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

By Scott Sehlhorst

It isn’t just about winning customers anymore. You have to build fans.


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.

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About the Authors

  • Scott Sehlhorst has been helping companies achieve Software Product Success for more than a decade. Scott consults as a business architect, business analyst, and product manager. He has also worked as a technical consultant, developer, project manager, and program manager. Scott has managed teams from 5 to 50 persons, and has delivered millions of dollars in value to his customers. Contact Scott at, or join in on the Tyner Blain blog.

Categories:  Product Management

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