If you believe that superior products and services are the ones that generate the most “buzz,” think again. According to one expert, word-of-mouth marketing isn’t a meritocracy (not entirely, anyhow).
In his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Wharton professor and word-of-mouth expert Jonah Berger says that buzzworthy products and businesses aren’t always buzzworthy for conspicuous reasons:
“Although quality, price, and advertising contribute to products and ideas being successful, they don’t explain the whole story…. To fully understand what causes people to share things, you have to look at both successes and failures. And whether certain characteristics are linked to success.”
This makes some sense. The Betamax was a better quality product than VHS, the Zune had better features than the iPod, Ani DiFranco is a qualitatively better songwriter than
nearly everyone on the radio today. Being the best (or qualitatively better) didn’t generate a groundswell of conversation or lead to the success of any of these. Something else was going on.
Berger writes that products and people that generate a lot of word-of-mouth exhibit six distinct characteristics:
- Social currency
- Practical value
What I want to do in this piece is to use Berger’s word-of-mouth framework to highlight five businesses that have had success leveraging word-of-mouth marketing. These businesses create extraordinary buzz not just because they’re great, but because they get people talking.
1. Social Currency: The new classic.
You may have never heard about Flyweight Designs unless you spend a lot of time outdoors. If you do know about Flyweight, you probably tell everyone you know about their rafts.
For decades a company called Curtis Designs created a handmade packraft called the “Curtis Raft.” It was revered, and when the company stopped production there wasn’t a comparable raft on the market to replace it. Flyweight’s Marc Shea realized the need for a Curtis Raft replacement and (after collaborating with the Curtis Designs creators) developed the FlytePacker packraft. Once Shea developed his production process, he went back to his online communities to get the word out:
“The backpacking, fishing, outdoors community has a very active and robust online community of blogs, forums, and review sites. We went to those online communities and announced our product and drummed up interest. Through those communities we were able to locate journalists that were able to review our products for magazines like Backpacker and Outside online. Without actively engaging in the community we would have never had access to those channels.”
If you meet a backpacker and you tell them about the Curtis Raft and the Flyweight FlytePacker, you earn a bit of what Berger describes as “social currency.” Social currency is information that makes us look good and that generates esteem from others. It may not mean anything to me sitting in the suburbs of Cincinnati to hear that the FlytePacker is made with 70d fabric and a “Boston valve,” but to a fellow backpacker this may be a huge discovery. Or as Berger describes it:
“People like to make a good impression, so we need to make our products a way to achieve that.”
2. Triggers: What is in that box?
The boxes started coming to our house about a year ago. Ornate, lovely boxes addressed to my wife, each box making my daughter giddy with anticipation. After dinner, they would sit down to open each box and find samples of different beauty products. Where did this magical box come from? Birchbox, of course.
Everything about Birchbox has an element of word-of-mouth. From their Instagram contests, to their points program, to their beginnings promoting Birchbox from an email list, Birchbox is engineered to be buzzworthy. One of its greatest tools are “triggers.”
Triggers are prompts which remind us of something else: peanut butter reminds us of jelly, pepperoni reminds us of pizza, et cetera.
Birchbox has a cascade of triggers to perpetuate the consumer relationship. For instance, my wife learned about Birchbox from some colleagues that had the boxes delivered to the office. Consider the triggers that she experienced after becoming aware of Birchbox:
- The boxes (and probably social posts, which Birchbox encourages) eventually triggered her to subscribe.
- The samples (and email campaigns) trigger her to buy (Birchbox sells consumer products online).
- The purchases generate points which trigger more purchases.
Birchbox also creates rich, customized content on their site created to trigger purchases, and is working with virtual reality company River to incorporate VR into its boxes (using a cardboard viewer and a smartphone app). Who doesn’t want to talk about that? And who doesn’t want to experience that? Birchbox has created a culture of consumer triggers, the value of which Berger describes like this:
“The more something is triggered, the more it will be top of mind, and the more successful it will become.”
3. Emotion: Defending heroes.
Bloomberg says that the supply of lawyers in the U.S. exceeds the demand, so it’s unusual that a lawyer from Spokane, Washington would be litigating cases all over the county. But Matthew Crotty isn’t a typical lawyer.
Crotty is the principal lawyer of the firm, Crotty and Son. He is recognized a “rising star” by Thomson Reuters Super Lawyers, and is rated “superb” by lawyer rating site Avvo. He describes generating word-of-mouth and referrals with great humility:
“What I do to get business word of mouth is to do good work. If I’ve done a good job the referrals, from either lawyers I work cases with or clients, usually follow.”
But there are good attorneys everywhere, so why is Crotty so buzz-worthy? Because his cases make people angry.
Crotty isn’t just any lawyer: he is a Lieutenant Colonel in the National Guard, a graduate of the prestigious Army Ranger school, and he is a relentless advocate for veteran rights. Most people would read much of Crotty’s past litigation and be infuriated to learn about how some veterans have been treated after returning from wartime deployments. This imagined anger isn’t hyperbole: Pew reports that 90 percent of the general public is sympathetic to the sacrifices made by post-9/11 veterans.
Crotty is buzzworthy because he is an attorney who fights against situations that violate our shared propriety. He defends our heroes.
Anger is an emotion that drives word-of-mouth. Berger says that emotions such as anger and happiness catalyze word-of-mouth conversation:
“Emotions drive people to action. They make us laugh, shout, and cry, and they make us talk, share, and buy. So rather than quoting statistics or providing information, we need to focus on feelings.”
4. Public: What to do when your kids are jumping off the walls.
we are suffering through the bone-chilling cold it is winter in Cincinnati, we practically live at Pump It Up. For the uninitiated, Pump It Up is a franchise of locally-owned inflatable gyms, each with unique ancillary features. They host birthdays, open play and other events.
Heather Reid, Local Sales Marketing Manager for the Pump It Up franchise says that having a great product is key to positive word-of-mouth:
“We are always innovating to develop new programs, attractions and services that will inspire our guests tell their friends. Great experiences generate a lot of positive word-of-mouth, which social media amplifies. Our owners also take a lot of pride in being active members in their communities.”
How did we discover Pump It Up? The preschool grapevine. Everyday after our daughter’s preschool class ends, parents gather in the indoor gym or courtyard to try (often unsuccessfully) to drain the kids of their remaining energy. A lot of the adult conversation centers around what to do with the sentient beings that we are responsible for, and Pump it Up is an appropriate topic of conversation anytime. Birthday coming up? Pump It Up. Need a place to go on an in-service day? Pump It Up.
Berger writes that a public product is one that is conspicuous and whose use can easily be mimicked by others. When I post about a birthday party on Facebook or Instagram or when I talk about Pump it Up with fellow parents, it becomes a very public remedy to a universal parenting quandary: what in the world do we do with these kids?
5. Practical Value: I can make you famous.
“Extraverts get their energy from interaction with people and the external world. Introverts get their energy from within themselves; too much interaction drains their energy and they need to retreat from the world to recharge their batteries.” – Dr. Linda Silverman, director of the Gifted Development Center, quoted in Psych Central
“Introverts find alone-time charging and refreshing, while being around people mentally draining…. This explains why many scientists, artists, and writers are introverts.” – Jennie Bev, writing in Psych Central
“One of the lessons I’ve learned early on that has helped us tremendously with WOM is to move the free line. Anyone can break into any industry, new or old, by simply moving the free line. In other words, give people something for free that people are currently paying for.” – Dino Dogan, founder of Triberr
Triberr is the self-described “blog amplification and content discovery platform” and “social network for bloggers.” The practical value of this network is foremost to increase the distribution of a blogger’s articles. Triberr does this exceptionally by networking bloggers into tribes and giving them a low-friction way to distribute each other’s posts on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. And while Dogan is correct that he moved the “free line” by using a freemium model with Triberr, I suspect that the buzzworthiness of Triberr has a lot more to do with its utility.
How did bloggers gain distribution before Triberr? There were pay-to-play options that weren’t as effective as Triberr (probably because of the larger user base that a free option affords), but beyond that how could a writer get bigger distribution? It was probably incumbent for the blogger to network in some capacity: getting on a “blog roll,” finding their own “tribe” to share content on social media or by reading a lot of blogs. Considering the first two quotes about the inherent introversion of most writers, it’s unlikely that many Triberr users would accomplish the distribution that they enjoy as members of the Triberr community.
For a blogger, Triberr has immense practical value by increasing readership and content distribution. To recommend Triberr to a blogger is to help them to get their writing seen.
Berger describes why practical value generates buzz:
“Practical value is about helping….. People like to help one another. We go out of our way to give advice or send others information that will make them better off.”
Similar to Birchbox, Triberr also is heavily invested in increasing their utility acquiring Scoutle, an analytics company that can help bloggers to predict the virality of their articles.
In a previous Cision post, I wrote about Aristotle’s formula for storytelling, a formula still evident in a lot of modern storytelling:
- The pledge – An audience should feel pity for a character due to their undeserved misfortune
- The turn – An audience should an increasing sense of fear for the character as situations increasingly jeopardize the character
- The prestige – An audience should feel catharsis when the character is released from jeopardy
It’s a common understanding that storytelling is an effective way to share ideas. Here’s how Berger describes the value of stories as a delivery mechanism for buzz:
“Virality is most valuable when the brand or product benefit is integral to the story. When it’s woven so deeply into the narrative that people can’t tell the story without mentioning it.”
I struggled to think of an appropriate case study showcasing buzzworthy corporate storytelling, until I realized how compelling the stories of these five profiled companies are:
- For decades, backpackers favored the sturdy Curtis Raft to traverse water features with their gear. When the Curtis Raft stopped production, backpackers had really poor options to replace it. Flyweight Designs created the FlytePacker raft for enthusiasts of the Curtis Raft design, an improved version of the revered model.
- Women and men have a difficult time discovering beauty and grooming products without considerable cost and effort. Birchbox sends subscribers monthly, customized samples with an integrated retail component to buy the products they like, and with topical content to aid their discovery.
- Over 900,000 Reserve and National Guard troops have been mobilized to active duty status since 9/11/2001. Upon their return, some employers have violated the law in how they’ve treated their veteran employees. Crotty and Sons helps to protect the livelihood of soldiers when they return from war.
- Kids tend to have more energy than their parents. Oftentimes parents are the unintentional victims of tantrums and miscellaneous hysterics because of this energy surplus. Pump It Up is a great venue for kids to do something unique and fun to expend their energy (and to restore some parental zen).
- Bloggers put a lot of (often unpaid) time and effort into writing, but lack the distribution to share their writing at scale. Triberr enables bloggers to pool their resources and gain greater readership and distribution than they would otherwise enjoy.
Point being: it’s pretty easy to deliver a meaningful narrative for companies that are inherently buzzworthy by Berger’s first five criteria.
Every product can’t go viral or generate a lot of word-of-mouth buzz. Berger notes that there is a fixed amount of attention in the world, and that virality happens at the expense of something else.
A great product is important, but Matthew Crotty the intellectual property lawyer isn’t as buzzworthy as Matthew Crotty the veteran advocate. Triberr the Facebook knock-off isn’t as interesting to people as Triberr the blogger distribution platform. Birchbox the e-tailer isn’t as prestigious and shareable as Birchbox, the company that sends monthly samples in a fashionable cardboard box.
Every business can’t be a Flyweight Designs or a Pump It Up, but you can enhance the buzz around a product or business by focusing on the elements of word-of-mouth elements that Jonah Berger describes. And at the very least you should believe that people talk about your business or product because it is the absolute best….. even if there’s a little more to it than that.