the program in your newsletter.

  2. Subscribers get a unique link they can share with people they know.

  3. A successful referral happens when someone signs up for your newsletter via the link.

  4. The subscriber who made the referral receives the promised gift.

The keys to these programs are having a cost-effective gift that appeals to your audience and a way to track and record how many referrals each subscriber makes. 

Newsletter referral program vs. refer-a-friend program

A newsletter referral program differs from a typical refer-a-friend program in that it is specifically designed as a way for newsletter operators to attract more subscribers. This helps them earn more from ads, paid subscriptions, or other products they promote in their newsletters. 

General referral programs are used by businesses to increase sales by incentivizing customers to share their products with people they know. The referrer receives the reward when someone they share their link with makes a purchase. 

The benefits of a newsletter referral program are clear: They’re a low-cost, low-effort way to grow your subscriber list faster and increase your revenue.

Here’s a rundown of 6 ways a newsletter referral program can benefit your brand:

1. Faster newsletter growth 🚀

This is the big one! When you incentivize your existing audience to promote your newsletter, you’ll attract more subscribers than you would otherwise.

2. More newsletter revenue 💰

More subscribers means more revenue. Whether you earn from selling ads, subscriptions, digital products or any other newsletter monetization method, you’ll benefit from a larger subscriber base.

3. Simple-to-operate 😌

Newsletter referral software automates all parts of the referral process, including referral tracking and gift fulfillment. Once you’ve created the program, just add a promotion box to each of your newsletters.

4. Easy to control costs 📊

It’s simple to control acquisition costs by setting up rewards that meet the amount you’re happy to pay to gain a subscriber. For example, if you know that the average subscriber is worth $4 to your business, you could choose a referral gift worth $1 so you earn $3 in profit.

If you’re unsure about the value of a subscriber, you can offer free rewards such as access to communities, digital downloads, or premium content.

Assessing subscriber value

Visitors coming from different acquisition channels can have more or less value depending on how they engage with your content. Segment subscribers who come via your newsletter referral program to check how they open and click on your campaigns. You can then adjust the value of the reward accordingly.

5. Scalable way of growing your list 📈

Setting up several reward tiers for different levels of referrals can encourage subscribers to share your newsletter with multiple people.

6. Decrease overall subscriber acquisition costs ⬇️

Newsletter referral programs can decrease your overall subscriber acquisition costs, which is useful for people who use paid channels to attract subscribers.

When you reduce how much it costs to bring in a subscriber, your newsletter becomes more profitable without you having to charge more for ads or products.

How referrals bring down costs

Imagine you typically spend $3 to attract a subscriber with Meta ads. If one in 5 of these people refer a friend at a cost of $1, the average price to acquire the subscribers comes down to $2.67. Or, if you use a free offer to incentivize referrals, the average price per subscriber would come down to $2.50.

Plenty of newsletter brands have found success with newsletter referral programs. Here are 3 of the most famous, plus a look at what makes each one work. 

Morning Brew

Morning Brew runs perhaps the most famous and successful example of a referral program. In 2021 the company stated that 30% of its 3 million subscribers came from its referral program. 

The company offers a variety of rewards starting with stickers for those who make 3 referrals, to a complete work-from-home setup which people can collect when they refer 1,000 subscribers.

Rewards available for Morning Brews referral program
Source: Morning Brew

Milk Road

Cryptocurrency newsletter Milk Road has a referral program that stands out as the reward is a simple digital download. 

This is free to create, so it doesn’t cost the brand anything to acquire new subscribers. Yet the program works because despite being free, the content offers tons of value to the newsletter’s audience of cryptocurrency investors. 

Milk Road referral program
Source: Milk Road

The Hustle

The Hustle’s referral program offers gifts for people who refer anything from 3 to 250 subscribers. The gifts are likely to appeal to the brand’s audience of professionals and entrepreneurs trying to get an edge. 

The Hustle referral program
Source: The Hustle

The gift you offer is the key to the success of your program. It must appeal to your subscribers to encourage them to make referrals. 

When it comes to what you offer, you have 3 basic options: digital content, coupons or physical products, which are usually branded merchandise. Here is a look at the pros and cons of each of these categories.

Digital content

Digital content is easy to set up and usually free to offer. Think about what would appeal to your subscribers and create something relevant. You could even repurpose your existing content—look for content that already performs well and use this to get subscribers. 

Ideas include:

  • Downloadable reports

  • Access to a free course

  • PDF guides

  • Insider community access

  • Free trials

  • Phone or desktop backgrounds

The downside to digital content is that it can be time-consuming to create and you’ll need to have a good idea of the type of content people value.


Coupons for brands like Amazon or Stripe can be a big incentive to subscribers. You can also use vouchers for your own products if suitable, which will allow you to generate subscribers without paying for them (although your sales will be less profitable).

It’s also easy to automate the process of sending out coupons with a newsletter referral program tool. The downside is that it costs money to offer coupons. 

Physical products and merchandise

Many newsletters use merchandise to incentivize subscribers. You can use a company like Printful or Printify to create a variety of branded products such as mugs, t-shirts and bags and then fulfill orders as they come in. 

The downside is that offering merch can be more expensive and you’ll have to take extra steps to set up the program and integrate it with your referral tool. 

Newsletter referral program tips

Offer multiple rewards that increase in value as people make more referrals. For example, you could start by offering digital downloads to people who make a single referral, move onto low-cost merch for people who make multiple referrals, and then offer larger gifts to encourage people to make a large number of referrals.

To create a referral program, choose a newsletter referral tool, integrate it with MailerLite and then follow the steps to complete the setup. 

We recommend Partnero because it works well with Mailerlite and allows for the automated fulfillment of digital products, custom coupons, Amazon coupons and (soon) Stripe coupons. 

The tool also offers a generous 60-day free trial that you can use to test the features. This should be more than long enough to set up your program and decide whether a newsletter referral program is worth it for your brand. 

Getting started is easy, just follow the below steps:

1. Sign up for Partnero

2. Choose to create a newsletter referral program

Partnero screenshot asking users to choose from a refer-a-friend or a newsletter referral program
Source: Partnero

3. Create your rewards, choose either a link for digital products or a coupon

Partnero screenshot asking users to create their referral rewards
Source: Partnero

4. Connect your MailerLite account by pasting in your API key

5. Choose which MailerLite subscriber group will participate in the program

6. Choose or create a MailerLite group where you will save referred subscribers

Partnero screenshot asking users to create their referral rewards
Source: Partnero

7. Set up your subscriber portal and share links. Edit the text, colors, logo and more.

Partnero branding options
Source: Partnero

8. Add the block to your newsletter by embedding the pre-designed HTML in your MailerLite newsletter using the code block. Or use variables to create your own design.

Partnero referral example
Source: Partnero

9. Send your email and manage & monitor results within the Partnero dashboard

Once you’ve followed the above steps just send out your message and then manage and monitor the results from within the Partnero dashboard. 

Send targeted emails to referrers 📧

When you connect Partnero and MailerLite, the tool will add custom fields to the subscriber’s profile that you can use to trigger automation or create segments and groups. You can use this feature to send targeted emails to the people who recommend your newsletter.

Here are some types of emails you could send:

  • Thank you emails when someone makes their first referral

  • Reminders to people who make multiple referrals, encouraging them to reach the next level

  • Exclusive content or offers to the subscribers who have generated over a certain number of referrals 

  • Updates when you make a change to your program   

With this setup, you’ll be able to encourage more referrals and deepen the relationship with your most loyal subscribers. 

You can find out more about how to set up an email automation with MailerLite here. Alternatively, head over to Partnero to create an account and get started today for free.

Duncan Elder
Duncan Elder
I’m Duncan, a content writer at MailerLite. I love building websites with no-code tools and writing about what I learn. I created my first site in 2011 with Blogger—it’s safe to say that website builders have improved a lot since then!