The 8 referral programs that are making waves in Canada

The best referral programs in Canada

As Canada’s leading provider of advocate and referral marketing for Enterprise businesses, we challenged our scientists in the Buyapowa Labs in Vancouver and Toronto to identify some of the leading referral programs in Canada and highlight what’s good about them, and advise what we would change to make them even better.

Of course, we already analyzed 8 leading global referral programs in our incredibly popular blog article 8 Referral Marketing Programs and the Referral Marketing Strategies You Can Steal including Koodo, Tesla, Airbnb, Harry’s, Evernote, T-Mobile, Revolut and Robin Hood. But in this article, we wanted to focus exclusively on the referral programs that are making waves in Canada, so you can see what your favourite brands are doing to get the customers who already love them to bring them more customers.

So our experts grabbed their magnifying glasses and took a close look at 8 leading Canadian referral programs including:

As an upfront admission, being the leading Canadian Enterprise referral software provider, some of the programs below are powered by us, but not all. That’s because we believe there’s no intellectual property in a good idea and if you see someone doing something well you should praise it, learn from it and implement it in your own program.

If you don’t already have a referral program, hopefully, this article will serve as an inspiration for you and convince you that you need to consider implementing one. If you already have a program, then you can tap into some of the ideas below to inspire you as to how you can make your program better. In either case, we would be happy to chat with you and share what we learned from powering over 150 referral programs for leading brands all over the world.

1. KOHO Financial

KOHO Financial refer-a-friend program

KOHO Financial Inc. headquartered in Toronto, more commonly known as KOHO, is a popular Canadian fintech founded in 2014 that offers a full spectrum of financial services to many customers that are either not served or are underserved by traditional banks. As well as prepaid VISA cards that can be managed through their advanced, easy-to-use mobile app, they offer basic checking services and allow customers to budget their money, set spending limits, and open savings accounts. More recently, KOHO expanded their services to include cashback, the ability to create joint accounts and credit building services, covering just about every one of their customers’ financial needs.

Referrer rewards:

The referrer receives C$20 once the referred-in friend signs up and provided he or she makes a purchase with the card within 30 days. Referrers can earn up to C$1,000 in rewards for repeat referrals.

Referee rewards:

The referred-in friend receives C$20 directly deposited into their KOHO account once they’ve made their first purchase.

What our experts think they got right:

Given that KOHO markets to the unbanked and underbanked segments, the allure of cash rewards is likely to be very attractive to its customer base.

KOHO’s referral program also uses framing to get customers to think that they could earn up to C$1,000 in cash rewards, rather than focusing on the C$20 for each referral, which can encourage users to aim to refer up to 50 times.

And, by offering a cash reward that is deposited directly into the referrer and referred-in friend’s KOHO accounts, KOHO’s referral rewards cleverly encourage their users to use their KOHO VISA card to do their shopping — either in-person or online — which invariably benefits KOHO as they generate revenue from the interchange whenever a KOHO card is used in a transaction. Kind of brilliant, if you ask us!

How could we improve the KOHO referral program?

While KOHO makes frequent reference to the ability to earn up to C$1,000, we think that they are missing a trick by not making use of advanced psychological tactics to get users referring again and again. Realizing that more than 80% of all referrals can come from less than 20% of referrers, KOHO should look to find and target those potential super-referrers with gamification, offering prizes for those who top the referral league table. They could also offer tiered rewards with extra cash rewards for reaching milestones like 5, 10 or 15 referrals and short-term booster campaigns that offer extra rewards if referrals are completed before a specified date. 

And while they may have good business reasons for limiting total rewards to C$1,000, as long as they are able to ensure each referral is genuine before paying out any rewards, they could remove the cap and encourage repeat referrals with gamification and tiered rewards. Otherwise, they are potentially missing out on the valuable new customers that their super referrers could bring them.

And finally, while cash is likely to appeal to their demographic — well I guess it appeals to almost all demographics — they could offer rewards choices. This would be a great opportunity to do a partnership, say with Tim Horton’s where you could choose from C$20 or a Tim Horton’s gift card worth C$25!

2. TELUS

TELUS refer-a-friend program

TELUS, headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, as Canada’s second-largest national telecoms company hardly needs any introduction. It offers a complete range of telecommunications products and services, including internet and wireless, phone, entertainment and IPTV, virtual healthcare, home and business security, and the list goes on. Beyond the many services offered directly by the TELUS brand, the company also owns and operates several subsidiaries and flanker brands, including Koodo, Public Mobile, OptikTV, Babylon and Akira, and more.

Referrer rewards:

When the referral is successfully confirmed, the referrer receives a C$50 Amazon gift card. In addition to that, TELUS ran a limited-time booster campaign, which ended on November 15th 2021, that made an additional donation of C$50 to the Friendly Future Foundation for each successful referral.

Referee rewards:

Like the referrer, the referred-in friend receives a reward worth C$50 once the referral is confirmed.

What our experts think they got right:

With any referral program, it can be tough to figure out a compelling enough reward that will drive referrals. Do you offer a gift card or cash? Free service or a gift basket? Do you reward just the referrer, just the friend or both?

What TELUS has brilliantly done with their limited-time booster campaign for their program, which applied to both TELUS Mobility and TELUS Home Solutions, was to offer not only a reward valued at C$50 for both the referrer and the referred-in friend but also a charitable donation to a Canadian charity for the same amount. This creates a two-fold incentive where the referrer and their friend receive a direct reward, but also an altruistic incentive where they can directly contribute to charity by participating in the TELUS referral program.

How could we improve the TELUS referral programs?

Well here’s where we have to pretend to go all shy and admit that we power the TELUS referral programs. So we can’t really comment here on how we would improve these programs, other than to say that our referral experts are always looking at providing tips and sharing best practices with TELUS as to how they can further improve these programs.  So if they make any changes, we’ll update it here.

3. Wealthsimple

Wealthsimple refer-a-friend program

Wealthsimple is a Toronto-based online investment and wealth management service which started in 2014 with the goal of offering digital-first, in-app wealth management services to younger Canadian investors, particularly millennials. Wealthsimple offers services from investing in stock and trading ETFs to opening savings accounts to trading cryptocurrency. As of February 2021, the Canadian startup holds more than C$8bn under management across more than 1.5m clients. With a social target audience, it’s only natural that they’d invest in and capitalize on that social element with a refer-a-friend program. 

Referrer reward:

The referrer gets C$10,000 of their wealth managed free for 12-months.

Referee reward:

Like the referrer, the friend gets C$10,000 managed free for 12-months.

What our experts think they got right:

First of all, much like KOHO, Wealthsimple is cleverly offering a reward that encourages new users to use their platform; offering a 12-month fee-free period on investments of up to C$10,000. This is another good example of framing because when you consider that they charge a management fee of 0.5%, on investments of C$10,000, that is only C$50 a year. So 12 months fee-free on investments of up to C$10,000 sounds a lot more enticing than C$50 off your annual management fee, which is clever marketing.

But also, they are offering something to referrers and referred-in friends that only has value if they actually use the Wealthsimple platform.

The next great thing about their program is their promotional tactics. The program is not only easily accessible and prominently displayed in the user account area, but whenever a user deposits into their account or makes a trade, the app prompts them to refer in their friends for rewards with a simple call-to-action for them to refer. The constant promotion of the program not only captures Wealthsimple users when their satisfaction is highest through triggered notifications that improve the chances of referral, but also ensures that users are always aware and familiar with the referral program and the rewards they’re missing out on if they don’t refer. This is a great example of the discovery part of the activation and discovery strategy for referral programs we discuss here.

How could we improve the Wealthsimple referral program?

If a referred-in friend doesn’t make use of the platform, then there is no cost to WealthSimple other than the benefit of a one-year fee-free period to the referrer. However, what we might suggest is that Wealthsimple only confirms referrals if the referred-in friend meets a post-conversion condition like transferring a certain sum of money to the account (which avoids crediting the referrer with a reward for a referral that drove little value). This is something the Buyapowa platform is able to do, by using APIs to connect the referral program to the client’s back and only payout rewards for verified referrals where certain post transaction conditions have been met.

There is also an opportunity for Wealthsimple to experiment with reward choices. While, as discussed above, there is a real cost for Wealthsimple, and a value for the referrers and referred-in friends in a 12-month fee-free period, provided the account is used,  other rewards could appeal, such as a random stock (like the referral program Robin Hood offers), a deposit into the Wealthsimple account or even a voucher to spend elsewhere. The ultimate goal is to get people successfully referring-in their friends, and the main role that rewards should play is to maximize referrals, so why not offer rewards choices that appeal to more customers and their friends, rather than offering a uniform reward to all.

4. Fido

Fido's refer-a-friend program

Fido, founded in 1996, is a mobile network operator owned by Canada’s largest telecom company, Rogers Communications. But, despite being a subsidiary of Rogers, Fido remains a separate entity and operates its own retail chain, customer service call centres, network servers and even has its own CEO. In Canada, Fido pioneered the concept of offering unlimited service in select Canadian cities, and they were the first major carrier to launch a GSM-based network and the first wireless service provider in North America to offer GPRS on its network. Now, Fido is no stranger to running customer acquisition and retention programs as they’ve been running their refer-a-friend program for years as a means of acquiring new customers.

Referrer reward:

The referrer receives one month of free service on the network.

Referee reward:

Just like the referrer, the referred-in friend receives one month of free service on the network.

What our experts think they got right:

When it comes to a referral program, it doesn’t matter how great it is, without proper, strategic promotion it’s likely to fizzle out and fail. Fido understands this, which is why they wisely promote their refer-a-friend program on their homepage and link directly to the program, ensuring that web visitors, both existing and prospective customers, can easily access the program and begin referring. But they didn’t just stop at the homepage. Fido also promotes their referral program to their enormous list of followers on social media, including nearly 500K on Facebook alone; consistently marketing their refer-a-friend program to their base to both reach and inform all of their followers and encourage them to get referring. This is another great example of the activation and discovery strategy for referral programs we discuss here.

When a customer signs up to a referral program and becomes a registered referrer, there’s no guarantee that they will actually refer. In fact, often they will sign up and then go off to do something else. This is another thing that Fido understands, which is why they send regular reminder emails to their registered referrers who have not referred. The simplicity of the message of potential rewards being missed that sparks FOMO, coupled with the click-to-share buttons embedded within the email, make these reminders incredibly effective at both reminding and activating dormant referrers, and improving sharing actions.

How could we improve the Fido referral program?

Again, as we power the Fido referral program, it is difficult for us to comment here. But let’s just say that Fido benefits from our cumulative experience of running over 150 programs for leading brands and services across the globe, and when we see a great idea in another referral program, whether or not powered by us, we will propose it to them.

5. Tangerine

Tangerine Bank's referral program

Tangerine Bank, more commonly referred to as just Tangerine, is a direct Canadian bank and subsidiary of the massive Scotiabank. The company offers everything you’d expect from a bank, including savings accounts, a chequing account, and mutual funds and mortgages. Much like Fido, and despite being wholly owned by Scotiabank, Tangerine operates as a separate entity. To Canadian banking customers, Tangerine markets itself as being unlike traditional banks; foregoing the expensive brick-and-mortar branches so they can pass along the savings to their customers through things like better interest rates and no unfair fees. But, according to them, that’s just the start when it comes to giving back, with a myriad of community initiatives and programs that aim to empower Canadians, protect the environment and put corporate social responsibility at the forefront of their strategy. Despite technically being a part of one of Canada’s leading and most widely recognized banks, Tangerine is deploying customer acquisition initiatives of its own, like refer-a-friend, to stay competitive within the saturated financial services market.

Referrer reward:

Referrers receive C$50 when the friend successfully becomes a Tangerine Client.

Referee reward:

The friend receives C$50 when they open their first eligible account with a minimum deposit of C$250 within 60 days, provided that they maintain at least that amount in the account for the next 60 days after the deposit.

What our experts think they got right:

As with a number of the other examples in this list, one of the ways to maximize the performance and returns of your referral program is to offer a reward that not only delivers value to referrers and their friends but also yourself as a business. Tangerine’s refer-a-friend program does just that with their cash reward. Often, brands outside of the banking space avoid offering cash rewards because they want to offer something that will help them retain the customer, like offering a loyalty points or cart discount on next purchase. Whereas cash can be spent anywhere, even with a competitor. But by paying the reward and incentive into their Tangerine accounts, they are encouraging the use of their service. And Tangerine cleverly ensures it will get value from the new customer by adding a post transaction condition that the deposit must be maintained for 60 days. 

Finally, with any referral program, you want to ensure that there is minimal friction, both for the referrer and for their friend. To enable this, Tangerine has built simple and easy-to-use sharing tools and even prepared emails for referrers to easily share with the friends they’re hoping to recruit. This makes the whole referral journey for both the referrer and their friend even simpler, and improves the chances of referrers actually performing sharing actions. As we highlighted in our best practices in referral marketing guide, this makes it easier for their friends to convert with simple messaging, links and directions.

How could we improve the Tangerine referral program?

While there’s a lot to like with Tangerine’s refer-a-friend program, we can’t help but nitpick a little bit. First of all, they specify that referrers can only successfully refer up to 3 new customers per calendar year. Now, as we mentioned above, typically, more than 80% of referrals will come from less than 20% of your customers; so Tangerine might be losing out on a lot of valuable referrals. Instead, as long as they are able to ensure each referral is genuine before paying out any rewards, we would remove the cap and encourage repeat referrals with gamification and tiered rewards and let their super-referrers bring them many more new customers. 

Secondly, as a non-traditional bank offering low fees and great interest rates, Tangerine is likely to appeal to many younger banking customers, like students with part-time jobs that might not have the required C$250 minimum deposit or be able to stay above that amount for 60 consecutive days. Tangerine could consider using a feature like Smart Rewards that offers a lower reward payment for a lower deposit, for example, C$30 if C$150 is deposited for 60 days. Smart rewards, something that Buyapowa supports, allow brands to pay different rewards and incentives according to the value of the referred-in customer. 

And finally, Tangerine uses referral codes, called Orange Keys, as part of their program. And while referral codes absolutely have their place, referral links can better guide and streamline the referral journey and further help reduce friction.

6. First West Credit Union

First West Credit Union's referral program

Referral programs aren’t just the sole domain of big banks or disruptive fintechs, credit unions across Canada (and the United States) are also successfully leveraging the power of member-get-member programs to drive customer acquisition. Case in point: First West Credit Union. The Langley-based Canadian credit union, which offers everything from personal banking to mortgages to credit cards to investing, has the largest geographical reach of any credit union in British Columbia, with 46 branches throughout the province. The credit union collectively manages nearly C$15.5bn in assets and boasts more than 250,000 total members across their flagship First West brand and other divisions, including Envision Financial in the Lower Mainland, Valley First in the southern interior and including Okanagan and Kamloops and Island Savings on Vancouver Island. With credit unions being fundamentally a member-owned financial cooperative, it comes as no surprise that they would deploy a member-get-member program to help them grow in these regions and encourage their members to refer in their friends and family.

Referrer reward:

The referrer gets C$100 deposited into their account once the friend successfully joins and begins banking.

Referee reward:

Likewise, the friend will receive C$100 once they successfully open a Simply Free Account and complete a recurring pre-authorized debit or credit transaction within 60 days.

What our experts think they got right:

Repeat referrals are the cornerstone of any successful referral program but encouraging them can be difficult. First West Credit Unions (including Envision Financial, Valley First and Island Savings) offer up to C$500 in referral rewards per year to encourage their members to refer not just once, but again and again.

First West’s credit unions prominently feature their referral program on their homepage, ensuring that website visitors — in particular their existing members — are aware of the program and encouraged to sign up and get referring every time they visit and log in. And, by launching their refer-a-friend program across their portfolio of credit unions, First West ensures that regardless of which division they’re banking with, they have access to the same referral program and rewards, creating a consistent and integrated marketing strategy with their member-get-member program at the vanguard.

How could we improve the First West referral program?

We think the First West referral programs are just great and, most importantly, serve their purpose perfectly. Of course, we would say that as we are proud that they are another client of ours. But, as mentioned above, time doesn’t stay still and what is great in a referral program today, might not be tomorrow. This is why First West benefits from our relentless desire to continue to improve our platform and share best practice advice with all our clients, whether that be running a booster campaign, offering intelligent rewards or launching new promotional tools.

7. Costco Canada

Costco Canada's referral program

Everyone knows Costco, the massively popular warehouse club that offers bulk discounts to their exclusive members. Originally founded in the United States, Costco has grown into a global franchise and is today ranked as the fifth largest retailer in the world. One of the many countries that Costco serves is Canada, with stores throughout the country. Given that Costco.ca is a membership-based warehouse club, meaning that you cannot enjoy their bulk savings without paying a monthly membership fee, it comes as no surprise that they would launch a refer-a-friend program to get their existing members to invite their friends and family to sign up, particularly when you realize that they’re not the only retailer of their kind, with Walmart’s Sam’s Club in hot pursuit.

Referrer reward:

Costco offers a C$25 Costco.ca voucher when a friend signs up for a Gold Star membership or C$50 when they sign up for an Executive membership.

Referee reward:

Like the referrer reward, depending on whether they sign up for a Gold Star or Executive membership, they’ll likewise receive a C$25 or C$50 Costco.ca voucher, respectively.

What our experts think they got right:

There’s a lot to like about Costco’s member-get-member referral program. First and foremost, Costco.ca has cleverly utilized the upsell opportunity by offering an incentive to not only sign up for their classic Gold Star membership but also to double their reward and sign up for their perk-rich Executive membership, which offers exclusive offers and discounts, a 2% reward on qualified purchases, and more.

Secondly, Costco.ca, like many other smart brands operating a referral program, is offering a reward that provides value to referrers and their friends but also generates value for them. In the terms and conditions of their membership referral program, they specify that redeeming the vouchers can only be done so on purchases worth over C$100 for the C$25 voucher and C$150 for the C$50 voucher. With this, Costco.ca essentially guarantees a minimum return of C$75 and C$100 from both their existing and new members, as well as the membership fee.

How could we improve the Costco.ca referral program?

As mentioned, there’s a lot to like about Costco.ca’s referral program. However, there is some definite room for improvement. We’re big advocates of utilizing intelligent rewards that can encourage repeat referrals. The accounting for Costco.ca means that the more members a referrer recruits, the more Costco collects in membership fees. This is true of many subscription-based businesses, like telecoms and streaming services. By offering tiered rewards that scale with the number of members a referrer recruits can encourage them to refer again and again; and the more successful they are, the bigger the reward. This is especially important as more than 80% of your referrals will come from less than 20% of your customers, meaning the more you incentivize them to refer again, the more successful your program will be.

8. PC Financial

PC Financial's refer-a-friend program

President’s Choice Financial, better known as PC Financial, is the financial service and banking brand of Canadian retail giant Loblaw Companies. They offer personal banking and Mastercard credit card services under the PC Financial banner, as well as auto and home insurance provided by PC Financial Insurance Brokers. And, through its ownership by Loblaw Companies, PC Financial is part of the PC Optimum points program that spans their impressive roster of popular retail chains, including Loblaws supermarkets, Shoppers Drug Mart retail pharmacies, No Frills deep discount grocery stores and many others. PC Financial Mastercard holders automatically collect PC Optimum points on all purchases using their credit cards, which can then be redeemed at their supermarket affiliates. So, given the sheer ubiquity of Loblaw’s many retail chains and its presence in the lives of everyday Canadians, launching a refer-a-friend program to get more customers as part of that network makes perfect sense.

Referrer reward:

The referrer receives 25,000 PC Optimum points for each friend they successfully refer to PC Financial (for a maximum of 10 friends or 250,000 points).

Referee reward:

No referral bonus is offered to the friend.

What our experts think they got right:

This is the first program among those listed in this article that doesn’t offer a referral reward to the friend once they are successfully referred in.

Firstly, consistent with the running theme of these examples of good referral programs, the reward offered, in this case, PC Optimum points, generate further business for Loblaw Companies as it can only be redeemed at a Loblaw supermarket affiliate. In this way, PC Financial’s referral program cleverly combines both new customer acquisition and customer loyalty into a strategy by offering loyalty points in exchange for referring in a friend.

Up until December 2021, PC Financial is offering a limited-time offer of 50,000 PC Optimum points to the referrer when they successfully refer in a friend, effectively doubling the per referral reward. This booster campaign creates an extra incentive to act and act now, and with the time-limited nature of the offer, introduces an element of FOMO.

How could we improve the PC Financial referral program?

Now, while it is not always necessary to offer an incentive for a referred-in friend, recent research from Harvard identified the importance of offering something of value for the friend in encouraging the referral. So not offering something to the friend can reduce the number of referrals the program will get because it reduces the likelihood that the existing customer will refer in the first place.

However, given that all new PC Financial customers can earn up to 50,000 PC Optimum points when they open a PC Financial account and begin using it to shop, pay bills and set up automatic payroll or pension contributions, this means that a referred-in customer may just decide to sign up directly rather than accept the referral offer, which is half as generous as that offered to any new customer. While PC Financial may still get the new customer, they may be erroneously assigning the source of that new customer as direct traffic. Whereas, offering a slightly better deal for a referred-in friend gives the referral more appeal and means that the referral is more likely to be accurately reflected. 

As in the examples above, limiting a referrer to 10 total referrals may reduce the overall number of referrals their program can get. As mentioned, because over 80% of referrals typically come from less than 20% of referrers, as long as they are able to ensure each referral is genuine before paying out Optimum points, then why not let super referrers bring in more than 10 valuable new customers.

Finally, while using PC Optimum points as the reward undoubtedly benefits PC Financial and Loblaw at large, there is a case to be made that they’re missing out on a wellspring of new customers by focusing more on what benefits their business than what benefits a potential referrer and their friend. As mentioned above, reward choices can be a huge contributor to how well a referral program performs. And, as we’ve seen above, there is an opportunity to provide an alternative reward to loyalty points, such as cash rewards that could be paid into the referrer and friends accounts with PC Financial, further encouraging their use.

That’s all for now. But believe us, we still have much more to discuss. So, if you’re interested in launching your own referral program and supercharging your customer acquisition, then don’t hesitate to reach out to one of our referral experts today. We’d love to chat!

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