Growth hacking is sexy these days: surrounded with hype but often misunderstood. Most people equate it with viral user acquisition, when virality is actually just one part of the methodology. Another big piece—which will be the focus of this post—is word of mouth.
For the uninitiated, the concept of growth hacking involves the use of empirical, iterative processes to build a successful, sustainable business at speed. This isn’t just about acquisition, though; it also encompasses the optimization of the entire user lifecycle, beginning with acquisition and extending to activation, retention, and monetization.
Last Thursday I attended the third edition of the Growth Hackers Conference along with 500 other attendees, filling the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA, to capacity. Attendees eagerly scribbled notes as Silicon Valley's top practitioners took the stage—Andy Johns, Sean Ellis, Gagan Biyani, Dan Martell, James Currier, Jared Fliesler, and other expert growth hackers, armed with strategies and tactics from Facebook, LinkedIn, Quora, Twitter, Square, and other wildly successful, high-growth companies.
"It's not a gimmick, it's a philosophy," says James Currier, one of the speakers and cofounder of Ooga Labs. He’s talking about his "framework for growth," which breaks up the user acquisition stage into three discrete tactics: viral, paid, and word of mouth, or WOM.
According to Currier, virality has become harder today—one reason why paid acquisition and WOM are worthy of more attention for anyone peddling an app. In 2007, the Facebook Platform gave developers the ability to build apps on top of its rapidly growing 20+ million user social network, opening a huge new channel for opportunistic growth hackers like the startup SpeedDate's viral success.
SpeedDate’s former CEO Simon Tisminezky told conference-goers he leveraged Facebook to acquire millions of users per month in the early days of the platform, but that since those days, many of Facebook's viral channels have dried up or become less effective, ending the boom. What worked six years ago—let alone last month—won't necessarily work today.
Currier defines word-of-mouth as the passing of information between people—a friend giving a restaurant recommendation, or water cooler conversation about last night's Breaking Bad episode. How can growth hackers influence this organic, social interaction?
Here are four more strategies for WOM growth hacking from other startups that were in attendance.
Jared Fliesler, former VP at Square, retold the genesis of the iconic Square dongle. He admits that while attractive, the dongle is awkward, plugging into the iPhone or iPad audio jack and jutting out from the frame of the devices. Its stark white brush magnifies its clumsiness against the device's black matte. For a company intensely focused on design, you might expect something more elegant. But in reality, its gauche appearance is entirely intentional.
Square went through several design iterations and even considered offering a black version to better match the color of most mobile devices but decided against it. Doing so would make the device less noticeable. Its awkwardness attracts attention, inspiring conversation. "Square found a way to be visible in an invisible world," said Fliesler on stage.
Sometimes effective growth hackers execute less scaleable tactics to drive WOM. Every Thursday, Dan Martell, CEO of Clarity, picks up the phone to call 25 to 30 users and asks how the company can make a better product to suit that user’s needs. Dubbed "smile and dial," he gathers direct feedback but he isn't just doing customer development—he's inspiring WOM.
How often do you receive a phone call from a company that isn't trying to directly sell something? Almost never. Dan delights his users with genuine interest and conversation. This manual, human touch is memorable and sharable. In fact, one enthusiastic user even asked Dan to surprise her father with a phone call. Dan's serendipitous phone call gives users a story to tell their friends, driving WOM and attention to Clarity.
I’ve experienced a similar sensation when ordering shoes from Zappos. After purchasing a pair of Converse sneakers with frugal 5-7 day shipping, I received an email from the company an hour later. The unexpected email informed me that my order was upgraded to overnight shipping, free of charge. The following day, the package arrived as I smiled ear to ear. I've shared that story dozens of times, advocating the brand, and now I’m sharing it here again. WOM is incredibly durable!
Mobile brings technology products into public places. Next time you're walking down a busy sidewalk, look up from your phone and observe how many others are glued to their device, nearly colliding into one another. Before mobile, technology products were largely used at home or work, tethered to the desktop. Today, websites and applications are increasingly used in public places, opening new opportunities to inspire WOM.
Products that get users to do behave strangely always stand out. Restaurant discovery and review app Urbanspoon leveraged the mobile device accelerometer to create a unique interaction and draw attention to the application. When users shake the device, a new restaurant recommendation surfaces. You can keep shaking to get more recommendations. A similar effect: the app Bump, which requires a ritual fist-tap between phone owners to exchange information.
This sort of abnormal behavior instigates curiosity in others nearby. "Why is he violently shaking his phone? What's wrong with him!?" The mystery inspires people to ask questions, triggering conversation and discovery of Urbanspoon. Of course, the app can and does provide a more traditional touchscreen interaction to find restaurant recommendations, but this bizarre behavior creates new WOM opportunities to acquire new users.
Music discovery app Shazam sparks similar odd behavior. We've all been struck with nostalgia or curiosity triggered by a song playing at cafe, bar, and other public places, leading to questions like, "I know that song but can't remember the artist's name!" or "This song is fantastic but who's it by?" Fortunately, Shazam is there to unearth the answer. Simply launch the app and tap a button to "listen" to nearby music. Once identified, the app reveals the artist and song title. But to properly identify the music, Shazam requires a clear, audible signal devoid of background noise often found in public areas.
When the song cannot be identified, the app informs the user, "We couldn't find a match. Get close to the sound." Although subtle, these instructions inspire people to raise their arm, holding the phone closer to the speakers and hushing nearby friends as the Shazam listens to the music. Rarely do you see people raise their phone in a gladiator-like fashion but when they do, nearby spectators and friends take notice.
There are many ways to instigate WOM through the design and marketing of a product. But as with any piece of advice, it's critical to understand whether these tactics are actually relevant for your business. Some products simply don't lend themselves to WOM. Rarely are people willing to share their favorite porn site with friends, let alone use it in public, for example.
Above all else, growth hacking tactics should not get in the way of the app’s role as the solution to a user's problem. To use an extreme example: Let's pretend Twitter required all tweets to be dictated audibly. Of course, this would instigate much more attention as users composed their tweets in public, driving WOM, but crippling the user experience in the process.
Likewise, WOM is a powerful agent for user acquisition, but it won’t do much to preserve existing users who are disgruntled about your app for other reasons. In sum, hack your product’s growth with care, and you will be duly rewarded.
[Image: Flickr user IRRI Images]