As a professor of business plan development and as a mentor of start-ups I see too many new ventures that have a magic asterisk in their business model: 1 + 1 + * = 100.
What does the magic asterisk refer to you may ask, well usually something to the effect of “and then we go viral.”
Too many start-ups seem to think that virality is easy to attain. Too often this is a key pillar in their marketing model, assuming that word-of-mouth is a given, is free and is bankable, i.e. a sure thing. This allows them to minimize their marketing budgets (under budget), maximize their sales (overestimate), miscalculate their cash flow needs (an often fatal mistake) and ultimately look to raise insufficient capital (death by undercapitalization). All because of the distorting effects of the magic asterisk. If in life we all suffer from cognitive bias, many startups suffer from WOM bias.
What is usually missing in their approach is a solid explanation of WHY people would talk about their product. They suffer from the “build it and they will come” illusion of many entrepreneurs. Assuming, naively, that it is enough to build anything that is slightly better than existing alternatives and 1) customers will manifest themselves and 2) people will talk about it.
A similar mistake is to equate social media with word of mouth, with the same misplaced beliefs of free, easy and bankable.
No WOW! no WOM…
In reality, the only way to get (positive) word of mouth is to offer a “moment of WOW!” (MOW). If your user experience or your customer experience, or something about your product or service wows the user, then – and only then – will people tweet about it, share it, like it, upvote it, post it and talk about it. If there is no WOW! there is no WOM. It is that simple.
Now you may be asking, what the heck is a “moment of wow”, and you are right. Especially today when consumers have higher and higher expectations it is more difficult to wow a user. But it happens, and more often than we think. A moment of wow can take many forms. It can be a great user experience (ordering a Uber or buying online from Under Armour or Amazon or Lululemon), a feeling that the company really knows you (Facebook’s “I’m safe” feature that is based on your home city or where you last checked in), surprisingly good customer service (Deliveroo recently called me to apologize that my delivery would be late and that they were crediting me with €5 – before the delivery was late!), or a great price, or extra benefits, or quickly fixing a problem, or a friction-free return policy, or a friendly face/voice, … The list is quite long actually.
WOW is part of the value proposition (or not)
Basically, when you think about it, the wow (and thus the WOM) comes back to the value proposition. Unlike most definitions, I see and define value propositions a bit differently. For me, the value proposition is a composite of three different elements:
- Absolute value proposition – meaning what does your product/service offer in terms of benefits and features.
- Relative value proposition – meaning what do you offer that is better or different than existing alternatives.
- Emotional value proposition – meaning how does using your product or service make me feel.
You will have already figured this one out, but just to dot our i’s, the real secret to garnering word of mouth is the latter, the emotional value proposition. We decide to buy based on the emotional value proposition, and we justify our decision with the absolute and relative value propositions. Feelings, positive or negative, are what motivate us to act. And feelings are shared more often with others than anything else. And what makes getting WOM even more challenging is that only very positive feelings get shared. Even slightly negative feelings get shared as we are all quick to complain and when we get angry or frustrated or disappointed we tend to tell others about it. But you really have to WOW someone to get them to talk about you. Think about the last time you told someone about a positive user/customer experience. How great did it have to be for you to share it with others?
So what does this mean for you?
For those of you thinking seriously about starting a new company or innovating within your company, make sure you build WOW! into your user experience. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can count on word of mouth to do the hard job of marketing your product/service for you.
This also means that you need to find early adopters, that is early users/customers, that will be excited about your product/service and thus become brand evangelists naturally. They will talk about your products, they will sell your products for you just by using them and giving them exposure to other like-minded people, and they will help you to create the fan club from which you can build on.
For those of you who are not innovating yourselves, you can still make a difference. Be different than the mass and share your positive customer experiences more often. Get the word out for the products/service you like and love. Especially for small businesses and start-ups. You may not know it, but you may be helping to ensure their success because sharing a “wow!” has an exponential impact and may just make the optimistic “and then we go viral” a reality for the companies you care about…