The Mint.com story shows that often what people feel is an avalanche of “word of mouth” is really just great press.
OK, fine I'll admit it, I'm the last human in the world to dive into Mint.com. As an OCD spreadsheet wielder with every penny I have or don't have tracked and sliced and diced I never really thought it was for me. But today I decided it might be worth giving it a shot. It had some features I wanted to try and let's face it, no matter how good your spreadsheet is, chances are you're no match for a well designed application.
I have to say, I was more than impressed, and my turbocharged spreadsheet feels like a bicycle sitting next to a Porsche 911. I had dim memories of first being tipped by Jason Calacanis via his TechCrunch event with Michael Arrington, and was trying to remember the story of Mint getting off the ground. A quick google revealed this article and sure enough, it was only two years or so ago. They've certainly blown things out since. But reading the interview with founder Aaron Patzer lent even more insight:
We didn’t have money for advertising, so we started a blog. We didn’t have money for writers, so most of our original blog content then was guest posts from other personal finance blogs, plus a couple of columns on people’s worst financial disasters.
To build demand, we started asking for email addresses for our alpha 9 months in advance of launch. Then when we had too many people sign up, we asked people to put a little badge that said “I want Mint” on their blogs to get priority access. We got free advertising and 600 link backs which raised our SEO juice.
When it came time to launch, we choose TechCrunch 40 – why pay $20k for DEMO?
We decided not to do SEM – it’s too easy and too additive. Instead, we relied on press. It’s where I spent 20% of my time. I’m spending it right now while writing this.
The net result has been millions of visitors and 1.5m users essentially for free. Mint is not inherently viral like a social network – but all good things are viral by word of mouth.
And so here we are two years later. We’ve attracted over 1.5 million users, found over $300 million in savings, managed $50 billion in assets, and helped people track nearly $200 billion in purchases.
Notice the interesting way he uses the terms "viral" or "word of mouth" and "press" almost interchangeably. It's a great illustration of a common misconception — which is this idea that all you need is to build something truly impressive and people will beat a path to your door.
Granted, there's more than a grain of truth to that, brilliant ideas really do spread virally, and with lightning speed.
But often what people feel is an avalanche of "word of mouth" is really just great press. Sure, often the press is "following" the word of mouth buzz. A classic example, perhaps the opening shot of the Web 2.0 era (or the final screaming death of the 1.0 era, depending on how you look at things), is F*ckedcompany.com, which Phil Kaplan famously created for the hell of it over a long weekend, emailed as a link to six people, and woke up a couple days later to find tens of thousands of visitors beating a hole in his servers.
So, it happens. But more often than not when people say they "keep hearing" about something, or that "everyone's been telling me about" something, they don't mean real actual conversations. Most people move in pretty close-knit circles. What they mean is that everyone in the media has been telling them about it. What feels like word of mouth often isn't so much the presence of tremendous chatter from close, trusted friends and but rather the absence of an over the top, in your face marketing blitz. To be specific, paid marketing, like advertising. Like Superbowl ads. Like Pets.com.
And to go back to the F*ckedcompany.com example, the viral pass-along for that site was nothing short of remarkable, it was like a direct conduit into the zeitgeist. But if my memory serves, it made the Wall Street Journal within the week, and was on to Time, Newsweek, The Today Show, Rolling Stone, and just about everywhere in the media universe in a short amount of time. How many people discovered it through an email forward or water cooler conversation vs. the number that learned about it via some kind of "proper" media channel?
That's something you can only guess at, but it's one example of many. Zappos.com is another that comes to mind in the online/startup space, and there are more examples than you can count in entertainment, music, film, etc.
In all cases they've hit a trifecta, that combination of a great product (yes, that's still the prerequisite, if you don't have that the rest of this is meaningless) with a core evangelical base of initial users and a successful effort to get that positive word of mouth coming from those who measure their audiences in millions.
You bet the media has changed, these days the personality with the huge megaphone might be a tech hero with a six figure Twitter follower count. But social media is media. And that personality is a media personality, the underlying point isn't diminished one inch.
It's not strictly impossible to see success happen purely organically, without any organized plan for publicity. Though I'd say it's nearly always when a founder or principal happens to be naturally press-savvy. But exceptions aside, more often than not it's a thoughtful, considered — and experienced — person or team at the helm, managing the media strategy.
So, to bring it home with a pun — if you'd like to make a mint, you might want to think about who's minding your press.