Usability Sells Software – Word of Mouth Marketing

for sale

There are three main models for selling software. You can hire a direct sales force. You can spend a lot on marketing and advertising. You can let your users sell the software for you, a technique commonly known as viral marketing. There’s a catch with viral marketing – users have to like your software.

Viral Marketing

We wrote an article in 2005, Ideavirus – Marketing By Word of Mouth, where we talked about a presentation by Seth Godin.

Some really key points he makes –

  • The idea vectors from user to user (slide 29)
  • The more you give your idea away for free, the more valuable it is (slides 32-33)
  • Build the mindshare first, then monetize. “get cash now!” cripples the spread of your virus (slides 36-40)
  • Seth gave his book away instead of selling it – 200,000 downloads the first two weeks (slide 55).

Seth may be the authority on viral marketing today. When he combines his work with Malcolm Gladwell, we get a great extension of the idea virus concept:

Seth Godin spells out the virus analogy. Someone uses a product or service and raves about it to his friends and associates. This is called sneezing. Some people only sneeze occasionally. Some people sneeze all the time. Some sneeze quietly, some loudly. Some sneeze to a small crowd and some sneeze to a huge gathering.

Karl Palachuk

Its the sneezers that spread the virus. But what makes people want to share?

Compelled To Share

People want to share the virus when they love the product. Gladwell talks (I think in The Tipping Point, but I don’t have it in front of me right now) about how some people are predisposed to sneezing. They will tell us all, good or bad, about the products that generate enough emotion for them to feel compelled to spread the word.

This sounds pretty scary – customers telling everyone about our product. What if our product sucks?

BazaarVoice, a company in Austin, issued a press release a while ago – “Positive Online Reviews Outweigh Negative Reviews 8 To 1.

Analysis across a diverse set of products and services indicates that positive reviews outweigh negative reviews 8 to 1, with an average rating of 4.3 out of 5 stars across all live Bazaarvoice clients.


“We are seeing a ‘Rating J-Curve’ across many clients in diverse industries,” said Sam Decker, vice president of marketing and products at Bazaarvoice. “The distribution looks like a J on a graph, where you see a low volume of 1 star reviews, fewer 2 and 3-star reviews, and a huge jump in 4 and 5-star ratings. While surprising at first, this finding agrees with third-party studies that suggest word of mouth is much more positive than we often assume.”

Sam Decker (Who also has a great blog)

If you’re still gun-shy, even though we know the odds are in our favor, there are ways to make our software not suck.

Comprehension Through Contrast

There’s a great visual in an article at 37signals titled In-store good or at-home good? that puts this all in perspective, when compared to traditional marketing approaches. The article sites an analysis from the Harvard Business Review.

They contrast the imact that the number of features has on two different personas. The buying persona, and the using persona.

  • The buying persona perceives more value (at the time of sale) from having more features.
  • The using persona experiences more value (over time) from having fewer features.

This is the basic premise of the more is less argument. We can step back and generalize this a bit.

Software that is more usable grows in value to users over time

Usability Sells Software

The buying persona is the target for marketing and advertising. She is also the person that a direct sales force tries to convince to buy our products. That’s why marketing is always asking for more features. They want products that appear to be more valuable, because perception sells.

But buyers aren’t sneezers. Rarely does a friend call and say “I just bought this, and I haven’t used it much, but you have to get one!”

The idea virus is vectored by users. And users grow to like the product more and more over time. And the usability of the product has a major influence over how well they like the product. The more usable it is, the more word of mouth marketing we get.

4 thoughts on “Usability Sells Software – Word of Mouth Marketing

  1. I thought that you might like to take a look at a post that Guy Kawasaki in made earler this week at

    In his opinion “Made to Stick”, a new book by Chip and Dan Heath is going to be a big hit, and it sounds like it’s very much in the mold of “The ideavirus”

    His review talks about a nice mnemonic which seemingly structures the book
    ‘SUCCES’ which stands for…


    Sticky ideas, stick around because they are very sneezable.
    I think that you’ll enjoy the article as a new take on an existing idea.



  2. Thanks for the great pointer, Jason, and thanks for reading and commenting!

    I’ve just ordered the book Made To Stick.

    There’s also a great SAT (stickiness aptitude test) associated with the book – SAT. I just took the test for an internal project of ours and scored a 24.5 – pretty exciting.

    Great framework too!

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