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How to Leverage User Psychology to Trigger Growth and Adoption, with James Currier

Marketplaces are important, and the success stories are well known: Etsy gives makers a global reach, Upwork connects Web developers in Vietnam with graphic designers in Romania, eBay has spawned legions of niche entrepreneurs in the 21 years since it was first founded as an auction site.

But James Currier, managing partner at NFX Guild and member of the Reforge Collective, says it’s their sister category “market networks” that will drive the next wave of innovation, and unicorns.

Currier is a four-time CEO and co-founder of multiple venture-backed companies, including self-assessment testing company Tickle, and Ooga Labs, which spun out casual games company WonderHill, Jiff, a secure network and marketplace for connecting the mobile health ecosystem to the healthcare industry, and Iron Pearl, which was purchased by PayPal before it had a chance to officially launch.

In 2015, Currier and his partners created NFX Guild as a programmatic, invitation-only venture firm that rapidly accelerates the growth of networks and marketplaces. The company’s name stands for “Network Effects,” as the firm’s singular focus is on building businesses that become more useful and valuable with each additional user.

We talked to Currier about the universal triggers he’s identified that shape user psychology, the emergence of market networks, and proven ways for growing these platforms.

Why it's so hard to grow marketplaces and what the market network model offers instead

UI, design and language are all core aspects of a user’s experience, so any change in those dimensions can also be used to shape how people are feeling and what they’re thinking about. The most successful companies can not only influence a consumer’s behavior, but can measure that influence too.

“All of these experiences boil down to: what's the psychology of the user?” says Currier. “That's the lens from which I see everything at this point.”

Currier’s perspectives on digital media, growth and software are so deeply informed by user behavior that Tickle, a self-assessment testing company, stacked the team with people who had earned doctorates in psychology and statistics.

With almost 150 million registered users who’d answered about 25 billion questions, Tickle had enormous reach. For Currier, this meant that it was crucial for the team to study human motivation. By aggregating research and findings from sources as varied as Abraham Maslow and Gerry Zaltman at Harvard Business School, Currier says Tickle identified twenty-seven distinct human motivations relevant to their business, which they eventually figured out how to trigger at will.

What drives user behavior? Some people are highly motivated by being in the know; some are collectors — of Facebook friends, of Swarm stickers, or of Klout points. For others, journeys are significant; so they’ll check in at every airport until their reach a final destination. There’s a finite number of human motivations, says Currier, and they are embedded in each of us. But, the first link in the chain that tugs on any form of motivation is language — engaging the user starts as a narrative process.

Growth teams can achieve user engagement by testing linguistic triggers to target their users’ human motivations. The little words count: constant calibration, whether in a new user’s email confirmation or a new registration call-to-action, is how we know the right way to label a UI for maximum engagement.

Testing and iteration can help you find big wins, but understanding what to test starts with understanding how your users talk — and that includes the language they use inside their own minds. Currier says any company interested in growth based on user psychology must ask their users what they’d say if asked to describe the company to a friend, and then listen very carefully. That snippet of language will reveal how users actually view your product and its value -- not just what you think or what your current UI messaging promises.

Once you understand the language, how you think about the product changes, and how you approach the product changes.

Testing and cluster analysis will likely reveal multiple simultaneous user motivations, which Currier says provide the insight required to determine which motivations and clusters are most profitable — as not all are equally valuable from a growth perspective.

“Focus on your highest value-clusters first. Then, as you grow and you're saturating that particular cluster, you should move on to other clusters that might be less profitable but might help you grow the business broadly,” says Currier.

How changing one word led to 46M registrations in 6 months

How powerful are linguistic triggers?

A decade ago, as consumers were discovering digital photography, Currier helped create an online photo repository. Although the sector was hot, picking up new users was an ongoing challenge.

“We said, ‘you can store your photos here now that you have digital photos,’ and this was triggering people's protectiveness,” says Currier, because the word “store” sparked users’ motivation to defend and collect.

But growth was limited, so Currier and his team continued testing.

“‘Store your photos’ became ‘share your photos.’ Now, there are other people involved in the whole concept, so, suddenly the psychology of it changes and the motivation you have changes,” explains Currier.

Sharing is an inherently social activity associated with affection, openness and acceptance, and it simultaneously triggers users’ altruistic motivation, as well as their motivation to show off.

By tweaking their call to action with just this one word change, the site dramatically boosted uploads per user, the rate at which users were sharing photos, and signed up 46 million people in six months.

Just by changing that one word, we were able to motivate each person to send it out to 120 of their friends,” says Currier.

In another example, Tickle was originally named Upon changing the company’s name to Tickle, Currier and his team saw a near-immediate 30% jump in traffic and the company’s value doubled.

Once you see that something’s working, “you really have to hone in on it,” says Currier, before trying different message variants that elicit the same motivation. As companies grow and provide more products and services, they’ll hit on multiple motivations each designed to drive a user to a specific conclusion:

Roger has tagged you in a Facebook photo / There are 3 events near you today / You and Susan are now Friends! Send her a message.

“Building strong retention loops with language triggers is artistry,” says Currier. “You have to choose your paint carefully for each part of the product. You're painting with human psychology.”

How motivations and messaging will change

If an understanding of user psychology is central to growth, then it’s even more important to understand that proven triggers and motivations will change over the course of a company’s lifecycle and its users’ lifecycle.

There’s no single template or process for sharing user psychology outside of Product teams, says Currier. Effective language must be periodically reviewed, and its underlying triggers and motivations should be conveyed across the organization. Some people may feel like that’s moving the goalposts, but the fact is, the goalposts are already in motion, he adds.

Customers are faddish, so sustained growth requires fluid messaging; Twitter and Facebook are networks that maintain relevancy and growth through reinvention, as opposed to MySpace, which was a fad for a few years, says Currier.

Young companies that grow quickly and large enough to achieve network effect usually start to shut down aspects of their service to sell advertising and “defend their turf,” he says. When platforms launch, investors demand growth, but “as soon as they are real businesses,” users who want to reach farther into the network or derive value from native features will be asked to pay.

“That’s probably what I would have to do if I were them, too,” said Currier, who observes that this is a natural cycle. “To avoid this, newer players like SnapChat have learned from Facebook’s lessons to not open up at all.”

“Pinterest is still relatively open as a network,” he adds, but “when they figure out their business model, then they will start to shut down in ways that make sense for their net revenue.”

Because Facebook Messenger has so much untapped utility, “there will be a lot more revenue and reasons to keep that platform open, whereas, they couldn’t find those reasons for Facebook,” said Currier.

Don’t jump into paid acquisition too early — do this instead

The internet continues to present new viral channels, but the ubiquity of smartphones has created a new method of spreading awareness “as great as it’s ever been,” says Currier. Ride-sharing didn’t spread because of advertising — it grew because it tapped into basic human motivations (the fear of being left behind), and then put an antidote literally in the palm of every person’s hand.

Product managers and entrepreneurs trying to jump-start growth usually have limited resources, and Currier advises against gambling the rent money. Instead of making paid acquisition bets early on, founders should study channels closely before spending a dime, and always stay nimble. New platforms that are under-exploited are always going to change (most likely to become less profitable), “but during that six weeks, it’s gonna be great,” says Currier, who recommends staking out “many different platforms.”

Market networks don’t need massive growth channels, but growth managers must be single-minded when it comes to tracking data and implementations that incorporate user psychology. Running a couple of A/B tests and calling it a day just won’t cut it.

“You have to become obsessed with user psychology because there are so many details and it's changing all the time,” says Currier.

Before spending a dime on viral channels, marketers should intimately understand their platforms and how they’re changing.

To stay ahead of the curve, Currier says growth professionals should be networking with other growth leaders, and closely observing and learning how others use these channels.

“Watch everyone’s implementations, break them down and be curious and obsessed,” he says.

Taping printed screenshots with written annotations to the wall is one way to analyze their choices and discern which human psychological motivations they’re trying to elicit.

“First, look at what everyone's doing — track it and map it. Then, break down the psychology behind it.”