How to Successfully Set Up Referral Programs (By Business Maturity Level)

We’re sharing the tactics your business needs to know whether SMB, mid-market or enterprise.

Referral partnerships is a rare marketing strategy that appeals to businesses of all sizes. It’s cost-effective, which small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) love, and scalable, so larger companies can leverage their extensive customer base. Not to mention, it’s pretty effective, with a success rate of 49 per cent compared to other marketing tactics, as reported by a TrustRadius study.

While launching a customer referral program is similar irrespective of the business’ maturity level, there may be some differences in approach. As Bianca Balazic, Customer Success Manager at PartnerStack, says, “Starting a referral program isn’t easy whether you’re small or big. The obstacles will just change as you grow.”

With that in mind, we sat down to discuss the obstacles businesses face at SMB, mid-market (MM), or enterprise level and how to address them through a strong customer referral program and a partner relationship management tool, like PartnerStack, that makes managing programs seamless. Read on for Balazic’s insight on creating a revenue-earning referral partnership program for SaaS vendors of all sizes.

How to set up a successful referral program

As mentioned, the setup process for most referral programs is the same despite the business size. But here’s a quick refresher on the basic steps to creating a formal high-performing referral partnership program.

Set the program's goals, objectives, and KPIs

Once these are set, communicate them with relevant stakeholders. If it’s your first time launching a customer referral program, you might not have KPIs to aim for. In such a case, Balazic suggests chatting with peers on platforms like LinkedIn to understand what to work towards.

An image that shows that t average success rate of a referral partner program is 49 per cent

Decide on a set of incentives and a reward structure

Do you want a double sided referral program or a single one? Tiered rewards structure or flat? Choose thoughtfully to operationalize your referral program most effectively.

Related: What kind of partner program is right for you?

List your source of referrals

Here, define your ideal buyer persona and understand their habits. Then, head over to where they are hanging out, purchasing organically. These sources should include existing (happy) and potential new customers. Balazic recommends at least five sources, noting the importance of being “diversified in recruitment”.

Choose the right referral marketing software

Choosing the right PRM is essential. You’ll want it to not only automate the bulk of the referral process but also help with tracking. With PartnerStack, you can automate payments and email marketing campaigns, track progress, and generate referral links. Select a referral program software that can handle your business at its current level and scale as you grow.

Promote your own referral program

Publicize per referral incentives, encourage existing customers to refer a friend, and cross-promote your campaign everywhere, from email to social media ads and content marketing. Give referrers a unique referral link they can share with their network. 

See more: Why B2B SaaS companies should run multiple partner programs.

Track metrics

Ensure that you’re not only tracking partner program metrics, but also communicating them with top partners. This will help you make data-driven decisions. When asked what makes a referral campaign successful, one of Balazic’s top recommendations is that companies’ focus on being data-driven. “They’re not just guessing. They’re looking at which resources are being used the most — which partner recruitment panel is the most successful and why.”

These are the fundamentals of starting many referral marketing programs. However, there are a few differences regarding the company size. 

A photo of PartnerStack's Bianca Balazic with a quote that reads, "Starting a referral program isn't easy whether you're small or big. The obstacles will just change as you grow."

A glance at referral programs across three business maturity levels

  SMB (<100 employees)  MM (100-300 employees)  Enterprise (>300 employees)
Ease of attracting referral partners Brand anonymity and smaller customer bases make it harder for SMBs to attract referrers. MM generally have more brand awareness than SMBs; therefore, partners are more inclined to work with them. They also have plenty of current customers to reach out to. Enterprise businesses usually have name recognition, loyal customers, and a vast customer pool, making getting more referral partners easier.
Speed of launch There are typically fewer approvals needed, and their scrappiness means SMBs can launch a referral program faster than their larger counterparts. Because they have more processes than SMBs, they are not as flexible, but they are still faster than enterprise businesses. There’s more bureaucracy, approval levels and complex processes to navigate to launch a referral program.
Inter-company support Because their teams are smaller with overlapping roles, there’s often a greater sense of involvement and support when launching a referral partner program. SMBs often have inter-company support, but not to the degree of smaller businesses. Siloes more often exist here because of their structure and size. Enterprise businesses often treat partnership vision as an individual or team rather than a company approach.
Competition SMBs can either operate in a niche market (where they face less competition) or in the general market, where they compete with the big guys. If the latter, their referral incentives must be compelling to overcome existing customer loyalty to established brands. Since they face competition from large and small companies, MM referral programs must reflect that reality. It should be able to compete with larger enterprises, but still be flexible enough to innovate against SMB competitors. The larger the business, the larger the competitor. In the words of Balazic, “Just as they are trying to steal your business, they’ll be trying to work with your partners.” These businesses shouldn’t rely on brand recognition alone, and should spend time on customer acquisition.
Length of sales cycle SMBs have the shortest, simplest sales cycles due to easier decision-making processes. Selling solutions to mid-market businesses means a moderate cycle length ranging from a few weeks to months. Big companies have a long, more complex sales life cycle because they have to go through more processes for approvals.

Components of referral programs and how they differ by growth stage

Let’s look at four key aspects: prospecting, reward structures, automation, and high-touch vs low-touch sales. 


Prospecting is the process of identifying potential partners and reaching out to them. Do some companies find prospecting easier than others? Maybe in terms of response rate due to name recognition. But according to Balazic, “The fundamentals do not change. You have to be out there [prospecting], whether it is on LinkedIn or Google or going to events.” Whatever the business size, a strong referral program relies on continued work in this area to ensure a pipeline of new revenue-driving partners.

Reward Structures

Your referral bonus could be monetary (in the form of cash rewards or credit) or non-monetary (for example, premium features). It’s easy to think the bigger a company, the more attractive their referral reward. However, that’s not necessarily true. The bigger ones don’t necessarily offer more significant referral rewards. It seems counterintuitive, but in Balazic’s experience, “The smaller ones usually do because they are just trying to get in there.” This applies even more so if they’re up against bigger competitors in their niche.

Note: What makes for the best referral program is not only the primary incentive, but also additional benefits. For instance, provide referring partners constant ways to earn more money. Also, good customer and partner support, resources for self-serve, shorter and simpler sales cycles are all strong incentives for partners.


It doesn’t matter if you’re an SMB, mid-market, or enterprise: You want to automate your sales cycle to a certain degree for a successful referral program. Focus on quality, not quantity. The automation type that will work for an SMB isn’t necessarily the same for businesses at different maturity levels. In Balazic’s words, “It’s not about how much automation or having the best automation, it’s about having the right automation that works for your partner base and being smart about it.” Being smart means manually interacting with referrers when they need one-to-one support and automating where they don't.

Related: Here's how automation saves you time and money.

High-touch vs low-touch sales

Every program needs a combination of a hands-on individual to guide partners and a self-serve system (a high-touch and low-touch model).  For the degree of combination, Balazic suggests an 80:20 ratio. “Bottom 80 per cent of revenue drivers should always be low-touch. But the top 20 per cent, — which changes across companies — should always be high-touch.”

Referral marketing for all organizations

Contrary to most “Best referral program examples” lists, small companies aren’t the only ones benefiting from partner referral programs. These lists would have you believe that because companies like Dropbox, Uber, and PayPal employed referral programs in their early days to achieve viral growth, only SMBs succeed with referral marketing.

But that’s not true. Case in point, Google launched the Google Apps Referral Program (now Google Workspace) when it was already an enterprise to great results.

Regardless of your business’ maturity level, follow the best practices when setting up a referral marketing program, track success often and adjust as necessary. From Balazic’s experience, seeing exponential growth takes 12 to 18 months, so remember a healthy dose of patience as you watch your program grow.

Did you find this content helpful?
Everything That You Need to Know About the PartnerStack Network in 2024

Tap into the largest B2B network and find your next revenue-driving partner now.

The Definitive Guide to Easy Partner Payouts in B2B SaaS

Save time and skip the admin work.

Quiz: How Much Do You Know About Affiliate Programs?

Take this quiz to test how much you actually know about affiliate marketing.

Revenue-Focused Goals Following Partner Activation

Joint revenue has never felt so accessible.

Presented by partnerStack
SaaS Partnerships Awards 2023

Celebrating the best partnership leaders and programs in SaaS.

ROI Report
33% Faster Payback With PartnerStack Than The Average PRM

Read how analyst firm GTM Partners used G2 user review data to determine the time to ROI of partner technology.

Discover Your Go-to-Market Fortune

Look into your partnerships past, present and future with an interactive reading for GTM leaders.

Find the answers you need from experts

Data-driven insights from world-class ecosystem leaders.

Get exclusive data and insights from our Research Lab

Unlock ecosystem data from the PartnerStack network of more than 80,000 active partners. Ecosystem leaders like you can now benefit from focused research into their specific business needs.

“We weren’t leveraging the platform enough, we never had anyone dedicated to partnerships. There were no allocated resources”

"PartnerStack helps achieve our goals. We hit 125% of our target last year in closed-won and 150% of our target pipeline generation."


Joint venture

[joynt ven·chr]

A joint venture is a business collaboration between two parties on a project. Both parties will benefit from bringing their shared resources and knowledge, and neither party will take on the sole burden of the risk.


Buyer persona

[bahy-er per-soh-nuh]

These depictions of target customers help to define your company's ideal target customers.


SaaS partner programs

[sas pahrt-ner proh-grams]

SaaS (software-as-a-service) partner programs are a systematic way that software companies form mutually beneficial relationships with agencies, influencers, and other companies to drive business results.

Do you work in ecosystems?

Fill out this survey to help us better understand the world of partnership ecosystems. All data is anonymized.

Unlock limitless scale through PartnerStack

See how PartnerStack helps you optimize your partner programs to drive predictable revenue.

Free ecosystem advice

Sign up to get the latest tips on building your partner ecosystem.