How to create a referral perfect storm like Virgin

Coke and Mentos. Potassium and water. Samsung phones and electricity. When you put some things together, they just go BANG. Now, in the plaid-suited, kipper-tied world of meteorology and / or George Clooney movies, they call a confluence of phenomena resulting in dramatic conditions a 'perfect storm'. In the world of referral marketing, we just call it super-cool.

Referral marketing is all about getting people to share their love of a brand or a product with their friends. So, for referral marketing to work - and boy can it work - two things tend to make big difference: a brand people adore, or a product they love to talk about. When you get both of those together - beloved brands and passion products - that’s a referral perfect storm, such as the one we’ve just launched with Virgin Wines: an absolutely iconic brand and wine, a product which gets more Google results than ‘doughnuts’, ‘cuddles’ and ‘Jesus’ combined.

We’ll come back to Virgin Wines later but, first, let’s take a look at what we mean by those two terms: beloved brands and passion products.

BELOVED BRANDS

Every year, Superbrands (UK) Ltd publish their list of Britain’s coolest brands. It’s called ‘CoolBrands' because self-explanatory names for things are cool, but spaces between words are not. Regardless of its name, it’s interesting to take a look at some of the brands who feature: eve mattresses, S.Pellegrino and, of course, the eternal Number One Coolest of the Cool, Apple.

There’s nothing empirically spectacular about these brands’ products: Leesa, Casper, Bruno and many more startups now sell similar mattresses direct to consumers - just like eve; bottled water is basically bottled water; and don’t get me started on the whole iOS / Android, Mac / PC thing. But there’s definitely something special about these brands and, crucially, the way people love to talk about them. And that makes a big difference when it comes to referral marketing because the readier people are to talk about a brand with their friends, the more they’re going to share referral links. And the more they share, the more their friends are going to take notice, click and convert. Ultimately, the cooler and more beloved your brand, the more incremental sales you’re going to get via referral.

PASSION PRODUCTS

So, brands can be cool, but products are a little different. Not everything made by cool brands inspires passion among consumers. Apple only have to sneeze and the world rushes to caress their hanky, but it takes a rare kind of person to feel much passion towards their glamorous range of power cable converters (to say nothing of Ping, their quickly-canned music-based social network which blew right by without so much as wafting the leaves on the give-a-crap tree).

Here at Buyapowa, we’ve worked with dozens of brands who specialise in passion product areas, including make-up, fashion, magazines, home furnishings, food and fitness. And the reason why L’Oréal, ASOS, Time Inc, Heal’s, Ocado and Bulk Powders’ programmes do so well? Well, aside from our unique technology (cue the self-blowing trumpets), they all sell products which people adore and are delighted to tell their friends about - friends who, often in great numbers, share the same passions that they do.

And that’s the key: passion products tend to come with ready-made communities of interest, filled with likeminded people. Beauty’s a great example, where there’s an absolutely enormous culture of evangelists trading tips, tricks and product reviews on blogs and across social media. Lifestyle activities, like cycling and fishing, are another: anyone who lives for packing up their saddlebag or tackle box at the weekend is almost certain to know dozens of other people who'll want to hear about any product which can enhance their experience.

THE PERFECT STORM?

Combine beloved brands and passion products and you get that perfect storm; and perfect storms make perfect referral programmes. That’s why we’re incredibly excited about working with Virgin Wines. Virgin have spent five decades at the cutting edge of innovation, creativity and, yes, cool. (Even their bank, Virgin Money, made the CoolBrands list - and banks are never cool.)

And, as passion products go, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example than wine: something people love to discuss (and, of course, share) with friends. That’s how most of us discover our favourite new grapes, our preferred regions and our go-to winemakers - by talking to friends and sampling their recommendations.

So, put that brand together with that product? Well, like I said at the top: BANG. But not every brand or product has it so easy, so here’s three ways to whip up your storm even if it’s not quite perfect:

Emphasise what’s great. No one cares about your brand but your product still resonates? Just build your programme - especially your default sharing messages, email assets and site copy - around the reasons why existing customers buy and their friends should try. If that sounds obvious, that’s because we’re all living in a post “eight out of 10 cats prefer Whiskas” world. Before that ad, Whiskas was known as Kal Kan and no one - human or feline - gave a box of kitty litter about the brand. But, when you build your offering around your product and the passion surrounding it? Well, that’s how great brands - and great referral programmes - are born.

Find your audience. Beloved brands tend to have big CRM databases and, because referral operates via a funnel just like any other marketing channel, they’re got a head-start when it comes to seeding their programmes and filling that funnel. But it’s not the be all and end all, providing your product can tap into people's passion. I remember a programme we ran for Pfizer’s incredibly unglamourous Thermacare brand; they barely had anyone on their email list (who’s going to sign up to hear about the latest developments in the crazy world of heat patches?), but we helped them find ideal audiences in passion areas - maternity and equestrian sports - where the product made a great fit and there was a pre-existing network of potential shoppers who had a million things in common with each other including, of course, back pain. It was a huge success.

Everyone loves your brand, but one of your products just isn’t getting the world’s juices flowing? Offer exclusive, brand-focused rewards such as experiences, limited merch or exclusive access to customers who spread the word about the product, and their passion will shine through regardless. On the flip-side, incentivise their friends to purchase by bundling better-known products at an exclusive rate or offering catalogue-wide savings against subsequent purchases. As an aside, one of the best things about embedded referral programmes is that you can set the landing page where advocates’ friends arrive to any page you like. In many cases, that’ll be your homepage or a page filled with best-sellers, but we’ve also worked with brands who cleverly steered potential acquisitions towards new products, or products which are mid-life-cycle, and it’s often worked a treat.

Our job is to make referral programmes work, regardless of the strength of the brand or the passion its products engender. But, in the years we’ve been doing this, three things have become more and more clear. First, if you’ve got a brand people adore, referral marketing is going to convert that adoration into sales. Secondly, if you’ve got a product people feel passionate about, referral marketing is going to find you even more customers. And if you’ve got both? A beloved brand and a passion product? Then you NEED to be doing referral marketing. And you need to talk to us.

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