A Guide to Build a Referral Program to Scale Your Learning Business

Explore how referral programs can drive growth, enhance brand loyalty, and reduce costs in your learning business. Unlock the power of customer referrals.

What you'll learn in this article:

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Have you ever considered the potential growth that a referral program could bring to your learning business?

Harnessing the power of your existing customers can lead to increased brand awareness, enhanced customer loyalty, and reduced acquisition costs. Let’s dive into the world of referral programs and discover how they can unlock the potential for success in learning businesses.

What we'll learn together:

  • Referral programs offer learning businesses powerful tools to increase brand recognition, customer loyalty, and reduce customer acquisition costs.
  • Key components of a successful referral program include identifying the target audience, setting measurable goals, and providing attractive incentives.
  • Learn from the most successful learning businesses that have used referral programs, adapt their strategy to scale!
  • To maintain high performance in your referral program, focus on encouraging continuous participation by offering exclusive benefits & experiences, regularly updating incentives, and seeking feedback from participants.

Why Should You Consider Referral Programs for Your Learning Business?

Referral programs serve as a significant growth strategy for learning businesses, contributing to brand recognition, customer loyalty, and reduced customer acquisition costs. Learning businesses can harness the power of word-of-mouth marketing and reach new customers more efficiently by incentivizing existing learners and alumni to refer friends and family.

But what makes referral programs so effective, and how can learning businesses take full advantage of them?

1. It boosts brand awareness

A well-executed customer referral program can significantly increase brand awareness by leveraging the power of word-of-mouth marketing.

When existing customers share their positive experiences with others, their personal recommendations can quickly reach potential customers who may not have been aware of the brand otherwise. This can lead to increased customer acquisition and business growth, all at a fraction of the cost of traditional marketing channels, thanks to customer referrals.

To further enhance brand awareness, learning businesses can offer exclusive virtual events or experiences as part of their referral program. This not only encourages customers to share their enthusiasm for the brand but also provides a unique and memorable experience for referred customers, fostering a sense of community and connection.

Virtual events on the Disco platform

Setting the right tone for the experience with the brand heavily relies on the initial communication with referred customers. By personalizing this communication, learning businesses can create an authentic and genuine connection, ensuring that the referral process feels like a recommendation from a trusted friend rather than a sales pitch.

2. It enhances customer loyalty

A referral program aids learning businesses in reaching new customers and also fortifies the bond with existing ones. By rewarding learners for their advocacy and support, referral programs encourage customer loyalty and foster long-lasting connections.

To maximize the effectiveness of a referral program, learning businesses should offer rewards that are genuinely valuable to their customers.

This could include discounts on future purchases, exclusive access to new products or services, or even cash rewards. By providing enticing incentives, learning businesses can motivate learners and alumni to continue referring others and ensure a steady stream of new leads.

When crafting a referral program, it's vital to ensure that the rewards are enticing enough to motivate customers and nurture loyalty. Discover how to establish referral codes on Disco!

Outstanding customer service also plays a pivotal role in cultivating loyal customers. By providing excellent customer service and addressing existing customer concerns promptly and effectively, learning businesses can create a positive experience that customers are eager to share with others.

3. It reduces customer acquisition costs

Reducing customer acquisition costs is one of the primary benefits of referral programs. It allows learning businesses to tap into the power of satisfied customers to spread the word about their offerings, reaching potential new customers in a more cost-effective manner than traditional marketing methods.

The cost savings offered by referral programs can be especially beneficial for learning businesses, where customer acquisition costs can vary widely depending on the type of platform or institution.

By leveraging the power of existing customers, learning businesses can optimize their marketing budget and focus on delivering high-quality products and services to both their loyal clients and every referred customer.

In short, referral programs are a powerful tool for learning businesses, helping to boost brand awareness, enhance customer loyalty, and reduce customer acquisition costs. But how can you build a successful referral program and tap into this potential growth?

Key Components of Building a Successful Referral Program

Identifying the target audience, setting transparent goals, and offering appealing incentives are three critical components for learning businesses to create a successful referral program. By understanding who your customers are and what motivates them, you can tailor your referral program to resonate with the right audience and generate high-quality leads.

Let’s explore these key components in more detail and discuss how they can contribute to the success of your referral program.

Key Component #1: Identifying target audience

Identifying your target audience is the first step towards crafting a successful referral program. Understanding who your ideal learners are, and even more crucially, who is most likely to refer your learning business to others, is key to optimizing the effectiveness of your referral program.

To accomplish this, you can create learner personas based on real data and research, which will grant you a deeper understanding of your learners and allow you to design more targeted referral experiences.


In the context of a learning business, your common target audience might be your current learners, alumni, influencers, and thought leaders in the field of education and technology.

Let's consider a learner persona such as "Sarah". Sarah is a 25-year-old graduate student who is tech-savvy, highly motivated, and always looking for new learning opportunities. In fact, she took one of your mini-programs ad she's part of your alumni community. She is an active member of several online learning communities and is often sought after for her recommendations on courses and learning platforms.

With a clear understanding of your target audience, exemplified by learner personas like Sarah, you can customize your referral program’s messaging, incentives, and overall experience to resonate with those learners who are most likely to refer others. This targeted approach includes:

  • Crafting messaging that speaks directly to your target audience’s needs and motivations. For example, "Hey Sarah, we just launched our X course! We'd like you to experience it first-hand, and feel free to share it with friends under our referral program."
  • Offering incentives that are appealing and valuable to your target audience. For example, "Refer a friend and both of you get a 20% discount on your next course!"
  • Creating a seamless and user-friendly referral experience that aligns with your target audience’s preferences and behaviors. For example, "Share your referral code on social media or directly with your friends in just a few clicks!"

By implementing these strategies, you can increase the likelihood of successful referrals and ensure that the leads generated are of high quality and relevant to your business.

In essence, pinpointing your target audience is the cornerstone of a successful referral program. By focusing on the learners who are most likely to refer others, you can maximize the impact of your referral marketing efforts and drive growth for your learning business.

Key Component #2: Setting clear goals

After recognizing your target audience, setting transparent goals for your referral program is the subsequent step. Establishing specific objectives helps to measure the success of your program and guides the development of effective strategies.

Some common goals for referral programs include increasing the number of new customers, boosting revenue, or improving customer satisfaction. By setting clear objectives, you can focus your efforts on the strategies that are most likely to help you achieve these goals.

Additionally, monitoring key performance indicators (KPIs) such as referral rates and conversion rates can help you track your progress and make data-driven decisions to optimize your program’s performance.

  • Referral Program Goal: To 2x the conversion of our paid community members from the referrals of our existing members
  • Strategy: Announce or pin in the community forum about the incentives for current members. They'll get $200 off when they refer a friend, and their friends and family will also get $200 off
  • KPI: referral rates and sharing rates

Remember, the goals you set for your referral program should align with your overall business objectives. By setting clear goals and regularly reviewing your progress, you can ensure that your referral program remains focused on driving growth for your learning business.

Key Component #3: Offering attractive incentives

Proposing appealing incentives to encourage customer participation is the last critical component of a successful referral program.

When selecting incentives for your referral program, it’s important to strike a balance between offering rewards that are enticing enough to motivate customers while also being cost-effective for your business. Regularly updating incentives can help to keep your program fresh and engaging, encouraging customers to continue referring others.


Consider our example from Key Component #2, where we offer incentives in the form of cash rewards for existing members and discounts for their referred friends. You can also experiment with other forms of incentives such as complimentary merchandise or annual access to exclusive industry reports.

The type of incentive you choose should align with the interests and motivations of your learner persona.

Implementing and Promoting Your Referral Program

Now that you have a solid understanding of the key components of a successful referral program, it’s time to put your plan into action. Implementing and promoting your referral program involves choosing the right platform, integrating with marketing channels, and monitoring and optimizing performance.

Examining these steps in further detail can provide insights on how to build a high-performing referral program for your learning business.

Choosing the right platform

The importance of selecting an appropriate platform for your referral program cannot be overstated. It ensures seamless integration with your existing systems and provides a user-friendly experience for your customers.

The ideal platform should be equipped with features that enable referral tracking, reward systems, cross-platform engagement, automation, communication, analytics and reporting, and customization options.

In the process of evaluating potential platforms, it's crucial to consider how compatible they are with your business model, their ease of use, scalability, and how well they integrate with your existing systems.

For instance, some learning businesses opt to set up their referral programs internally, within their own learning platforms. This can offer greater control over customization and integration with existing systems.

Discount codes on the Disco platform

A great example of this learning platform is Disco. Learning businesses can fully-integrate their referral programs into their community or course through Disco's advanced features:

  • announce via customizable dashboard in community feeds
  • integrate discount codes in payment collection
  • add information in the onboarding process

By making a well-informed choice of platform, you can ensure a smooth and efficient referral experience for your customers. This, in turn, simplifies the process of referring others, and consequently, contributes to the growth of your learning business.

Integrating with marketing channels

Integrating your referral program with diverse marketing channels like email marketing, social media, and content marketing is key to enhancing its reach and effectiveness. By promoting your referral program through multiple channels, you can increase its visibility and ensure that it reaches a wider audience of potential customers.

Consider leveraging social media platforms to encourage customers to share their referral links and experiences with their networks. Email marketing can also be an effective way to inform customers about your referral program and provide them with the necessary tools to participate.

Additionally, integrating your referral program with your website and other communication channels can help to create a seamless and consistent experience for your customers.

If you're looking to reach an audience beyond your current learners and alumni, consider utilizing Disco's integration feature within your referral program. This feature allows you to connect with social media platforms via Zapier, and with Slack communities via Slack integration, effectively broadening your reach.

Disco's advanced integrations like Zoom, Stripe, Zapier, Slack, and more.

Monitoring and optimizing performance

Frequent tracking and optimization of your referral program’s performance is necessary for pinpointing improvement areas and ensuring sustained success. By tracking key performance indicators (KPIs) such as:

  • Sharing rate
  • Participation rate
  • Conversion rate
  • Referral source
  • Return on investment (ROI)

You can gain valuable insights into the effectiveness of your program and make necessary adjustments to optimize its performance.

Some strategies for optimizing referral program performance include updating incentives, encouraging ongoing participation, and soliciting feedback from participants. By continuously refining your referral program and making data-driven decisions, you can ensure that it remains effective in driving growth for your learning business.

Use Cases of Successful Referral Programs in Learning Businesses

Examples of successful referral programs in learning businesses include online schools and academies, accelerator programs, and bootcamps that have effectively leveraged referral marketing to drive growth. These examples demonstrate how referral programs can be tailored to the specific needs and goals of learning businesses, resulting in increased customer acquisition and revenue.

Examining successful referral programs in learning businesses and the strategies they used to stimulate growth can provide valuable insights.

Use Case #1: Dribbble's Three-Tiered Approach - Rewarding Alumni, Mentors, and Brand Ambassadors to Scale their Product Design Academy

Disco customer, Dribbble's learning business built on Disco

Dribbble, the renowned platform for designers, has successfully amplified the reach of their online academy through a robust referral program. The strategy they adopted involved offering valuable incentives for referrals, which was executed in a three-tiered approach.

Firstly, they incentivized their alumni, not just with monetary rewards, but also with discounts on upcoming courses and exclusive one-on-one sessions with mentors. This approach fostered a sense of value and appreciation, motivating alumni to refer more learners.

Secondly, they transformed their mentors into advocates for their courses. This was achieved by offering financial incentives for referrals, thus encouraging mentors to promote their courses within their networks.

Lastly, Dribbble provided scholarships to individuals who agreed to become brand ambassadors, thereby expanding their reach and visibility.

What dribbble is saying about disco:

"What we really liked when we first saw Disco's platform was the fact that it felt so user centric. Disco feels like it's a fun experience, it's not intimidating and offers accessible learning.”

Read Dribbble's full experience with Disco!

Use Case #2: Eskwelabs Success - Alumni Referrals turn into Program Ambassadors!

Eskwelabs, an online data science academy, has achieved remarkable success by effectively utilizing referral programs. They've turned their alumni referrals into program ambassadors, emphasizing the importance of incentivizing their alumni referral engine.

Disco customer, Eskwelabs's learning business built on Disco

Fran, the Chief of Staff of Eskwelabs, explains, "it’s not actually about just getting something monetarily, right? You get a commission if a learner enrolls and graduates, but we also frame it in a way that [the referee] is an ambassador of the company.”

To accomplish this, the Eskwelabs team conducts calls with each referee to discuss the company and its vision. This ensures that the people they refer align with their mission. Fran emphasizes, “Whenever you invite someone to learn with us, you're welcoming them into this community. So we'd want you to understand the essence of the company as well.”

This strategy ties back to Eskwelabs' objective of investing in alumni relationships. When they involve former members in the process of growing their community of new, prospective members, they can remain an active participant in their professional and personal journeys.

This approach has proven successful in driving growth and fostering a strong community for Eskwelabs.

Read the full story of Eskwelabs with Disco!

Use Case #3: Yspace's Alumni Referrals - Keeping the Connection Alive!

Yspace, an accelerator program, has found great success in leveraging their alumni for their referral program. Every time they kick-off a new recruitment cycle, they reach out to their alumni and explicitly ask them to reshare the opportunity within their networks.

Disco customer, YSpace's learning business built on Disco

Understanding that their alumni are busy individuals, Yspace has streamlined the process by providing marketing collateral pieces that can be easily distributed. This templated approach makes it easy for alumni to participate in the referral program without taking up too much of their time.

However, the key to their successful referral program lies in their ongoing relationship with their alumni. Yspace continues to provide value to their alumni beyond their initial engagement, fostering a strong connection.

This ongoing relationship makes it easier to ask for referrals and keeps the alumni engaged with the program. In Yspace's words, this is their "secret sauce" for a successful referral program, which… is not a secret sauce at all.

Read YSpace's full story of success with Disco!

Tips for Maintaining a High-Performing Referral Program

Encouraging continuous participation, frequently updating incentives, and seeking feedback from participants are three areas learning businesses should concentrate on to maintain a high-performing referral program. By addressing these areas, businesses can ensure that their referral programs remain engaging and effective in driving growth.

Delving into these tips further can provide insights on how they can aid learning businesses in maintaining a high-performing referral program.

Encouraging ongoing participation

Posts and social feeds on the Disco platform

Maintaining customer engagement and active participation in your referral program is a prerequisite for its ongoing success. One way to encourage ongoing participation is by fostering a sense of community among your learners.

This can be achieved through regular communication, such as creating a dynamic social feed, as well as by offering exclusive benefits and experiences to those who participate in your referral program.

Another strategy for encouraging ongoing participation is to provide training and resources to help customers better understand your products and services, as well as the benefits of referring others.

By equipping customers with the knowledge and tools they need to effectively promote your business, you can increase the likelihood that they will continue to refer others and contribute to the growth of your learning business through a well-implemented marketing strategy.

Regularly updating incentives

Frequent updates to the incentives in your referral program can keep it interesting and attractive, encouraging customers to continue referrals. This can be achieved by offering a variety of rewards and incentives that cater to the preferences and motivations of your target audience. By experimenting with different incentives, you can determine which ones are most effective in driving referrals and adjust your program accordingly.

In addition to updating the rewards offered, it’s also important to regularly review the performance of your referral program and make any necessary adjustments to optimize its effectiveness.

By monitoring key performance indicators (KPIs) and seeking feedback from participants, you can identify areas for improvement and make data-driven decisions to enhance your referral program’s performance.

Soliciting feedback from participants

Collecting feedback from participants in your referral program is critical for recognizing improvement areas and making required adjustments for performance optimization. By soliciting feedback through surveys, focus groups, or personal communication, you can gain valuable insights into the preferences and experiences of your customers, allowing you to tailor your referral program to better meet their needs.

Furthermore, actively seeking feedback from participants demonstrates your commitment to providing a positive customer experience and fosters a sense of trust and loyalty among your customers. By incorporating their feedback into your referral program, you can create a more engaging and effective experience for your customers, ultimately driving growth for your learning business.

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Our Final Note

Referral programs can be a powerful tool for driving growth in learning businesses. By focusing on key components such as identifying the target audience, setting clear goals, and offering attractive incentives, learning businesses can optimize their referral programs to maximize their impact.

Implementing and promoting a referral program involves choosing the right platform, integrating with marketing channels, and monitoring and optimizing performance. By employing these strategies and learning from successful examples in the industry, learning businesses can unlock the potential of referral marketing and drive sustainable growth. Start your referral program with Disco today!

Published on
November 14, 2023
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