3 Principles of Human Behavior Applied to Your Referral Program

3 Principles of Human Behavior Applied to Your Referral Program

Tori Barrington

Written by: Tori Barrington | Snoball Editorial Team

Last Updated: Apr 10, 2024

3 Principles of Human Behavior Applied to Your Referral Program

My husband and I  moved to a small town in southern California about a year ago. Moving to a random location where you don’t know anyone is all fun and adventurous until you realize you don’t know where to go for anything. Best restaurant, dentist, auto shop, salon, or doctor nearby? I have no idea.

At first, we just searched for everything on Google. But once we started making friends, we trusted their experiences and opinions the most. A few weeks ago, I decided it was time for a haircut, so I reached out to a friend and asked where she went. Without even blinking an eye, I trusted her and scheduled an appointment with her hair stylist, and it was great!

Image of a hair salon

Turns out, she’s been referring friends to that hair stylist for years. Several other women I know have been going to that salon for a long time because she referred them.

How can you build those kinds of loyal ambassadors who help you grow your customer base for years to come? Of course, it all starts with making your current customers happy. The customer experience should always be top priority.

Once you have happy customers, the next step is to develop a referral program.

There are many ways to go about this, but we’re going to explore principles of human behavior that will take your referral program to the next level. These ideas come from Nancy Harhut’s book Using Behavioral Science in Marketing. Harhut is an expert on human behavior, so this isn’t just advice from your local marketer; these principles are backed by actual scientific research.

Choice Architecture label

Choice Architecture

Have you ever been asked to take a survey online but it ends up being so many steps you quit? Or maybe as you’re buying a new product online, you’re asked to subscribe to a newsletter, and because the checkbox is already checked, you agree to it.

The reason both of these scenarios are common is because of choice architecture, a fascinating principle of human behavior. Harhut describes, “Research has shown that people's decisions are impacted by the way their choices are served up to them. How you organize your options is important.”

When asking for referrals, you want to make sure that the options presented to customers are clear and easy to understand. They’re doing you a favor by referring their friends and family members, so make the process as smooth as possible. If the steps are too long or confusing, they may be deterred and decide not to refer.

Remove All Barriers

One of the first steps in designing an efficient choice architecture is to eliminate as many  barriers as possible. Your goal should be to present the path of least resistance to your customers.

So think through your current referral program process. Write down all the steps someone needs to take if they want to refer a friend to your company. Then, try to figure out if there’s a way to remove any unnecessary steps or make anything easier.

Image of people pointing at a laptop screen

For example, if the only place for someone to refer a friend is on an obscure page of your website that can only be found by clicking on some tiny text in the footer, it might be time to make a change. Maybe you could add a small popup on the bottom corner of your homepage that directs people to that referral page. Or you could add a section to your homepage with a simple version of the referral form.

Add Ease to Messaging

Once you have adjusted the process to be as seamless as possible, don’t be afraid to advertise how easy the referral program is. It might seem simple, but Nancy advises, "Another effective choice architecture tactic is for a marketer to position the desired option as easy, simple, beneficial, and requiring little effort." 

Take a minute to go through your messaging. Where are you telling people about the referral program or asking them to send a referral? Adjust the messaging to reflect how easy it is to refer their friends. Use phrases like:

  • It’ll only take two minutes to refer a friend.
  • Just click this link, fill out the form, and that’s it!
  • It’s only one step.

Scarcity label


The word “scarcity” in marketing automatically brings to mind limited time offers or restricted product supply. While each of these strategies has its place and can be very beneficial to your marketing efforts, Harhut gets to the heart of the scarcity principles when she says, “People like to feel special. They like to feel singled out. They like to feel exclusive. When you make people feel that they are part of a select group, you are more likely to get them to take the action you want them to." 

There are two ideas here to pay attention to. First, your customers want to feel special. Second, they want to feel part of an exclusive group. Let’s explore how each of these can benefit your referral program.

Personalize Outreach

Think back to the last time you had to call a helpline. How many times did you have to dial different numbers before you finally connected to a real person? Open up your inbox. How many of those emails are from real people and how many are automated, generalized messages?

We live in a world where we expect artificial intelligence, which means the human touch has become more and more valued. When you call a company and an actual human being answers, it’s almost surprising.

This is why one of the best ways to use the scarcity principle and make people feel special in your referral program is through personalized outreach. Having a referral form on your website is definitely needed; don’t get rid of it. But don’t underestimate the power of texting or emailing your happy customers and asking if they have a friend who may be interested in your product or service.

Harhut emphasizes, "Personalize your messages by the recipient's name or their initials." Even something as simple as including their name in that text or email can go a long way.

And of course, the more special it makes them feel, the better. Based on your team’s bandwidth, brainstorm how you could reach out to your customers and ask for a referral on a personal level. Don’t be afraid to get creative! For example, you could send happy customers a small gift with a handwritten note asking for a referral.

Image of someone writing a letter

Reward Referrers

Once you’ve gained some traction in your referral program, it’ll be a good time to apply the next part of this principle. Harhut explains, "People enjoy having access to information, perks, privileges, savings, experiences, and opportunities that other people do not."

What if the way people could access fun perks and savings was by being part of a top referrers club? This would encourage them to continue to refer their friends, guaranteeing their spot in the exclusive group. It would also continue to make them feel special and would most likely result in their repeat business.

Depending on how your current referral program works, start by brainstorming how to keep track of your top referrers. Next, decide on the details of this exclusive club. Ask questions like:

  • What qualifies them to be part of the group?
    • Number of referrals
    • Frequency of referrals
  • How will they know they’re part of the group?
    • Newsletter
    • Box sent in the mail
  • What kind of perks will they receive?
    • Product or service discounts
    • Early access to new products
    • Free swag items
    • Free access to industry videos, magazine, etc.
  • How often will they receive these perks?
    • Weekly
    • Monthly
    • Quarterly

Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Let Snoball automate your referral program! Schedule a demo to see what Snoball can do for your business.

Schedule Demo

Consistency label

The Consistency Principle

Another principle of human behavior that Harhut addresses in her book is the consistency principle. She teaches, "Social scientists have found that once people take an action or take a stand, they like to remain consistent with it."

While this seems like a fairly intuitive and straightforward research finding, its implications are very impressive. It’s a great way to influence behavior when the desired action feels a bit inconvenient or out of reach. 

Sending your friend’s name to a company is a big leap of trust, which is why asking for referrals can feel daunting, and even awkward, at times. Applying this principle is a great way to diffuse the situation.

Point Out Characteristics

To further explain this principle, Harhut says, "People like what they say and do to be in sync… When those two things do not match, people can experience cognitive dissonance." People like to be consistent, whether it’s with an action they took, something they said, or even their characteristics. 

Instead of diving right into the referral request, start by reminding them what a great customer they have been up to that point. This can be as simple as saying, “Thank you for being so wonderful to work with! We’ve really enjoyed getting to know you and your family over the course of this project.” Or if there was a specific moment they shined as a customer, you could point that out too.

By drawing their attention to what a good customer they’ve been, they’ll want to remain consistent and make decisions that will align with what a good customer would do. Then when you ask for a referral, they’re more likely to agree.

Onramp to Yes

The consistency principle also says that people want to be consistent with what they’ve said. This means that if someone says yes in a conversation, they’re more likely to say yes again later on in that conversation. Can you see how valuable that might be in referral requests?

Image of man on phone

According to Harhut, “…getting people to agree to a smaller request first can lay the groundwork for their agreement to a larger one."

If the referral is the large request, take a minute to brainstorm what might be the smaller request you could make first? Maybe:

  • Would you please follow us on social media?
  • Do you want us to mail you this free [company] sticker?
  • Could you please leave us a review on BestCompany.com?

Choose a smaller request that your customer base is most likely to say yes to. Then, follow up with the referral request to trigger that second yes.

Pro tip: Don’t forget to keep the conversation going! If you’re texting a happy customer and they agree to leave you a review and then a referral, follow up with them a month later to see how they’re doing. Maybe by then they’ll have another referral or will agree to an upsell.

Let Snoball Help label

Let Snoball Help

All of these principles are very interesting and useful in theory, but the issue comes in execution. It takes a lot of time and bandwidth to create an easy process for customers to refer their friends while at the same time consistently reaching out to them to nurture conversations and ask for more referrals. 

At Snoball, we understand that the logistics of running a successful referral program can be tricky. That’s why we’ve created a platform that automatically collects referrals for you. And the best part is, we nurture conversations with your customers over time, leading to more referrals, reviews, video testimonials, upsell opportunities, and more!

First, Snoball removes all friction by meeting customers where they’re at—through texts. Instead of downloading an app or needing to find the form on your website, we text customers, making it especially easy for them to refer their friends. 

The outreach is personalized and specific to the individual customer. We have a team dedicated to carrying out these conversations with your customers. And as referrals come in, you can use the dashboard to track your top referrers.

What companies appreciate the most about Snoball is that we nurture conversations with customers over time. We don’t just text them once, get a referral, and move on. As we consistently build relationships with them, we’re able to collect referrals, reviews, and video testimonials. We can even generate repeat business and upsell opportunities. And if the customer has a question or concern, we can submit a support ticket directly to your team so it’s taken care of as quickly as possible.

If you want to take the stress of the referral program off your plate, schedule a demo with our team today!

Schedule Demo

Related Articles


3 Mindsets That Are Sabotaging Your Referral Program

Read More chevron_right

How to Set Up Referral Tracking

Read More chevron_right