The Flywheels of Growth
Marketing without a big budget
Last week’s post was about building a racecar. This one is about the engines that drive growth and is a flaming five-minute read. 🔥
I’ve been recently diving deep into growth marketing and learning all the different areas it encompasses. This post is about marketing without a big budget (or any budget, for that matter).
We looked into this a bit in the Learn Startup review, but let’s zoom in again with an eye toward growth. The three flywheels in that book for sustainable growth were virality, stickiness and paid acquisition (i.e., ads run from revenue). And then there’s also my personal favorite —
word of mouth.
First things first, word of mouth isn’t the same as virality.
Virality is something that is engineered or baked into a product that makes it so it can’t help but spread itself.
The classic example is the footer at the end of every Hotmail email sent when the company launched. “P.S - Get your free hotmail here.”
Another one is Dropbox’s referral program, where you could get 250 MB free for every friend you invite. The more friends you invited, the more free space you got. I remember sending this link to multiple colleagues and friends at the time.
There’s another one I had on the list, but I realized that it’s a bit of a unique and interesting case. So, I’ll save it for the end. *
Anything that makes it so the product can’t help but become contagious.
This can, of course, bring a lot of attention, but it’s important to note that this isn’t because of word of mouth, i.e., people telling their friends about your product.
To me, word of mouth is much more valuable in the long term and can only be triggered with a rock-solid product. 🪨💎
Why? Because people will only share a product with their friends if they genuinely like it, not because the product made them do it or because of us telling them to. This was the premise of the first book in the club — Purple Cow by Seth Godin, and is my favorite form of marketing. Create a product so remarkable that people can’t help but tell their friends about it. And if they aren’t sharing it, then keep improving the product till they do. That’s how we make hits.
With virality, you can end up drawing huge crowds to a somewhat mediocre product or one that isn’t ready to handle the surge of growth and end up with a net negative in the long term. This can be a form of short-term thinking. So, for me, it’s all about word of mouth first and creating something that is truly worth sharing. I think of it as ❤️ Heart > Hype 🔥.
In the Lean Startup, this was known as the sticky engine of growth. That is, one focused on retention and getting people to actually use and get value out of your product. It’s the same with anything really (content, games, education, you name it). The end goal is always having people appreciate and enjoy whatever it is they are engaging with.
But over-optimizing for “retention” can have downsides, too. Think of all the products that use annoying notifications or features like streaks that stress you out if you stop using the app. An example that comes to mind is Headspace and Duolingo, both of which I stopped using a long time ago because of these features. Compare that to the Waking Up app, which has a continuously incrementing counter of “minutes meditated.” This can only go up. Even if I don’t use the app for a few weeks or even months, it’s still there, and I can pick up the progress right where I left off. With streaks, on the other hand, once it’s lost, I really don’t have any incentive to start using the app again, and I end up no longer being a customer.
One is an example of negative reinforcement (pestering the user for not using the product, and making them feel like they are losing something), and the other is positive (making the user feel good whenever they do choose to come back). The negative reinforcement “tricks” to get users to come back tend to fall flat and are usually just signs of a product that needs to improve or, worse, doing things this way just because everyone else is doing it without really thinking for themselves. Again, short-term thinking.
It’s become so prevalent now that these types of annoying features are pretty much everywhere. Wanna stand out from the crowd and wow your users? Do the opposite and embed a spotless, clean design into your product that makes users feel good and embody a sense of calm just by using your product.
If a product is genuinely good and adding value, then users will come back on their own and you won’t require these tactics. So again, it’s about being remarkable and creating something that people want to use in the first place and share with their friends.
The thing to optimize for me would be engagement and delivering smiles. Making it so that when people use your product, either because some friend told them to, or off their own volition, that it delivers a strong enough
wow factor to turn them into genuine fans.
That’s really the north star for me— Laser focus on creating outstanding quality, maximizing core product value and, delighting customers, however many iterations this takes. 🌟