Maximizing the Success of Referral Programs and the Thin Edge of the Wedge Strategy



Jul 11, 20234 min read


Maximizing the Success of Referral Programs and the Thin Edge of the Wedge Strategy


Referral programs have become increasingly popular in the world of marketing and customer acquisition. They offer unique advantages over traditional paid marketing channels, as they allow businesses to leverage their existing users to spread the word about their products or services. In this article, we will explore the key factors that contribute to the success of referral programs and how the "thin edge of the wedge" strategy can be utilized to establish a strong initial user base.

Referral Program Design:

To design an effective referral program, it is crucial to consider several key elements. Firstly, it is important to determine the right timing and incentives for asking users to refer others. Rather than focusing solely on the conversion rate, it is recommended to incorporate the referral ask in various places within the product, increasing the number of impressions. Additionally, creating a sense of urgency and aligning the ask with specific events or holidays can significantly enhance the program's effectiveness.

Targeting New Users:

While it may seem intuitive to target existing users for referrals, focusing on new users can yield better results. Mathematically, hitting a cohort of 1000 new users is more impactful than targeting a smaller cohort that has already churned. Moreover, new users tend to have a larger network of friends who have not yet used the product, increasing the potential for successful referrals.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Rewards:

Choosing the right type of incentive is crucial for the success of a referral program. Intrinsic rewards, such as points or storage space, can be cost-effective and easily controlled by the business. However, it is important to note that external users who are unfamiliar with the product may not be as responsive to intrinsic rewards. On the other hand, extrinsic rewards, such as monetary incentives, can be more appealing to a wider audience. Understanding the target audience and weighing the tradeoffs between these reward types is essential.

Leveraging Tiered Offers and Symmetric vs. Asymmetric Offers:

To maximize the impact of the incentive structure, incorporating tiered offers with breakage can be highly effective. This means providing larger rewards for higher levels of referrals, creating a sense of progression and excitement for users. Additionally, it is often more effective to cater to the self-interest of the inviter, offering a higher reward for them rather than the invitee. However, in certain B2B contexts, an altruistic approach, offering significant discounts to others, can also drive successful referrals.

Evaluating Cannibalization:

Cannibalization, the potential negative impact of referral programs on organic growth, is a crucial factor to consider when measuring the success of a referral program. Conducting A/B tests or temporarily turning off the program can help evaluate the impact on new user acquisition. For products with a true network effect, referral programs may eventually be overshadowed by intrinsic use cases, such as sharing and communicating within the platform.

The Power of the Thin Edge of the Wedge Strategy:

The "thin edge of the wedge" strategy is a powerful approach for establishing an initial user base and expanding from there. This strategy involves addressing a smaller problem or offering a simplified version of the product to attract early adopters. Once the user base reaches critical mass, the product can be iterated upon to provide enduring value and create a defensible position in the market. Thinking about the entire wedge from the start can lead to the creation of successful and sustainable companies.

Actionable Advice:

1. Incorporate the referral ask in various places within your product to increase impressions and opportunities for successful referrals.

2. Consider targeting new users for referrals, as they have larger networks of friends who have not yet used the product.

3. Experiment with both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, understanding the tradeoffs and preferences of your target audience.


Referral programs can be a valuable acquisition channel for businesses, allowing them to leverage their existing user base to drive growth. By designing effective referral programs, considering the timing, incentives, and target audience, businesses can maximize the success of their programs. Additionally, incorporating the "thin edge of the wedge" strategy can help establish a strong initial user base and create enduring value for customers.


  1. "How to design a referral program at andrewchen", (Glasp)
  2. "The “thin edge of the wedge” strategy", (Glasp)

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