How to Design for Word-of-Mouth

How designers can help spread the good word about a product or service.

The holy grail of design is to make something so wonderful and remarkable that people can’t imagine life without it. People are so happy with it that it sells itself. This idea was expounded on beautifully by Seth Godin in The Purple Cow, a new rendering of the age-old business ideas of differentiation and competitive advantage.

The big benefit of word-of-mouth is that your marketing budget goes toward zero, as your users become your marketers. If they’re so passionate about your design they’ll tell their friends about your service, and you won’t have to. And, most likely, what they say is more influential than what you can say anyway. Focusing on this value, and designing to enable it, is a big part of social design.

Word-of-mouth is complicated from a design standpoint because it’s not a monolithic activity. It’s several smaller steps that happen in order. On one hand this makes it harder to design for because there are many little problems to solve. On the other hand, it gives designers a clearer picture of what to focus and spend time on.

You can help enable word-of-mouth by designing your application to support it by giving your users tools to share their passion about your app or service. To actually make it work, however, you have to nail most of the following steps…

How designers can help spread the good word about a product or service.

The holy grail of design is to make something so wonderful and remarkable that people can’t imagine life without it. People are so happy with it that it sells itself. This idea was expounded on beautifully by Seth Godin in The Purple Cow, a new rendering of the age-old business ideas of differentiation and competitive advantage.

The big benefit of word-of-mouth is that your marketing budget goes toward zero, as your users become your marketers. If they’re so passionate about your design they’ll tell their friends about your service, and you won’t have to. And, most likely, what they say is more influential than what you can say anyway. Focusing on this value, and designing to enable it, is a big part of social design.

Word-of-mouth is complicated from a design standpoint because it’s not a monolithic activity. It’s several smaller steps that happen in order. On one hand this makes it harder to design for because there are many little problems to solve. On the other hand, it gives designers a clearer picture of what to focus and spend time on.

You can help enable word-of-mouth by designing your application to support it by giving your users tools to share their passion about your app or service. To actually make it work, however, you have to nail most of the following steps:

  1. Get someone excited about your product and service
    For the sake of argument let’s imagine that you can do this…we’re focusing on the telling-others part for the moment.
  2. Give the sender a way to share that excitement with someone else
    If your users don’t interact in a face-to-face manner, you’ll have to create a tool to help them do this. It might come in the form of a “share this” feature on your site, for example. This feature sends an email to someone else telling them that you found it interesting. Alternatively, someone may simply tell others in their own way, via email or IM. The difference between providing them with a tool and letting them use their own tool is that you can usually measure the effectiveness of your own tool. That’s incredibly important because you know how well you are or are not doing.
  3. The receiver has to understand what’s being shared
    This is actually a lot harder than it seems. It’s hard because the person with whom the item is being shared (the receiver) has no clue what’s going on. Most likely they’re being interrupted from something else, so their attention is shot and they don’t have the energy or time to slow down and understand what is being asked of them.

    A general rule of thumb: Whatever you’re asking the receiver to do, if you’re asking them to join a group or sign up for software, tell them so immediately. Nobody, not even geniuses, are offended by simple, straightforward language.

  4. Convince the receiver it’s valuable for them, too
    Even in face-to-face conversations, it’s difficult to really get someone else as passionate as you. But in an email? Much harder. So the message has to come in a super clear, excited, and passionate way and not only has to describe why the sender was passionate, but also why the receiver should be passionate, too, by clearly explaining the value they’ll receive. Leverage the relationship to convince them that this is worth their time and effort.
  5. Provide a way for the receiver to take action
    Sometimes all that’s necessary is a link to a sign-up page. But, more often than not, those pages are optimized for people browsing the site. Why not provide a personalized way of signing up? One that leverages the sharing that just occurred? Maybe have the receiver land on a page that acknowledges they’ve been invited, or even have a passcode that allows them some “special” entry. These small differences may be trivial, but they’ll seem important and motivate the receiver to cash in on the transaction.
  6. Provide immediate value upon sign-up
    Some social sites make you enter all sorts of information when you sign up, profile, contact, and demographic information. The problem with that approach is that it puts off providing real value. So skip all that, and focus on showing them what the site has to offer and getting them using it, not personalizing it. It’s OK to skip it because if they find the site valuable they’ll be coming back anyway. If they don’t find it valuable, even entering personal information isn’t enough to keep them there. One of the explosive growth periods of Twitter, for example, came when there was clear benefits to join: to find out what was going on at SXSW. That was very valuable, and immediately available upon sign up.
  7. Provide reason to return
    It usually takes a promise of repeated or sustained value to get people to come back to a service. While each service will have its own reason for returning, it’s becoming more likely that the reason is that other people they know are part of the service, too. Maybe they’re hanging out with friends, working with colleagues, or staying in touch with family. If the service is valuable in the first place, this step usually gets satisfied.
  8. Provide a reason to share with others
    Now we’re back to the first step: getting people passionate enough to share with others. We begin the virtuous cycle over again.

So, these are the steps that have to happen for even the simplest word-of-mouth to occur. Treating them as steps complicates the matter a bit, but also allows designers to focus on optimizing each one. So, while word-of-mouth isn’t a monolithic activity, it is rather straight-forward, given that if we step back a bit we’re probably doing many steps each and every day in other contexts.

Published: May 21st, 2007

Hi there. So...I'm trying an experiment. I'm experimenting with product design and growth hacking strategies on a new project called What to Wear. It's a super simple service that sends you a daily email containing clothing recommendations based on the weather. My focus is to make it really useful, and it's free to sign up. Let me know what you think!

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