She’s at the water cooler…

A Meditation on Word of Mouth Marketing and Growth Hacking

Orchestrating Offline Conversations in an Always-Online World

There’s an interesting “Ask Growth Hackers” question and comment thread over on that really got me thinking… but my reply was a bit long so I turned it into this meditation.

The question was simple… does strong Word of Mouth (WOM) make Growth Hacking unnecessary?

My short answer is no; Growth Hacking (or Guerrilla Marketing… or just Marketing) can and should be used to facilitate and orchestrate WOM.

But that got me thinking…

Your #1 Customer Acquisition Channel. Really?

I often run into companies — SaaS or otherwise — that say WOM is one of, if not the top, method for acquiring new users and customers.

Paradoxically, these companies for whom WOM is the top source of new business rarely measure this… and even fewer do anything to actually encourage WOM.

Which leads me to believe what they’re saying is probably just a guess and — if it’s accurate — their WOM is far less effective than it could be since they’re just leaving it all up to chance.

Orchestrated Virality

Now, if you read my stuff or talk to me for any length of time you’ll note that I say “orchestrated virality” a lot.

I do this to avoid confusion with “organic virality,” or the kind of virality you might get by posting a video — perhaps of a cat falling off a chair — that just happens to get picked up and shared, even though the original intent was simply to show your friends or for your own entertainment.

Organic Virality is rare for commercial creations and when it does occur, it’s usually not for the originally designed reason, but because it is offensive, shocking, or off-putting.

While they could fall into the “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” category, often these viral campaigns result in the brand taking a negative hit and executives apologizing.

Sometimes the latter even goes viral because they did such a poor job at apologizing!

I think it’s fair to say that most commercial virality that appears to match the intentions of the original creators is completely orchestrated (though at some point — and obviously this is the goal — organic virality takes over) especially in the early stages.

How to Make Something Go Viral

What’s super-interesting is that most things that go viral organically seem to share certain characteristics.

What’s even more interesting is that those characteristics are usually only discovered in a hindsight tear-down of “why did that go viral” rather than something that was orchestrated from the beginning.

And of course, things that don’t go viral — most things — also share those characteristics as well.

For more on this, check out this Upworthy presentation to see how they look for patterns of virality and attempt to replicate it with everything they do (with poor results, actually)

Also study this awesome piece on “Perceived Virality” which leverages influencers to make something appear popular “within a targeted or segmented network.”

WOM: IRL Virality

In this meditation, I want to look at WOM not as something that spreads virally through sharing links, but through good, old-fashioned IRL, off-line mouth-based WOM as it relates to modern technology companies.

What I’m interested in is the stuff that happens between at least two people having a conversation that you — as the subject of their discussion — have no visibility into and that doesn’t show up on any dashboards.

It might happen at a party, at a bus stop, on the bus, at the water cooler in the office, etc. Sure, it could also happen online via Skype or Slack, but it’s still between two people, in private, where you have no visibility.

This means the essence of WOM is that it is basically an unmeasurable metric.

So just to be clear, Organic Traffic and backlinks don’t count toward WOM in this scenario since to some degree it’s measurable.

Now, we know that WOM is real… it exists — and a subset of it is potentially measurable by asking “how’d you hear about us?” — but the majority of WOM is a “dark” value, to use the parlance of the day.

I believe that two of the examples cited in the comments of the Ask a Growth Hacker post — Uber and Groupon — are great examples of “apps” or web services that really took off due to traditional WOM (even if they were backed-up with traditional marketing and growth hacking).

Remarkable Experiences: WOM Juice

But what is common between those two services — and every company that seems to have strong WOM?

Both services provide a remarkable experience in the context of something we already understand or do.

To paraphrase Seth Godin, you have to be remarkable to get people to remark about you.

Apparently to me, Seth Godin is also remarkable.

When I think back to the first time I Uber’d; I told anyone who would listen to me about this awesome new service. It was a remarkable experience that I wanted to share with other humans in person… by mouth.

Sure, I tweeted about it, even emailed some people… but I told a lot of people about the service. Anyone who’d listen, really.

Consider the first time someone used Groupon to pay only 50 cents for a giant cupcake that regularly costs $5.00; they told all their friends about Groupon because saving 90% on a giant cupcake is also remarkable.

But it goes further than just a “remarkable experience.”

The part about “in the context of something we already understand or do” is critical.

Everybody understands cars, taxis, and even limos, right? They get it.

And cupcakes… c’mon, right?

So it seems organic WOM occurs after a remarkable experience with things we’d do anyway or — like Uber — things that replace / disrupt / are adjacent to those things we’d do anyway.

We might not have Uber’d if it didn’t exist, but the alternative was closely aligned in our minds so it’s not a difficult leap to make mentally.

It was super-simple for me to quickly tell others about my experience because I didn’t have to educate them on the core concept… and super easy for them to instantly understand it.

Sure, I might have to fill in the details about Uber’s iPhone app or how Groupon works once we started talking about it, but that was after the person I’m talking to *immediately* got the idea.

Consider another example: Shazam. Hear a song, find out the name. Simple. We all can relate to that. It is certainly a “Wow!” experience and it is simply allowing us to do what we would otherwise try to do on our own or wish we could.

Shazam is super-easy to talk about and just about anyone is a potential user. But Shazam goes a step further in orchestrating WOM by encouraging you to raise your phone up close to the speaker when the app is getting a lot of interference.

I’ve seen this happen (and have done it)…. that either starts a conversation between you and the person holding their phone up to the speaker…. or between you (who knows what that person is doing) and your friend who doesn’t.

Rising tides lift all boats, as they say, and the more you can educate your market on the problems your app solves / opportunities it helps people take advantage of — and that your product exists to help them — the easier it will be for them to talk about you.

This is both the first-mover advantage and also why being first-mover is hard and super-expensive!

But it also means that the more well-known you become in your target market, the less mental overhead is required to spread the word on your behalf.

Consider talking about Twitter in 2013 vs. 2009… people might not understand all of the nuances of it today, but you don’t have to spend time first explaining that it exists.

So you may actually have WOM that works for you on some level, but due to the complexities involved, the velocity and scale of this organic virality might not be what you’d like… so you need to accelerate it through orchestration, marketing, education, etc.

Context is Critical

WOM is contextual, which is ultimately tied to — or restricts — the level of scale an idea or service can reach by WOM only (even if augmented with slick marketing).

If I had a “remarkable experience” using a new set of marketing automation APIs and told, oh, pretty much any normal person about that they’d be like “uh, ok… wait, what?”

It wouldn’t go very far.

But when I tell folks at a SaaS conference about my experience with that API, it resonates and the word spreads about the service and it’s API.

The problem is that audience for that remarkable experience is potentially quite small, so even if they immediately get it and can spread the word fast, there’s not a lot of room for it to spread.

So it has to be remarkable, easy to share, and have a big enough audience to really spread for something to truly “go viral” in the way we hope for.

Sorry, SaaS vendors… there’s just more of an accelerated sharing velocity for videos of cats falling off chairs than there is for your B2B marketing automation API.

But WOM is still your number one customer acquisition channel, right?

Bad News Travels Fast?

So does WOM have to be positive?

If I tell you I had a bad experience with a particular cloud computing vendor, the audience for that bad news and my ability to quickly tell you exactly why it was a bad experience limit the speed and scale of the bad news’ ability to spread.

I could blog about the bad experience and it might get picked up on Twitter and then referenced on Techcrunch where it spreads a bit from there… but it might not.

And the fact that I had to blog about the experience to really get my point across is why it probably wouldn’t spread by WOM… but that’s just a hypothesis based on observations and extrapolations.

Taking the idea of negative WOM a bit further… unless the bad thing that happened to you is absolutely, and ridiculously outrageously awful — maybe the waiter literally put a live bunny rabbit in your soup at the table — after you vent to your 10 friends and write a strongly-worded letter to the manager and maybe left a bad Yelp review because ABC Cafe has questionable quality control… the issue just sort of dies on the vine.

So the idea that “bad news travels fast” I think is wrong in most cases… and here’s why.

I’m sad to say, but for most companies out there, I bet the only remarkable experiences they create are negative.

Everything else they do is just ‘meh’… it’s fine. It’s okay.

It’s not bad, even.

But it’s certainly nothing to tell anyone about at a party. Nothing to write home about.

So if the only remarkable experiences you create involve a live bunny rabbit and a bowl of soup — and not in a good way — then your world view is that “bad news travels fast” and you just accept that as fact.

But I don’t think bad news travels faster than good news… it’s just that bad news is often more remarkable.

Take the #SFBatKid juggernaut of November 15, 2013 — the day I’m writing this.

Every social media feed I have absolutely blew up with this amazing POSITIVE story about a sick kid who’s wish was to be Batman and the amazing people that made that happen.

That was remarkable… and it was good news.

And it traveled fast!

WOM is Hard Work

Here’s where I think we have to work a lot harder… while regular WOM takes remarkable experiences, it doesn’t necessarily mean that less-than-remarkable — “meh” — experiences wouldn’t also create a situation for sharing.

It just means we have to work hard for it. We have to orchestrate it.

The way I look at it…. never leave WOM or “virality” up to the customers / users to handle on their own.

The cognitive overhead required to get perpetually distracted people to stop what they’re doing to take an action on your behalf is massive; it’s a huge barrier.

And without some self-serving motivation to take that action, it’s basically a non-starter.

So, to whatever degree possible and congruent with expectations in the marketplace (know your customers!), you should orchestrate virality, getting them to spread the word for you.

Perhaps some industries can “luck out” and get that WOM lift organically sans orchestration, but if you aren’t consistently producing remarkable experiences upon which WOM is based, you need to work hard to make sure people are spreading the word for you.

Even at scale.

Why Aren’t People Talking About My App?

You can’t tell me you can’t get people to talk about your company because you’re in a boring industry doing boring things.

Word-of-mouth marketing means having a story worth telling, that’s all.

Consider Silvercar, a startup in the relatively awful (but super-profitable) Rental Car business.

Silvercar is disrupting that very staid and not-customer-friendly, fee-ridden industry.

Great cars, clear fees, and an amazing rental and drop-off experience FTW.

Until Silvercar, when you rented a car, unless it was AWFUL, the best experiences were — at best — “meh.”

But now, you don’t tell your friends and colleagues about Silvercar only the first time you rent from them… you tell everyone every time.

Sure, once the Silvercar-esque experience is the status quo and it becomes ‘meh’ it will stop being remarkable and WOM fodder…

… but until then, people are talking about their Rental Car experience. Happily.

People will talk about a car rental company… which means they‘ll talk about you if you give them a reason to.

Don’t be the Best Kept Secret

One thing that can seriously hamper your WOM ambitions is when you’re a “best kept secret.”

WOM is basically a non-starter because, well… you’re my secret tool that makes me look awesome and if others know about you I might seem (at least in my own mind) less awesome.

I know I should tell others about your app or you might go out of business… but I’m 100% willing to risk that to remain awesome until you enter the deadpool and I scramble to find another secret tool to keep my awesomeness rank high.

You really don’t want to be the best-kept secret in your market… that’s a bad place to be!

People Like to Make Others Happy

As I think about this more, it seems that people like to talk about things that get other people excited (in context), too.

If I tell someone about Uber and they get excited, we might just grab a car right then and go around the block.

If I tell someone about a SaaS Project Management app and it falls flat, I’m going to quickly change the subject and we move on… probably to talk about Uber or Groupon or whatever the next big thing is.

Something to think about…

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