Video games can make the world a better place. Jane McGonigal convinced me of this in her Ted talk a couple of years ago. So if they can make the world a better place, then can they make your software better? And what can they do for your referral program?

Gamification is the process of adding game mechanics into something else, like your small business accounting software. From Twitter’s follower counter, to the setup process of your LinkedIn profile, to the reputation system of StackOverflow, game mechanics work wonders for your software’s effectiveness. Today we’re going to share a few referral program ideas for how to use game mechanics.

Idea 1: Use a Dancing Cat

The right content can go a long way with your users. For example, Strikingly showed users a free dancing cat if they shared their referral code with their friends. The premise for the campaign was to provide users fun additional content once they shared your product. The campaign is simple, once you submit the form the cat will dance for you. How effective was it? Well impressively enough the campaign doubled the conversion rate for that landing page.


Why it works: Instant Feedback

Referral program studies have shown that while most people say that they would refer a product, very few of them will actually take the time and energy to do so. It’s just a matter of priorities in their lives — most people have better things to do. Referral programs help to solve that problem, by rewarding people for taking the time to tell their friends, but that incentive may just too far down the road for some people. They don’t want to wait for their friends to get their message and sign up before they get their reward.

Strikingly solved this problem by giving people immediate positive feedback when they send an invite. This is a classic game mechanic. Just play any Zynga game and you will notice that every action is met with immediate and glorious feedback — even if it’s just a pretty animation of a house getting built or plants growing.

Cons: Just because a dancing cat is free content, it doesn’t mean it is free to develop. If the content doesn’t provide entertainment value for your user it is a waste of time of your marketing and development team. Weak content could even hurt your referral program, so just because it doesn’t cost your team any real cash doesn’t mean you should put out weak content. Remember to always have your user in mind when designing these rewards.



Idea 2: Show referral in progress

This idea is one that we figured out on our own and put into our referral programs. Its work by showing a progress meter. The user then feels like they need to max out their potential as they do in video games. This will keep them coming back to the program, checking out how they are doing, and re-sharing the referral code.

We also use a token system for successful sign-ups, but instead of actual tokens we use their friend’s pictures. This helps display the progress they have made with their friends by earning discounts on your product.


Why it works: Progress mechanic

By rewarding the user and have them level up it will trigger a similar positive reaction to a level-up they would get when playing a video game. By rewarding them every time a new friend signs up it creates some excitement for the user which will help keep them engaged with the program.

In games people are always given goals so that they can progress further in the game. By using that same methodology you can create a reward tier for your users and have them gain points for every successful referral they get for you.

Cons: Companies could easily set the bar too high, which will deter users from participating in the program. You want your users to sign-up as many new users as they can but if looks too hard to achieve, then they won’t bother. Look for a reasonable goal for your user to achieve.



Idea 3: Run a limited-quantity Launch Contest

Congrats you launched your referral program! Now how do you get your users engaged with the program? One idea is providing your early adopters, let’s say first 5 or 10 people that invite their friends, with a limited-edition swag pack. Rewarding your early adopters will keep them engaged with the program for the long-term and turn them into strong promoters of your product. Think of it this way; If you are already offering a carrot to your user, an additional follow-up carrot might be that last push you need to get them really involved with the program.

Why it works: Scarcity and Exclusivity

There is something magical about limited quantity items. In fact an entire company, called Groupon, was formed around the idea of fake scarcity — by only offering the deal for a day when the deal could have been available for a week, a month or even a year. Learn a lesson there – limit the time that something is available and the quantity that is available. It will artificially add value by lowering the supply (think supply and demand).

Cons: It could also agitate your users if they missed the boat and didn’t get a chance to earn your limited quantity item. This frustration can lead to a sense of neglect if not done properly. If your launch contest was a smash hit, but only a small fraction of your users were able to participate, then you might leave a huge number of people with dashed hopes. There’s a reason why the “Participation Award” was created. Think about how you can use your own participation award to help ease your customers dashed hopes of winning.

If the additional incentive was too small, it may lead your customers away from referring your product. Early adopters most likely have strong ties to brands that treat them right, unfortunately if you don’t respect them they could turn against you or worse unsubscribe. You must be careful with your selection of promotional product, know your user-base and make sure it will provide value for them.

Be careful with promoting your campaign because there is a fine-line between being promotional and spammy. Nothing is wrong with a small amount of self-promotion but take it too far and you will come off as spammy, and nobody likes spammy. Like any successful marketing campaign it must provide real value for your users, or else it isn’t worth doing at all.


If you want to gamify your referral program first try to find a way to provide value for any individual user. You can try using launch sweepstakes, progression, and dancing cats to drive traffic to your referral program (check out SCVNGR’s list for more ideas), but like any marketing campaign you always have to be open to experimenting with different tactics to find out what works right for your business. In an interview, Ryan Elkins the founder & CEO of IActionable, was quoted saying “To me, the strength of gamification is not points or badges, but understanding how feedback can encourage and promote behavior.”

Have your own referral program ideas to share? Leave them in the comments below.