Maximize Your Word-of-Mouth Marketing: Turning users into fans

By Scott Sehlhorst August 01, 2009

A fan is not born; a person grows into a fan. The progression starts when someone is first introduced to a product…then becomes a customer…and, ultimately, propagates their positive experience through word-of-mouth marketing.

The cycle of fans
Geno Church wrote an article posted at Brains on Fire, where he explains the evolution of a person into a customer and, ultimately, into an evangelist. He describes this “cycle of fans” as an endless circle. It starts with an introduction, moves to participation, proceeds to adoption, becomes evangelism, creates community, and begets ownership—which leads to more introductions and starts the cycle all over again.

This fan metaphor effectively captures the message that getting a fan to spread the word about your product creates new introductions—and, if all goes well, new fans.

The other side of the coin
But what if you fail along the way and break the cycle of fans? You could very well create another kind of cycle—one that Jennifer Laycock calls the “Cycle of a Detractor.”

In her article, How a User Becomes a Customer Evangelist (or a Loud-Mouthed Detractor), Jennifer states, “Just as we have experiences that make us loyal to a company, we have other experiences that turn us off so completely that we head out to tell the world about them. People can be generous with their praise, but they can also be generous with their criticism.
Clearly, there are social networking elements to evangelism. Social networking on the Internet allows for scalable, instantaneous communication. And memorable ideas not only move quickly, they grow quickly—perhaps geometrically. This effect can be very powerfully positive, or it can be notoriously negative.

Start at the beginning
On the way to building fans and generating word-of-mouth marketing, let’s mix in another metaphor—the sales funnel. Business analysts often use the funnel to describe the process of introducing new prospects into the sales pipeline and moving them through qualification to the point of sale.

At its widest point, the top of the funnel represents the entire universe of unqualified prospective leads. Qualification of those sales leads reduces the number of potential prospects for sale, narrowing the funnel. As potential customers continue to move through the sales process, they also move down the funnel, with progressively fewer people at each stage than the previous one.

Now let’s take a look at how a prospect moves through the funnel (similar to the cycle of fans)—with the desired outcome of creating delighted customers who engage in word-of-mouth marketing.

Exposed and interested
At the mouth of the funnel, you see the points where potential customers become exposed to and, hopefully, interested in your products.

Your marketing efforts will expose people to your product. The better you distribute your message, the higher the number of people that will be exposed to your product. But pure exposure isn’t enough.

Remember all of the “dot-bomb” companies that bought Super Bowl ads in 2001? They got lots of exposure; however, their funnels immediately narrowed so tightly they were left with only a very small number of people who were actually interested in their products. Not effective as marketing campaigns.

This is where targeted marketing makes a difference. How many people who saw ads for an online wedding registry site during the Super Bowl were actually getting ready to marry? There is a massive drop from exposed to interested people when your product is not exposed to people who are likely to be interested.

Are they listening?
This stage of the funnel is also where good marketing copy makes a difference. You have a target audience of people likely to be interested in your product and willing to listen to your message. What if you have a lousy message? Your pipeline will dramatically narrow.

Seth Godin often writes about getting people’s attention. Seth uses a purple cow as a metaphor for getting attention. How many people slow down when driving by a field of cows to look at one of them? What if that cow were purple? More people would slow down. As Godin writes in Purple Cow, “The idea is pretty simple—find a small group that cares, give them something remarkable and make it easy to tell their friends (the folks who don’t care as much).”3

Brian Clark blogs about copy writing in Copyblogger. In his article How to Get Past the “Don’t Buy” Button, he sums up the key elements: “This is something copywriters intrinsically understand—that even when people are perfect candidates for a product, and even when those people want to buy, they will talk themselves out of it unless you address each objection they come up with.

Buyers become adopters
OK, so now that your overt marketing is complete, you have customers. What’s next?

Once you get purchases, you have users—at least for a few seconds. Now you have to make sure that your software is usable. A vital key to word-of-mouth marketing is sustainable usability. As I mentioned in a recent blog post, Usability Sells Software

The buyer persona perceives more value (at the time of sale) from having more features.

The user persona experiences more value (over time) from having fewer features.

It’s the product manager’s toughest dilemma: Initially, more is more, then less becomes more. Either way, the message is clear: Software that is more usable grows in value to users over time.

To convert buyers to adopters, it is imperative that your product be usable for new users. How many times have you downloaded a trial version of software, installed and launched it, and been almost offended by the inadequacy of the product? You probably already validated that the software had the capabilities you needed or the features you thought you needed. So what turned you off? The product was unusable. You lose some users of your product. The funnel narrows.

If your product is usable, most of your new customers will quickly become competent. Users don’t spend very long being new. Most users will reach a level of competence and stay there. Only a very small percentage will invest the time and energy to become expert users. And an even smaller percentage will become converts.

Competent users have adopted your product. But not all of those users will develop a sense of devotion to your company or product. The funnel has narrowed some more.

Creating converts
You’ve used good marketing to get people’s attention. You’ve targeted the buyer persona so that people will initially purchase your product. You’ve made sure your product is usable, so your users won’t abandon it before they become competent. But how do you get your users to become converts?

For people to become converts, they not only have to love your product, they have to love your company. So you need to delight your customers:

Part of creating “customer delight” is achieved through prioritization—identifying essential customer requirements that must be in the product.

Another element of delight comes from product design—not only must you have delightful features, the features must be a joy to use.

And, finally, part of creating converts is achieved through delivering great customer service and post-sale support.

Make these folks happy, and they recommend your product. Don’t forget the expert users. Even though they are fewer in number, they tend to be more active in spreading both good and bad product reviews.

Encourage sharing…and it propagates

Encourage people to talk about your product. Give your product away for free. When I like something that is free, I tell more people about it than when I like something that costs $100. This low barrier to exposure gets the word out that you have good stuff. And some of those people will come calling for the stuff that does make money for you.

Some people share the message because they want to, regardless of what you do. Other people just need a nudge. Those people should be encouraged.

With the Internet, it is very easy for people to share their opinions informally with many more people than in the past. When it is extreme, this effect is referred to as being viral, because word quickly and somewhat unpredictably spreads—like a virus through an un-immunized population. People make comments in forums, write articles for blogs, type up detailed reviews, and otherwise promote your product. It is more than just a casual conversation with a handful of friends.

When the message gets out, it gets propagated. That feeds back into your funnel, but not just once—it starts ten new funnels or a hundred.

Where funnel meets fan: word-of-mouth marketing

As a product manager, it is your job to move people through each stage in the funnel—maximizing opportunities for word-of-mouth marketing for your products. Look at the dynamics of word-of-mouth marketing and see how they can help your product to succeed:

The whole process starts when your target audience is exposed to your message.

You get customers by sharing your message in a way that gets them interested.

When your product is adopted by customers, they become users—as long as it is easy for them to get started.

Users become fans when they are converted by the greatness of your product and your company.

Word-of-mouth marketing comes from fans who are encouraged to share (even when all you have is the absence of discouragement).

Your product’s exposure comes from a propagated reputation, a.k.a. word-of-mouth marketing.

The cycle of fans rings true. To take advantage of it, you need to think about what you do at each stage. Along the way, you can make many smart moves that will have a compound affect on your word-of-mouth marketing. And that will improve the power of your funnel.

  1. Geno Church, Cycle of a Fan, 2007-08-08
  2. Jennifer Laycock, 2007-08-10
  3. Seth Godin, Portfolio 2003
  4. Brian Clark, Copyblogger
  5. Scott Sehlhorst, Usability Sells Software — Word of Mouth Marketing, 2007-01-10

Tracking the Vector of an Idea Across the Internet

The Genesis
In his article describing the cycle of fans, Geno Church takes an interesting approach in contrasting the evolution of a sports fan with that of a typical customer:

“Every fan has a story. Are you a fan of a college football team, a baseball team, a car, a restaurant, or a musician? Maybe it’s even an auto mechanic. Some of us show more “fan” behavior than others. I fall in the fan bucket. I want more out of the experience than just satisfaction. And I want more from that business or that team than just allowing me to make a purchase from them.'

Geno’s article is the inspiration for the theme of this article.

Cycle of a Fan, Geno Church, 2007-08-08

The Extrapolation
Stacey Douglas, a business analyst and blogger, found Geno’s article, and pointed out that this cycle applied to any process of adopting an idea, not just sports fandom.

The Adoption Cycle, Stacey Douglas, 2007-09-10

The Validation
Jackie Huba, co-author of the Church of the Customer blog and an acknowledged expert on word-of-mouth marketing, also found Geno’s article and noted that it presented another view on their ideas around evangelism. In that article, Jackie presents a loyalty ladder that shows how customers become repeat customers, then evangelists, and ultimately owners.

Corporate evangelism vs. customer evangelism, Jackie Huba, 2005-11-13

The Visualization
Jackie also identified a great article by David Armano, where he classifies people as being users, customers, audiences, etc. David uses this classification to clarify and define market segments. This allows him to better communicate an understanding of the market to stakeholders. David makes the point that labeling should not subvert user-centric design, which should still be based on personas.

The style of David’s visualization of labels may have inspired the look of the cycle of a fan diagram, which introduces the concept of the evolution of the fan as a recurring cycle.

People. People Who Need Labels., David Armano, 2006-06-19

Categories: Go-to-Market
Scott Sehlhorst

Scott Sehlhorst

Scott has been helping companies achieve Software Product Success since 1997, and started Tyner Blain in 2005. Scott is a product management and strategy consultant, and a visiting lecturer for DIT's Product Management program. Scott has managed teams from 5 to 50, and delivered millions of dollars in value to his customers. You can reach Scott at, or join in the conversation on the Tyner Blain blog.


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