Audience Building · · 4 min read

The Secret to Word of Mouth

Word of mouth is still among the most powerful forces for spreading ideas, brands, content, etc. If you want your work to spread, you need to think about word of mouth.


The more you can truly imagine what conversations your target audience is having, the better you'll be able to set yourself up for being a part of that conversation.

People talk about lots of things, but here are a few relevant examples:

  • Things that make them happy
  • Problems they're currently having
  • Solutions to the other person's problems
  • Things that make them look cool to their friends
  • Things that increase their status in the eyes of others

Does your work play into one of those categories? '

If not, how can you engineer your work to make someone noticeably happier or solve a specific problem better? Can you elevate the perception of your work so that being aware of it actually makes your target audience look cool to their friends?

If your work fits one of those categories, you're halfway there. Next, you need to ensure you are front of mind. When someone is having a conversation, they search their mental recall bank for the fastest, most relevant recommendation.

Being second-best isn't good enough. So how can you be the FIRST to mind? I've identified four different methods:

  • Association – being tied to some specific word, phrase, or idea
  • Memorability – easy to remember (accurately)
  • Remarkability – being noticeably different in some way
  • Recency – capturing their attention very recently

These are not mutually exclusive – the more you're able to take advantage of all four, the better off you'll be.


Association is the most powerful strategy of these four.

There's a concept in psychology called cued recall – it's our ability to retrieve information from our long-term memory using aids or cues.

When people ask for recommendations, they use specific words – and those words serve as cues. People use their cued recall to think of recommendations associated with those cues.

So, when you build a strong association between your work and some word, phrase, or idea, those words trigger cued recall.

This is why the word "stoicism" may make you think of Ryan Holiday, "habits" makes you think of James Clear, or "vulnerability" makes you think of Brené Brown.

Do you see how powerful that is?

But here's the thing: this is a winner-takes-most situation. Charles Duhigg wrote a great book called The Power of Habit – but I can count on one hand how many times the word "habits" has conjured his name rather than James.

So, in order for association to really go to work for you, you have to become the 800-pound gorilla in the room for a simple idea or choose something more long-tail. Instead of trying to beat James for the word "habits," you focus on "children's study habits."

I'm trying to compete for an association with the word "creator," but I know I'm competing with some big names. In the immediate term, I'm focused on more specific phrases like education-based creators, creator-educators, and advanced creator education.

One last point on association: If you choose a long-tail idea that doesn't organically come up in conversation, you'll need to educate the market and spread that term yourself. It's not terrible, not impossible, but it's much slower and less reliable.


More memorable words and ideas win. People will have difficulty remembering if the words you're using are long, uncommon, or difficult to pronounce.

This newsletter used to be called Creative Companion, and the membership was called Creative Companion Club. It was awkward to say (even for me)!

When things are awkward or difficult to say, we avoid saying them. We're self-conscious and we want to sound smart. When I switched to something shorter and easier to remember (Creator Science and The Lab) I began benefitting much more from memorability.

This is why billboards use easy-to-remember numbers to call or why short domain names are so coveted.

If you notice people familiar with you have difficulty saying or remembering the names of your business, products, or services, that's a red flag.


For a few weeks, I couldn't stop talking about a book called Personal Socrates. It wasn't the writing but the book design. It was so beautifully (and uniquely) crafted that I could not stop telling people about it.

That's the thing about creating something different – it stands out. It's remarkable. We can't help but remark on it.

But it doesn't stop at design – customer experience is also a huge opportunity for remarkability. A couple of months ago, the team at ​MyBodyTutor​ surprised me with a thank you gift in the mail – which I couldn't help but tweet about.

The more unique you make your brand, content, or products, the more likely people will remark on those differences.


Psychologically, we favor recent events over historic ones. It's called recency bias, and in simple terms, it means we are more likely to remember something new to us rather than something older. To reuse an earlier example, if I just read The Power of Habit, I am more likely to associate THAT book with the idea of "habits" purely because it was more recent to me.

Recency bias is difficult for you to take advantage of because it would require you to somehow get YOUR work in front of someone just before they have the opportunity to refer it. However, word-of-mouth and referral opportunities are random and unpredictable.

The only reliable way for you to take advantage of recency is through volume. If you are publishing and getting in front of your audience constantly, the more likely they'll have thought of you at the opportune time.

This is the biggest argument for a volume-based approach to publishing – you increase your surface area for luck.


Put yourself in your audience's shoes. What conversation do you hope brings your name to mind? Start from there and work backward. If you can't imagine a conversation that conjures your work to mind, then it probably isn't happening.

Go so far as to talk to yourself out loud. Say the name of your products or brand. Does it roll off the tongue? Does it feel easy or awkward?

And when you choose a word or phrase you want to be associated with, you need to start repeating that word in your work.

Recommended Next: ​Association: The Secret to Organic Growth ↗​

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