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Referral Marketing for Online Virtual Events

It’s second to nature to recommend a product, service or event to your close friends, family and/or colleagues. We do often, most of the time, without knowing and without sounding sales-ish.

As an online event organiser or virtual summit host, you must embrace referrals as it’s a great way to get attendees for your event. By designing, planning and implementing a referral strategy, you will be in a much better position to: 

  • fuel referrals through incentives, 
  • make it easier for your audience to talk about your event
  • make it worthwhile for your referrers to recommend your event and 
  • create a community feeling which is MUST in order to foster referrals

This e-book focuses on referral marketing specifically for online summit / virtual events. We will visit:

  • What referral marketing is
  • Why is it important for you as a summit host?
  • How you can get started with your first referral program
  • Strategies that have worked for others

Who am I and where do I get this information from?

Before we dive deep, I would like to introduce myself and tell you where I got all this intel from. I am Gaetano Caruana, founder of EarlyParrot. EarlyParrot is a referral marketing platform that helps online businesses to extend their funnel by adding a refer a friend system to it.

EarlyParrot’s mission is twofold:

  • helps educate entrepreneurs and marketers leverage word of mouth, which is the oldest and most proven marketing and sales channel that can help propel any business – including but not limited to online events and virtual summits.
  • provides businesses with an affordable, yet robust platform to empower your audience to do recommendations, automate referral tracking and rewards delivery.

Since 2016, I have done 100s of one-on-one calls with various businesses, generated hundreds of thousands of referrals resulting in millions of dollars in revenue.

All information, stats, strategies shared in this e-book is the accumulation of my experience working with different clients helping them to reach their goals.

What is referral marketing?

Referral marketing is when you empower and engage your existing online event attendees to help you amplify your marketing by spreading the word within their network. Referrers are encouraged to refer others by sharing on social media (such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn), chat apps (such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger) and/or private communication such as email invites through incentives, rewards or token of appreciation.

Referral marketing will amplify your marketing efforts. It should not replace any of your existing marketing activities but it should be set up to work in tandem with your existing online event promotion.

How does all of this fit in?

Most online event hosts, both aspiring and even established ones, focus all their marketing efforts, budget and time on acquiring new attendees. This is done through various channels: Ads, affiliates, speaker promotion, sponsors, social media posting and the list goes on. Once a new attendee has been acquired the focus shifts to sales, try to convert the attendee to pay for a ticket or pass! This is where the cycle ends and focus is shifted on acquiring new attendees once again.

This is good, but not nearly as good enough. By having a very simplistic approach of acquiring and converting attendees to paid attendees for your online event, you will be leaving a lot of money on the table.

Your referral program should be appended to the end of your sales and marketing funnel to get your audience engaged and get them to help you gain more momentum. By adding a referral program to the very end of your funnel, your online event marketing process will become something like: acquire, convert, refer! Irrespective whether an attendee has bought a ticket or not, make sure that you have the right processes in place to ask for referrals – not just once but several times.

So in brief, your referral program should be an addition to your marketing processes. It should not have any effect whatsoever on the way how you are acquiring attendees for your online event other than providing an easy way for your hard-earned audience to promote for you.

Why should you care?

As an online event host, you have several channels that you can use to promote your event. None without their unique challenges. The following are some of the channels that online event host use to attract attendees for the event along with the main difficulty or challenges that it brings with.

Channel: Ads, Challenge: Hiking costs

Due to the high demand for ads, the cost to get in front of your target audience is on the rise. Businesses, most of the time with a deeper pocket, are competing against you when it comes to advertising, driving the cost of acquisition up. For this fact alone, basing your marketing strategy on ads ONLY is a huge risk.

Channel: Ads, Challenge: Your ads are under siege getting blocked – adblocker+

Not only are ads becoming more and more expensive, but they are also becoming less relevant than ever. With software tools such as adblocker+, your target audience are impossible to reach out to. This means that the target audience for your ads is getting smaller, leaving a huge percentage of the potential audience out of your reach.

Channel: Affiliates, Challenge: Affiliates are demanding

Affiliate marketing sound like a good compromise to ads. With ads you have to fork out money, not knowing whether you will get a good return on investment (ROI). Whilst with affiliate marketing, you will only pay a % of the generated revenue if money has been earned.

It’s true BUT affiliates will only promote proven online events and summits. They are very reluctant to promote new hosts, unproven events as they stand to lose rather than gain. If they are willing to take the risk, they will ask for a bigger piece of the pie to compensate for their risk.

Due to the similarities between referral marketing and affiliate marketing, you can use your referral marketing campaign stats as earnings proof to your affiliates. Later about this! 

Channel:Speakers, Challenge: Speakers won’t always collaborate

Speakers are main stakeholders in your online event or summit. They are a source of information and also access to huge following. Ideally you get both, but don’t hold your breath on the second.

Some speakers will tell you upfront that they are willing to participate in your event but they are unwilling to promote to their network. Others will promise promotion but they fall short of do so and usually it happens very close to your launch.

These are just some of the challenges that you as an online event host will have to battle against in order to get some traction for your online event. In no way I am suggesting that you shouldn’t try ads, affiliate marketing or speaker promotion. On the contrary, I am highlighting how difficult it is to get the word out about your event so as to make sure you get the maximum out of your hard earned audience.

For the above reasons, it is imperative that you should learn about how to amplify the marketing momentum that ads, affiliates and speakers get started. It’s highly important that once the word starts to spread about your event you fuel it even further through word of mouth marketing via your referral campaign.

Another reason why you should have a referral campaign is that it holds benefits for both you as an online event host and your audience. Here is how:

For hosts: It helps amplify marketing efforts

As it has been outlined above, having a referral program will add a multiplier effect to your marketing efforts. For every 100 attendees that you will get through the various marketing channels that you use to promote your online event, you will get an extra 15%-20% over and above through word of mouth.

For hosts: It lowers cost of acquisition 

By getting referred attendees to your summit, which are not eating away your ads budget or on which you are not paying any affiliate commissions, you will be drastically lowering your cost of acquisition. Even though you will be giving out rewards to your referrers (those referring their friends) as a token of appreciation, as I will be showing you later on, the cost of these rewards will be almost negligible.

For hosts: It lifts your conversion rate

It has been proven over and over again that referrals are essential to any business. From our experience as a referral marketing platform provider, we know that referred attendees to online events on average convert 2x-2.5x better that any other attendees coming from other channels. This means that, if you are getting a 7% ticket sale conversion, expect a 14%-18% ticket sale conversion on referred attendees.

For hosts: It helps you reach an audience which otherwise would be very difficult to reach

Perhaps one of the most important advantages of having a referral program is that word of mouth is a channel which cannot be blocked or shut down. Software such as adblocker+ will only block ads but will not block one to one conversations, emails or social media posts.

For hosts: Identify mini-influencers

Who are your top referrers? Where are they getting referrals from? Which websites, communities? Your referral program will help you learn who might be perfect future partners to launch or do business with. It will help you identify new opportunities that most probably you didn’t know they exist and are already within reach.

For attendees: It creates a community feeling

Virtual event attendees literally have nothing else to do other than wait for your event to launch and then indulge and consume the content you provide them with. By giving a way how your audience can engage and promote your event, it will create a community feeling, a sense of belonging and membership which is really important for the long term success of your virtual event.

For attendees: It enables your audience to improve their ‘social status’ by sharing good quality virtual events

Ever shared something that turned out to be a gold nugget to your referee? Giving your attendees the opportunity to share your high quality event within your circle of influence will help them score points and be seen as authoritative in the space. By having a referral marketing system in place you will bank on this opportunity as it will be very easy for your attendees to share and promote your event.

For attendees: It provides them with more value for simply sharing an event

The most obvious benefit for attendees is the rewards that they are given to those who promote and successfully get referrals. Referrers who engage with your referral program are going out of their way to promote your high quality virtual event. This is a proof of conviction in you and in the quality of the content you are producing. 

Make sure that as they get more and more referrals referred you give out more value by giving out exclusive content or even be willing to connect with them one on one.

What kind of results should you expect?

From our experience after helping 100s of virtual summits / online event hosts, the two main factors that will have a drastic effect on the numbers obtained from your online event’s referral program are:


Having a referral program integrated with your online event is a step in the right direction but it is not enough. Once an attendee is acquired, promoting the referral program has to be top in your agenda. You can promote your referral program in several ways:

  • Ask for referrals straight after an attendee signs up
  • Use your email sequence to reminder all your attendees that you have a referral program
  • Place sharing widget on speaker pages, agenda pages and also streaming pages

Promotion needs to start way before launching your online event. At very minimum, promotion of the referral program should start around 4 to 5 weeks before the launch. Timing is of an essence, meaning start promoting your referral program a couple of days before your online launches will not give enough time for your attendees to do the recommendation and successfully get you referrals to convert.


Having a perfectly timed, well planned and excellent promotion strategy but weak rewards will not get your attendees motivated towards taking the leap and engage with your referral program. Rewards play a very prominent role in your referral program. It will make it clear to your potential referrers how well versed you are in what your audience is craving for and how willing you are to give out value in exchange for expanding your reach.

Rewards don’t have to necessarily cost a fortune but they must provide additional value (if possible exclusive only) to referrers who have shared your event within their network. Most online event hosts who are new to referral campaigns tend to focus on monetary value as rewards such as giving out partial refunds of tickets or give out free VIP tickets on referring a certain number of referrals. From our experience and statistics, these kind of rewards tend to draw very little attention when compared to rewards that extend and enhance the experience of the overall online event. More later on about what makes good rewards.

Now that you know what moves the needle you might be curious about actual numbers. Whilst not every benefit provided by a referral program can be directly measured, I am going to outline typical results that referral programs return for summit hosts who actively promote it in the recommended way. For instance, having a sense of community is a very difficult aspect to measure. These are called indirect benefits which in this section I am not going to get into.

From our experience a successful referral campaign will drive the following results:

  • 15%-19% increase in attendees through word of mouth. This means that for every 100 attendees are acquired via all channels you stand to get anywhere between 15 to 19 new referred attendees. 
  • 2-2.5x conversion rate for referred attendees. Not only a referral program will bring in an extra 15% to 19% increase in your attendees but referred attendees tend to convert at least twice as much when compared to other attendees. This means they are more likely to buy tickets or premium passes or convert to your backend offers.

Equipped with these two statistics now you know what you stand to gain by simply adding a referral program to your marketing toolbox!

Why does referral marketing work so well?

We do it all the time and most times without noticing! We are recommending different products and services we use, events we attend and experiences we had. We do it because we want our close network of friends, family and colleagues to experience good quality services and avoid bad experiences we had.

This means that irrespective of whether or not you have a referral marketing strategy in place, some of your online event attendees will still spread the word about your event and get others to join. However without having a proper strategy in place and without making it easier for your audience to spread the word you are going to miss on a lot of opportunities.

How does it apply to virtual events / online summits?

When you think about it, word of mouth is a perfect match for virtual events. In itself an event is better if there are more attendees who participate and make the event bigger and better. An attendee that decides to sign-up for your event, will have nothing else to do other than waiting for your event to launch. 

That gives us plenty of opportunity to introduce and promote the referral program and get the hard earned attendees to help amplify our marketing. The referral program must address the following aspects:

  • Must be clear what is the benefit for those being referred
  • Must clearly highlight what’s in it for the referrer and why they should do it?

When designing a referral program, especially coming up with rewards, you must keep in mind the effort required to acquire a new lead for your event. The rewards given out must be worth the effort your referrer will put in to get your referrals. 

Ideally also, you must make it crystal clear to the referrers how the referral will benefit from your event. Referrers will only engage with your referral program if they feel comfortable that your online event will be helpful to others in their network and by referring others they will improve their social status.

How does referral marketing compare to affiliate marketing?

Referral marketing and affiliate marketing are commonly confused and used interchangeably. Whilst there are some commonalities between them, the difference is quite clear. Let me start from saying that you need both channels to grow your online event and you cannot replace one with the other.

Here is a comparison chart that identifies the main differences between referral marketing and affiliate marketing.

Affiliate MarketingReferral Marketing
Commission % of the generated revenue. Commission varies depending on a lot of things such as niche, availability of affiliatesToken of appreciation / reward
Handful partners promoting your business who will drive substantial traffic to your online event.All your attendees can potentially promote for you
A bit difficult for new / emerging / unproven hosts as affiliates tend to promote ONLY proven to convert eventsVery easy to get started / low barrier to entry and can help you proof yourself as a host and your events to be able to show it to affiliates

Affiliate marketing sounds fantastic as you will only pay out commissions if you get a confirmed ticket sale or pass. It’s a fact that affiliate marketing is really important when you’re strategizing your online event marketing channels. Hand of affiliates can give you great exposure, so great that it would take you years to network in your industry to be able to get that kind of momentum. 

However, not everything is bright and beautiful when it comes to affiliate marketing. New hosts are going to struggle to get in touch with potential affiliates and to convince them to promote. Normally affiliates promote online events that they have a certain level of confidence that it is going to convert really well. They tend to stay away from unknown hosts, unproven events, irrespective of how much commissions you are willing to offer. If on the hand they are willing to bite, they might ask for a hefty commission in exchange for giving your event a shot. It’s hard to negotiate with affiliates especially if you are new to the industry and they have been around for quite some time and have a lot of clout.

What am I suggesting here? That you give up on affiliate marketing? Not in a million years. No matter how hard it is, keep trying to get affiliates onboard as it is well worth the effort you spend here. What we have found out though is that referral marketing can also help with this!

Referral marketing as opposed to affiliate marketing has a much lower barrier to entry. All your attendees irrespective of where they have heard about your event are given equal opportunity to refer your event to their friends. Each and every individual referrer is not going to drive a substantial amount of traffic. However, the summed up effort of all your attendees will make a huge difference, a dent in your total number of attendees and sales of tickets for your event. All of this in exchange for a token of appreciation / reward which is going to further improve the way your attendees look at you, as a person who keeps adding value.

Equipped with this insightful statistics from your referral program, you can approach potential affiliates with black on white figures, clearly outlining your conversion rate and how viral their promotion can go and the kind of return they can make.

What are the best strategies to use?

During the past 5 years we have tried several different kinds of configurations to get referral marketing working for our clients who want to promote online events. Here are the very best proven strategies and tips that I keep recommending over and over again.


Start promoting your online event at least 4-5 weeks before. Referrals campaigns are all about capitalizing on the time between attendee signing up and your online event and launching it. Once an attendee is convinced enough to give up his email address to sign up for your event, your focus must switch to selling passes and get them to refer others. You have to understand that it takes time for attendees to get on with referring your event and for someone else to sign up to your event.


Have a reward structure that gives out more rewards as a referrer gets your more referrals. Say for example: 2 referrals will earn you an e-book, whilst 5 referrals will unlock an exclusive video collection, 15 referrals will qualify a referrer to a free 1-on-1 session with you.

Create a reward ladder. Do not just give one reward and that’s it. That will kill the fun and will not gamify your online event referral program. When a referrer reaches a milestone you have to give them another milestone to look forward to and so on. 

TIP #3 – Email Sequence

Once an attendee signs up or at least shows interest in your online event by giving up their email address, you must get them on an automated email sequence that will keep them up to date with the latest news about your online event.

The email sequence offers a unique opportunity to get the word out about your referral program. We normally recommend the following guide as a minimum to promote your referral program:

  • Add a short paragraph about your referral program at the very bottom of every email you send out. Briefly describe the rewards awaiting those who will refer others
  • Add at least two dedicated emails to your existing email sequence, specifically describing your referral program, how easy it is to go about sharing and what are the benefits of promoting your online events.

TIP #4 – Exclusivity

A successful referral program is one which makes the participating referrers feel exclusive. By doing a recommendation to your online event, not only the referral is going to gain but even themselves who are taking the leap they are getting their hands on exclusive rewards – ideally rewards which cannot be otherwise bought or else which is limited and/or very expensive.

It has been proven time and again that the feeling of exclusivity is a main driver in referral programs. If the rewards provided can be obtained otherwise, such as buying them, then it feels like this is yet another upsell.

TIP #5  – Integrated within your funnel

It is really important that once an attendee signs up for your online event, they are automatically registered with your referral program. Make sure that your referral campaign is fully integrated with your funnel. Don’t ask your attendees to sign-up again for the referral program as that extra step will really hinder your referral numbers.

TIP #6 Simple messaging

Simple messaging / simple rewards / simple structure – No multi tier structure, no fancy drawings, no lottery style. The simpler the better. The messaging has to be very clear so that you avoid confusing or sounding like a ponzi scheme. The benefits have to be clear for both referral and referrer. 

Which are the most engaging rewards?

Whilst there are no specific rules set as to what you give out as rewards, the following section is intended to guide you as to what are the best cost effective rewards that you can give out?

Digital vs Physical

In order to simplify operations, we recommend that you give out digital products or access to digital services. This does not mean that giving out physical products will not cut it. We recommend this in order to ease the operations side of your referral program.

Partner up with sponsors, speakers

One easy way to make sure you are giving out valuable content is to partner up with your sponsors and speaker and give them the opportunity to give out rewards to your referrers. Explain your referral program to your partners and tell them that they will be giving out rewards to those who are engaged and well connected in the topics addressed by your online event.. By doing so, not only you are not giving anything away (cost wise) but you are giving extra exposure to your partners.

Rewards Ladder

Have at least 3 rewards stacked up, giving extra incentive for your referrers to keep sharing and spreading the word about your online event even after reaching the first milestone. Let’s face it, no everyone is going to engage with your referral program. Not every is willing to promote an event they are attending. But we want to make sure we get as many referrals out of those who take the leap and share the online event by giving them extra incentive for doing several referrals.

Don’t give out discounts  / refunds

This is controversial – really! But I stand my ground on this and always suggest (when possible) not to give out partial refunds or discounts or even free passes to your online as a reward. Let’s explain why!

The whole purpose of adding a referral program to your online event is to generate more leads resulting in more revenue. By giving out partial refunds or discounts to your referrers you are essentially leaving money on the table as the referrers are more than convinced about your event and willing to pay the full price tag. So why discount it for them?

Not only are you leaving money on the table, you are also making potential ticket buyers think twice about purchasing a pass. They might hold off and see whether they can refer enough referrals in order to get an access pass. By making potential ticket buyers think, you are effectively hurting your conversion rate.

I strongly recommend that you think of something ulterior to giving out money. Your online event attendees are more interested in getting more value than getting a 50% discount on their ticket.


Aftering working with 100s of online event host to help them to get more attendees for their event through word of mouth, I decided to compile this guide to group the most common concerns / questions that I get asked.

As an online event host you must have heard about the power of referrals and how important it is to get a referral strategy for your online event. A good referral strategy should NOT change anything in your marketing plan except appending a refer a friend system at the very end of your funnel. The referral program should not replace existing marketing strategies, especially if they are yielding a positive return on investment. It should fuel more engagement and get you high quality referrals to sign up for your online event.

The main idea behind a referral program is lower your cost of acquisition, and drives more sales through increased conversion rates. Referral marketing is one of the olds marketing channels and has proved time and time again that it returns positive results for online events.