Asking members to tell their friends about the community never works. Members might tell their friends, but not because you asked them to. So stop asking them. It's vague, feels forced and doesn't benefit the referring members.
The secret to referrals is to ensure that each referral benefits the member. This can mean:
- Increases their status within the community. By inviting people your status within the community increases. This is good when there are tracking systems to keep count or when you can bring high level of expertise into the community.
- Increases their status in the eyes of their friend. AKA. impress their friend. This is why most of us share things with our friends (funny videos, informative articles etc…). This works when the community content is extremely valuable to that problem or when the community is exclusive. By telling your friends, you look better in their eyes.
- Improves the community. This is the most altruistic of the group. A member invites a friend to improve the community. This friend will usually have a unique level of skill or expertise.
- Helps their friend. Occaisionally people have genuine motives to help their friends. If you can solve a problem or improve the life of the friends of your members, your members are far more likely to invite them to join.
Here are a few ideas:
Increased their status within the community
Impress their friends
Vote for my idea. Increasingly common, members submit something then need people to vote for it for them to win. They are incentivised to get their friends to join and participate on their behalf to increase their status within the community.
Solicit articles and contributions to the community. Members are much more likely to share content to others which they have created. If they have worked on something remarkable, they're likely to contribute to it
Designate areas of responsibility. Give members responsibility for areas of the site/categories within the forums. They’re more likely to invite friends to join. It increases their own status.
Track referrals. If you can keep score of the number of people members have invited to join the community, people are far more likely to invite others.
Exclusive invites. Make the invites very hard and exclusive to get and people will be more likely to use them. It impresses their friends. Give members one invite to use per month or targets to hit to keep their invites. This has worked for dozens of technology platforms in recent years.
Co-write a community eBook. Members like to impress their friends by being featured in a book that’s been published. If you get lots of members to co-write a book they're extremely likely to share it with their friends.
Interview members. Members are highly likely to publish interviews with them on their Facebook/Twitter profiles.
Achievements and milestones. If you celebrate achievements and milestones, existing membes are likely to tell their friends (who in turn are more likely to join).
Improve the community
Help their friend
Set a clear goal. People are likely to invite others to join when it is part of a movement with a clear objective.
Highlight problems within the community. Members are likely to invite people they know who can help with this issue.
Target a new niche. As per recruiting above, target a specific broader audience of people who you would like to join the community. Ask members if they know any of these people that they could invite to join
Beginner’s guide to. When you create a beginner's guide to a topic, especially when co-written by members, you create material that members can send to their friends to help them get started in the topic. This is, usually, the best piece of referral content you can have.
Resolve biggest problems/questions in your sector. Like the above, but work on content or an editted list of discussions that resolve the biggest questions and problems that people have. It's likely to be a highly viral piece of content.
A bonus here is that members that come in via these routes are far more likely to convert into active members of the community as opposed to lurkers.
It doesn't matter entirely which of these four works best for you. Try them all and measure what works best for your online community. It's far more important that you are both encouraging referrals and have a defensible strategy for encouraging them.
Bonus tip: Don't ask newcomers to invite their friends. The best people to get their friends to join are your most active members. Focus on them.