How to Get Word of Mouth for Your Startup
My wife was six months pregnant when I quit my job to start my first company. How did she ever let me do it? I don’t think I will ever really understand. But today, my son is 3.5 years old (when do you stop counting half years?) and talking all the time. In fact, he talks so much, it is sometimes hard to get him to stop.
The other day, he was yelling his head off because he wanted nanny (his word for “candy” of course). He had been crying for what seemed like forever. Nothing I tried worked.
“Hugh, calm down. Eat your dinner and then you can have candy.”
“Hugh, look at me, just eat your dinner.”
“Please be quiet, be a good boy, and then you can have candy.”
Nothing seemed to work until I discovered an incredibly effective trick to get him to calm down. If you don’t have kids, you might gasp at what I did. But if you do have kids, you are going to totally understand.
“Hugh, do you want candy?”
Sweet golden silence. I finally had his attention. In one brief moment, it all stopped.
“Hugh, you will get candy if you just sit down and have dinner.”
And he sat down and ate dinner.
What Does This Have To Do With Word of Mouth?
Many people think that “viral content” or “word-of-mouth” is just pure luck. And sometimes it is. But word-of-mouth can be engineered, and smart founders know this. You don’t create word-of-mouth by telling people about your product or its features.
“Customer, calm down. Use my product because it has 5X more RAM.”
“Customer, look at me. Just click on my banner ad and use my product.”
“Customer, please be quiet, be a good customer, you should try my product.”
None of these messages spread through word-of-mouth. Ever. Yet people still keep saying them.
The conversion rates of this kind of traditional marketing are terrible. Usually less than 1%. But because everyone else is only getting 1% conversion, this is accepted as status quo. If you get 1.2% conversion, you are heralded as a marketing genius. This game is based on volume, not quality.
Because the traditional marketing techniques are so terrible, most startup founders don’t even try. But there is a better way. You need to engage in an authentic dialogue about something that your customers really really want.
“Customer, do you want candy?”
For example, in my day job, I am Chief Innovation Officer for CenturyLink. I am in charge of developer interactions. Instead of trying to engage developers in a discussion about all the benefits of CenturyLink Cloud, giving an endless tiring string of “Have you seen this feature yet?” or “You should really try us out”… instead I blog about Docker.
Why Docker? Because Docker is an awesome new programming DevOps tool. It is possibly the best DevOps tool to have emerged in two decades. It also happens to be the hottest trend in the developer and DevOps community today. Everyone wants to know more about Docker.
“Developer, do you want Docker?”
“Developer, let me show you how to use Docker. By the way, when you need to run Docker in production, why not try it on CenturyLink Cloud?”
Customers are not children. I am not suggesting you treat people like children. But we all are distracted by a ton of information and data ever day. How do you stand out in a world full of noise? By giving people something they really want already, and only incidentally weaving in what you are trying to sell.
The #1 killer of startups is lack of awareness. The only thing worse than doing traditional marketing for your startup is to do no marketing at all and leaving it to chance. Unfortunately, this is the standard most startups end up taking.
Instead, engage in an authentic discussion with your customer base about things that are immediately relevant to them–about things they want to know about. Pick things they are actively searching for information about. Focus less time talking about your feature releases and more time talking about problems and their solutions. When you provide valuable information, that spreads.
How do you pick what to talk about? By picking whatever you are obsessed with lately. What information do you seek out every day? What topics and links do you click when you see them on Hacker News or Techmeme?
If you want to learn more about this, read “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” by Jonah Berger.
About the Author
Lucas Carlson is a hands-on consultant, author and entrepreneur. He helps founders discover opportunities for growth, both for their companies and for themselves. He was the CEO and founder of AppFog, a popular startup acquired in 2013 after signing up over 100,000 developers and raising nearly $10M in venture funding from top angels and VCs.