HBO is in a league of its own. Amazon and Netflix offer high-quality content, but neither platform could garner the attention HBO received after a massive hack this summer.
As reported by WIRED, HBO fell victim to several hacks over the summer, most notably involving several leaked “Game of Thrones” scripts and episodes. HBO refused to pay the millions of dollars in ransom, which led the anonymous hacker to release the content.
Millions of people allegedly watched the leaked episodes before the broadcast. Despite the massive breach, “Game of Thrones” achieved its best-ever ratings last season, according to Variety. The same report notes that other hacked shows, including “Ballers” and “Insecure,” also set new ratings records.
Instead of stealing revenue from the network, these hacks provided free publicity for HBO and attracted new viewers. It’s no accident, though. HBO’s success lies in mastering and wielding a tool I call “talk triggers”: strategic, operational differentiators that compel word-of-mouth advertising.
HBO has perfected the art of creating buzz in a way that most companies fail to grasp. Entrepreneurs inside and outside the entertainment industry can mimic HBO’s tactics to garner interest in their own products or services.
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The art of talk triggers.
Successful companies don’t have to market — their customers do it for them. Stellar operations and high-quality products make word-of-mouth advertising inevitable. Customers are eager to tell their friends about companies that consistently exceed expectations, building an army of brand ambassadors as word spreads.
Talk triggers are not an accident; they are a plan. Every company has differentiators, but not every differentiator qualifies as a talk trigger. For people to advocate for the brand of their own volition, companies must provide something worth discussing.
First, a product must be uniquely remarkable. HBO’s offer of high-quality, commercial-free programming definitely fits the bill.
Next, the talk trigger must be repeatable for all customers. A show such as “Game of Thrones” has new episodes, a treasure trove of old episodes, cast interviews and fan outreach. A single event might be a talking point, the conversation will die down within a week if it’s not a regular part of the company’s offering.
Talk triggers must be realistic. If they’re too grandiose, customers will become suspicious. HBO’s commercial-free content is a realistic talk trigger because it’s unique and available to every single customer. A contest to put a fan in an episode would certainly be interesting, but it would never become a consistent talk trigger; only one person would win, and the prize is too large in scale for a wider audience to care for long.
Finally, talk triggers must be relevant to a company’s core business proposition. If the word-of-mouth message doesn’t gel with the brand story, existing ambassadors will struggle to reach new audiences. Enterprise Rent-A-Car’s slogan of “We’ll Pick You Up” is a perfect example. The message ties back to the core business, matters to consumers and differentiates Enterprise from competitors. If the slogan were “We’ll Give You a Puppy,” it would be remarkable but ultimately irrelevant to the company’s core proposition.
By creating experiences that adhere to the four R’s — remarkable, repeatable, realistic and relevant — entrepreneurs can inspire the sort of viral buzz most companies dream about.
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How to build the perfect talk trigger.
Talk triggers transform operational successes into viral marketing opportunities. Follow these five steps to create your own word-of-mouth marketing:
1. Gather internal insights.
How much do you really know about your customers? Have your marketing, sales and customer service departments collaborate to pull together concrete data on the people who use your products or services. Reverse-engineer that information to discover the need your company solves, and then work to turn that solution into a talk trigger.
Per a recent report from Podium, 68 percent of customers will pay up to 15 percent more for products that offer better experiences. If customers will spend more money for better experiences, they’ll also talk more about them.
2. Study customer behavior.
Send team members outside the comfort of your office and into the real world. Have them speak directly with people who use your product or service. This anthropological experiment can unearth fascinating insights and raw materials for developing talk triggers.
Aside from the inherently valuable research, this experiment could end up providing a short-term boost to your brand’s reputation. One survey by Genesys found that 40 percent of consumers rank better human service at the top of their list of desires. What better way to prioritize human service than by sending humans to interact with your customers?
3. Create candidate talk triggers.
Develop a few potential talk triggers based on your research. Describe each trigger in a full internal memo that outlines how you will deliver it, what makes the trigger remarkable and what customers will say about it.
After drafting these documents, evaluate each candidate based on complexity to implement and potential impact. Determine whether they will elicit ho-hum reactions or leave people grinning ear to ear. Any talk triggers that are relatively easy to implement while delivering a high “wow” factor are winners.
Above all, allow plenty of time to mull over your options. Some of the most successful people in the world dedicate a surprisingly large chunk of time to uninterrupted thinking, including Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Consider all available information before you make a decision.
4. Pilot and measure.
After you select a potential talk trigger, introduce it to a specific segment of customers as a test. Keep things manageable by sticking with one region or one product.
After you introduce your first talk trigger, listen closely for evidence that it’s catching on. Has social media chatter increased? Does the talk trigger pop up in ratings and reviews? Conduct customer surveys to discover whether customers noticed the talk trigger and whether they told anyone about it.
If they’re talking, it will become apparent quickly. According to American Express, happy customers tell an average of nine people about their experiences.
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5. Expand and enhance.
If your first test is unsuccessful, pick a new candidate and try again. If your talk trigger sticks, begin to expand its scope to your entire user base. Continue to track the effectiveness of this talk trigger, adjusting as necessary.
Even if results are promising, continue to address feedback. Research for my latest book, “Hug Your Haters,” showed that nearly a third of customer complaints go unanswered. Stay on top of customer feedback, and keep your talk triggers going strong.
Word-of-mouth advertising delivers a phenomenal return on investment — it’s hard to top free when it comes to marketing. That said, buzz doesn’t typically develop without a little bit of guidance. By gathering intel and piloting potential talk triggers, entrepreneurs can build awareness and encourage the masses to do the marketing themselves.