With thousands of startups around you and lots more big companies with big PR budgets competing for people’s attention, how can you get your company noticed? The answer is simple: word of mouth – it’s the only way I’ve seen small companies reliably rise above the noise. Word of mouth is cheap and effective and small startups are ideally suited for it because people like to tell their friends about the latest exciting thing that they’ve discovered. I’ve seen it work many times, and it can work for you, too, if you focus on these three things:
*1.Build a great product*
It all starts with a compelling product, so make this your #1 priority. Get the best designers and engineers working with you that you can. Keep away the sales, marketing and PR people. All that matters in your first year is to come up with an incredible product that is useful and exciting and has great attention to detail. In all my personal startup experience, (I’m on #5,) the driving force behind people noticing and talking about us was always a great product. At Crystal River, (early 1990s) it was our Convolvotron 3D audio processor, which blew people away in demos. At Oddpost (early 2000s) people couldn’t believe webmail service was running inside a browser. With WordPress, (today) people were amazed by how easily they can become their own publisher and create online content right alongside the New York Times’ of the world.
*2. Find your story*
Every start-up has a unique and interesting story about how it came into being and – crucially – who the people are behind the product. Maybe it’s a couple of guys dropping out of college (Google, Yahoo, you name it). Maybe it’s two guys working out of libraries and cafes for a year, while they rode out the dotcom bust (Oddpost). Or maybe it’s about a group of volunteers who work on an open source project that spreads across the world in 50 different languages (WordPress). These human stories tend to be even more interesting to the public than your product’s list of features, or tech specs. People relate to other people. So write down your story and then tell it with enthusiasm. People will get excited about it and re-tell it for you. I’d like to stress the importance of genuine enthusiasm, because it’s infectious and fun to be around someone who loves what they are doing. Also – whatever you do, don’t try and package yourself to look like a “real” company (with a slick web site, stiff photos and bios of people, marketing speak, you know the type) – it’s generic and bland and won’t engage anyone at the word of mouth level.
*3. Your medium can be your message*
Once you have a great product with a compelling a story, you need to provide a way for people to spread the word. This is easiest if you can build it into the product itself. (Recall Marshall McLuhan’s historic media tome, _The Medium is the Message_ ). YouTube does this by making it easy for users to share great videos they’ve discovered to their friends. WordPress does it by inviting users to join the project’s user community to contribute and promote their own ideas, thereby creating and promoting the WordPress story, too. Or, at Oddpost we had an irreverent, funny and engaging blog and photo odyssey up on the site that told the story of how the company got started and grew in unexpected ways. Even three years after the company was acquired (July 2004) people still tell me they miss and talk about it.
10 thoughts on “The Medium is the Message”
The trick is to do it without trying to “buy” word of mouth (e.g. hiring an ad agency that promises they’ll deliver viral marketing results). Has to be real people, spreading the word because they like the product, not because they’ve been prodded to do so.
I guess another way of putting it is that there are no shortcuts: you’ve got to get the product right AND make it easy to use and share. One or the other doesn’t cut it.}
The product has to be insanely great in solving a specific problem. That doesn’t mean it needs to be perfect, it just needs to do the intended thing really great. From there you invite the users to be part of the evolution that is product development.}
Even if the product is really good and has an invitation/sharing thing built-in, the real problem I think is in getting the first rush. How do you get the people who are going to invite other people?}
But what is it that “makes” people share though? I doubt its a good product that people like to discuss.. Youtube is fun to share, twitter is addictive, facebook is more functionally useful when you share it – but none of these are really excellent products…}
By really great, software does not need to be in its mature, ideal end state before launching… It does need to be suitable to its purpose, but it only needs to be better than the users’ current alternatives.
Hopefully, the #1 alternative users have is either not doing what your software enables or doing it manually (the old fashioned way).
And Tony is correct, the early adopters like to spread the story of the people behind the story more than spew forth a list of product features. Who doesn’t know the story of Jobs and Wozniack building Mac’s in their parents garage or Gates dropping out of Harvard to build Microsoft.}
“But what is it that “makes” people share though?”
It’s different reasons for different people. Ask people what they like about their iPod and you’ll get 20 different answers. I think people like to share things that delight them and that they feel connected to and a part of. In the ideal product, the act of sharing it completes the product experience (like sharing photos you just uploaded with someone), though that of course doesn’t work for every product.
“yotube… twitter… facebook… but none of these are really excellent products…”
I would disagree. These are highly innovative, useful and focused products, which makes them excellent in my book.}
“By really great, software does not need to be in its mature, ideal end state before launching…”
I totally agree. The beauty of web software is that you can iterate and update it so quickly. It allows people to launch a product as soon as the core, compelling features are usable and then continue to build things out. It seems that more and more web users really like this process of seeing a product evolve rapidly because it’s great to see feedback incorporated and bugs fixed and just the general “freshness” of new features getting added all the time.}
Tony, all your points 1-3 are spot on. Doing it properly can be a lonely road though… although its the only logical one to take. There’s such a herd mentality going on at the moment, by VCs and webtrepreneurs. All this Web2.0 hype is so ridiculous. “The Web” sheeeesh… Its like, “Get off the highway and take a look around…” There’s a lot bigger opportunities on the internet, off the web than on it.}
It’s so much easier than ever to get the word out about your company, so this is a great, great article! I think the main thing people need to realize is that building a brand is a slow and consistent process – you hear of one hit wonders, but by and by, most of us are going to see it work the old fashioned way. We’ve built a pretty significant brand (StyleDiary) with zero budget – we’re into a new phase with growing the business now, but in the early years it worked very well.}
Great piece, Toni. Last year we started a little side project, Valleyschwag, which was never more than a gag (a schwag-of-the-month club–talk about Web2.0 bubble!). But we wanted it to be a really good gag, so we had a ton of fun with it. We gave the project an inexplicable cowboy theme, corralled the best promo gear in the ‘hood, and lovingly wrapped each package in cattle-branded burlap. Despite the craftsmanlike attention to detail, the product was completely silly. Still, we’d managed to connect with our audience, which turned out to be a lot bigger than expected. Within two months, thanks to word of mouth and a few well trafficked blogs, we had thousands of paying subscribers.
It all came down to forging a genuine connection with an audience that really cared about what we were doing.
Too bad it was such a ridiculous business in every other way.}