Ryan O'Donnell By Ryan O'Donnell • March 29, 2018

How I Revamped Our Old School Referral Program in 29 Days

My first job after college was working as a recruiter for an executive search firm. It was an incredible opportunity; I had the chance to work alongside some amazing recruiters and meet some awesome candidates. When I started, our CEO, Jeff Stocks, who used to be run a $200M+ staffing company said if there's anything that I see that can be improved don't ask for permission, just fix it. He wanted me to come back with a solution that works.

Meet our referral program....

We created it before I joined the company. It was more or less a "we will buy you coffee" program. We received referrals from candidates and our network but everything was manual. Referrals wouldn't respond. Referrers felt like we weren't following up fast enough. The program was an after thought, which led me to wonder if we formalized the program, added some software, could we receive and hire more referrals?

One problem I faced with the program was that I had been asking for referrals without offering anything in return. Another problem was that I didn't make it easy for someone to refer (or decline to refer). Oftentimes I would ask over the phone and hear, "I can't think of anyone of the top of my head" or "I'll let you know." We weren't getting enough referrals for our jobs and I decided to do something about it.

Here how I revamped the program...


I offered rewards that mattered

  • After a particularly hard search for a senior sales person in Chicago, I decided to offer a $1,000 referral bonus to our network.

  • I learned that offering big bonuses wasn't what made a referral program successful but I wanted to put our money where our mouth was.

I created a simple landing page

  • With about two hours of work, we had launched a simple landing page for the job we were looking for.

  • The page introduced our client, explained the details of the job and the reward.

  • Note: We didn't need this to scale. The goal was to prove it would work. We would later build software that automatically created these pages.

I invited my network

  • I exported my LinkedIn connections and cleaned up a list (~3,000 to ~200) and added a list of ~200 people in the Chicago sales community who I had connected with, spoken to, etc.

  • This list was uploaded into MailChimp (~400 contacts) under a free trial.

  • I sent out 3 emails over 2 weeks asking for referrals

I automated outreach, thank you's, and follow-up

  • I wanted to capture the name and email or both the referrer and the referral. I wasn't sure if the referrer would write an introduction / reason for the referral but we added it and it had a near ~90% completion rate.

  • Each referral and referrer received an email confirmation with me CC'd. It turned into a very personal way to scale up a referral program.

  • All referrals were directed to submit their whole application and we made that really easy with one step (drop a resume or LinkedIn). 

  • Rather than wait for referrals to apply, I added a "Book Your Interview" button.

The Results

After the two week email campaign had finished I had received 43 referrals and 22 interested applicants. 7 were definitely not a good fit and I followed up with a note immediately letting them know and thanking the referrer for making the introduction (Didn't want to waste anyone's time). The remaining 15 were good but we passed along the top 5 applicants. It took another two weeks for the hiring manager to extend an offer to one of them. Start to finish 29 days :)

I did all of this during the free trials of tools like MailChimp, Zapier, Strikingly, and Calendly but even if I had to pay for it, I would have only had to spend ~$100 per month in software.

After this worked I decided to start helping other recruiters and companies do the same thing. About six months later, we built a flexible set of recruiting tools for employee referrals while working inside of Citrix and RedHat. These tools became the infrastructure for EmployUs and now help automated referral programs at 100+ companies across 15+ countries.

If you ever find yourself frustrated at your referral program, just let me know and I'd be happy to share more details of how you can improve your program using the method I described above or with out own software too :)