“How do I build a product that sells itself?”

This is a question that I’ve thought a lot about ⁠— I’ve studied companies that have seemingly answered it, and my team and I have made it a priority in our work. As the product team working on the HubSpot Academy application, our job is to create an experience that teaches new users business topics grounded in the inbound methodology, enables them to build their expertise in both theoretical and technical subjects, and hopefully, become advocates for HubSpot and the inbound methodology. 

Still, I can’t say that I have the answer to that question quite yet, but I have consolidated my observations into a few principles that are the basis for this post.

Flywheel: Growth at the center of the circle, attract, engage, delight, around the outside. Strangers, Prospects, Customers, Promoters, in the ring around that.

The flywheel model that we teach in HubSpot Academy describes our ideal user cycle well. In this model, we “attract” new users, “engage” them to build trust, and if they’re a fit, sell them our product. If we can “delight” them  enough with that product, then they’ll become promoters and recommend it to their peers. 

Simple enough, right? All too often, product teams don’t see the potential value in activating their customer base to attract more customers, or if they do, they have a difficult time executing on measurable, product-led experiences that enable it to occur naturally. My intentions for this post are to help you create user experiences that turn your customers into your biggest marketing team, your most helpful support reps, and your most efficient and consultative sales team ⁠— all of which are hallmarks of product-led companies.

In this post, we’ll cover three principles of driving product-led word of mouth demand. These principles are ways in which we can somewhat predictably build digital experiences that make our users not only want to tell their peers about our product, but also support their peers in the onboarding and use of our product, which is equally important.

Three principles of product-driven word of mouth demand

1. Exceed expectations with delight moments

Your prospects are coming to your business with different perceptions of what your product does. Some may have clicked through a targeted ad and only read a few lines of ad copy, others searched on Google and read reviews written by your customers, and others heard about it from a trusted friend or colleague who is currently a happy customer. These example traffic sources come with varying levels of understanding and different degrees of perception for how your product will solve their problem.

Take those three traffic sources for example: 

  • The ad copy users were shown a problem that they may or may not have, or know that they have. Only if they recognize and agree that they have that problem, are they likely to even click through. You’re going to really need to build up their trust to get them through signup and onboarding after that click. 
  • The Google search users are at least defining their own problem for themselves and trusting Google to sort solutions by popularity. There is some inertia behind that search because they’ve already decided to seek out solutions to their problem, but they’re still climbing an uphill research battle to motivate themselves to sign up and get started.
  • The referral user has the massive benefit of a human who can identify the problem well enough to suggest a solution to them. Therein lies the incomparable magic of word-of-mouth referrals: a trusted human to identify the problem, and suggest its solution.

Perception is key here, because until our users are active and engaged, that’s all your product really is to them: a perception. Their perception of our product is a combination of all the details they’ve heard about it, and not rooted in any experience of their own. As a product team, it’s up to us to figure out what that perception is, and what they expect when they sign up and start using our products.

Managing expectations is our first principle of product-driven word of mouth demand. We need to exceed the user’s expectations and activate them through “delight moments.” We’ve all heard about “Aha Moments.” Aha moments are activation points for new users that tend to predict whether the user will retain long enough to get continued value from the product. Delight moments are the same, but for existing customers. They are activation points for existing users that tend to predict whether the user will refer the product to a peer.

What’s happening in the mind of an already-satisfied customer who gets an extra dose of excitement about your product? I think it’s baked directly into our evolutionary DNA. We are programmed to tell our ‘pack’ when we’ve found something good (like a new source of food) or something bad (like an animal that sees us as a new source of food.) The “good” is really only worth talking about if it’s unexpectedly good, right? 

That instinct plays out in all of the products we interact with. When you read a great book, you’re not always going to tell your friends or colleagues about it. It might have been good, but when you got to that chapter that really resonated with you, you just had to tell someone about it. Better yet, when it resonates with a challenge a friend is having, you’re doing them a service in telling them about it. That little extra bump in motivation to share is what we’re aiming to create.

The trick here might actually be throttling expectations up until the user hits a delight moment. Other times, you’re building something particularly exciting that purposefully goes beyond the expectations set by earlier interactions. These delight moments come to life in all kinds of features and interactions. Let’s take Zoom virtual backgrounds, for example. 

Zoom Virtual Backgrounds

Long before Zoom and its virtual backgrounds became somewhat mainstream, this feature was hidden in the Settings menu. It only worked for some high performing computers, but when activated, it certainly grabbed people’s attention. If you are not familiar with it, Zoom’s Virtual Backgrounds feature creates a green screen effect that hides the user’s background and allows them to add a custom image or even video behind their face, hiding their background from view. 

When I first saw someone using this feature, I immediately wanted to try it out myself. I didn’t pay very much attention in that meeting, because I was Googling how to enable this feature. Maybe that’s just me, but I have to imagine I’m not the only one. After that, I would spend the first few minutes of every meeting having to explain to people how to activate the feature for themselves. It made me feel like an insider for knowing about it, and it certainly exceeded my expectations for what a video conferencing application should be able to do.

The resulting impact of this feature is rapid adoption within an organization, and an army of users showcasing Zoom’s tech to meeting attendees who may or may not be Zoom customers. It broke through a barrier for what is the expected feature set of a video conferencing app, much like Snapchat had done in the consumer space a few years earlier with its early augmented reality lenses. The feature sparks an immediate conversation where the Zoom user is happy to discuss their nifty virtual background with the non-Zoom user. A true example of making a customer feel like an insider, and in doing so, activating them through a prideful delight moment to be your marketers, salespeople, and customer success team all in one.

2. Extend core functionality to enable social interactions

This next principle is pretty simple, yet commonly ignored. In order for our users to naturally become advocates of our products, becoming advocates of our products needs to come naturally to them. This principle is the one I see most growth teams fail to realize in their products. There is a history of ‘viral links’ from the early days of growth hacking that still permeate many of our products. Simply adding a signup link to public parts of your product is not extending core functionality, and it could hurt the perception your users and prospective users have about your product. It may have worked for HotMail in the late 90s, but we as a society have moved past viral signup links and are generally well aware when we’re being forced to push products onto our peers.

I think the reason this tactic has been used so much is that it’s relatively cheap to implement, so even a slow trickle of demand generated is seen as cost-effective. What most teams fail to see is how it can decrease trust in the product. There is no hard rule to adding viral links - it comes down to understanding what your users care about. If they want to tell their peers about your product, they’ll go ahead and do that, and they’ll probably sell it better than a signup link that tells the world they’re using the free version of your product.

When it comes to freemium versions, you could rationalize that this viral “tax” is a form of payment for the user of the free product, or a motivator to upgrade, and some companies wield this friction amazingly well. The trick is to know your users and their perception of your product well enough to balance “value for the user” and “value for the business.” The way I see it, the freemium version of your product has one job: build enough trust and value for free users to enable them to make a case to upgrade to the premium version. You can do that by actively making the premium version notably better than the freemium version, or by actively making the freemium version notably worse than the premium version. Your users and I much prefer the former, and in the meantime, let us create as much value for ourselves with the free version until the cost-benefit of the paid version makes cents (pun intended.)

3. Create value for your user and their peers

The user interactions that drive word of mouth demand need to add tangible value for both the referrer and the referee in order to work. Network effects, wherein the network or community as a whole becomes more valuable as more people join it, is a macro example of this principle. Inviting more users to a community makes the community more valuable to everyone in it. In our products, we can design interactions that play out in a similar way, but at a much smaller scale. Ask yourself: “How can I increase the value of my product to User A in order to motivate them to share it with User B?”

You might notice that this third principle is a combination of the first two ⁠— where we manufacture a delight moment that exceeds the user’s expectation in order to motivate them to share, and then create a very natural way to do so that results in value generated for both the existing user and the new users. We can’t just force our users to share our product, we have to give them a legitimate reason to do so. Fare splitting features in a ride-sharing app are a great example.

Rideshare Fare Splitting

At first glance, a ride sharing app’s fare splitting feature seems like a pretty basic part of any ride sharing application, right? Therein lies the cleverness of this feature. A ride sharing service’s job is to make it as easy as possible to get from point A to point B. More often than not, it’s not just you in the car, though, and therefore splitting payment with your guest under the time constraint of your ride is the perfect opportunity to invite a new potential user to the app and get them through the highest friction point in the onboarding journey: adding payment details.

In this case, fare splitting is not necessarily introducing user B to the concept of ride-sharing (the car showing up magically would have likely done that), but requiring User B to download the app and add payment information while driving to the destination, with another person in close proximity really motivates User B to sign up. The value for User A is that they pay half the cost of the trip, and the value for User B is the easy calculation and payment of the split bill.

If User B wasn’t a user when they entered the vehicle, they are when they exit it. The fun thing about this feature is that it gets more psychologically motivating with more users in the vehicle. If there are three people in the car in addition to User A, who called the ride, and two of those people have the app and have accepted the request to split the fair, the chances that the third rider is going to sign up and join the squad are much higher.

Final thoughts

If you are currently working on a product and looking to answer the question “how do we make this thing sell itself?” then you may consider asking yourself how your product stands up against these three principles: 

  1. Is there a moment in the user journey where users tend to share it most? Why are the users who are advocating for it doing so?
  2. Is sharing a natural part of your product’s core functionality, or are you asking users to go out of their way to become advocates?
  3. And finally, does your product become more valuable to your users when they tell their friends about it?

If you can check off all of these boxes, you’re on your way toward a product that can propel its own flywheel and generate its own demand.

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