The Secret of Viral Ideas
The Power of Two Words
I’ve been observing a pattern in marketing and microcopy. I’m not sure if it’s a McLuhanite product of our times, or if it is a truth that has always been with us (Carpe Diem?). But it exists, and it is powerful, and once you see it you will see it everywhere:
The best way to sell to, brand, persuade, or inspire people is to condense your idea down to Two Words.
That’s it, that’s the idea. Everything down to Two Words. Even the idea of Two Words.
Table of Contents
- The Law of Two Words
- Why Does It Work?
- Free Words
- How to Figure Out Your Two Words
- In Memoriam
- Appendix: One Worders
- Appendix: List of Two Worders
The Law of Two Words
Every idea attempts to condense itself until it hits Two Words. Those ideas which cannot are replaced by ones which can.
I first noticed the Two Words phenomenon when thinking about why some taglines catch on more than others. With admittedly a lot of effort, Dharmesh Shah and Brian Halligan were able to obsolete an entire generation of marketing software by inventing Inbound Marketing.
All of a sudden, it became clear to marketers that top of line CRMs were insufficient. Marketers could educate each other what inbound marketing was - the phrase itself implied the existence of outbound marketing, and the natural desirability one over the other was obvious but not too obvious. It allowed people to carve out sections of the new real estate created, benefiting them but also growing the entire category.
You see this a lot with books as well. Taleb popularized the idea of the Black Swan. Seth Godin made a career out of unforgettable imagery with Purple Cow. Of course, we don’t have to stick to the color gimmick: Peter Drucker brought the Effective Executive in vogue, James Carse wants us to play Infinite Games, and Robert Kiyosaki, despite his 4 word book title, tellingly sells his idea at RichDad.com. You are part of the Pepsi Generation, McDonald’s reminds you you’re Loving It, Amazon is the Everything Store, Facebook is the Social Network. Techbros are particularly fond of the Miracle Morning and VGR’s Premium Mediocre. Even as you read this, people are enthusiastically telling their friends about the benefits of Radical Candor and Digital Minimalism, the threats of Surveillance Capitalism, and making themselves better via Atomic Habits. Kanye literally began his career with Two Words.
Brands? Andy Rachleff pitches Wealthfront as Self-Driving Money. Apple is for people who Think Different, Tesla stands for Sustainable Transport.
Politics? Frank Luntz has it down to a science. You’ve heard of death taxes, energy exploration and climate change because of him. (more on his book)
In Marie Kondo’s books, she uses the Japanese word ときめく (tokimeku) as her guiding principle, literally “to flutter,” “to throb,” “to palpitate,” or “to beat fast,” as your heart would when it feels excited. When Cathy Hirano translated The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she considered “bring pleasure,” “speak to your heart,” “brighten your world,” “give you a thrill,” and “make you happy” in translating tokimeku. She settled on “Spark Joy” and the rest is history.
But Two Words isn’t just for people trying to sell you things. It scales right down to identities.
If you can pitch yourself in two words, you stand an extraordinarily good chance of being remembered and called on for your area of expertise. Neil deGrasse Tyson delights in being your Personal Astrophysicist. In How I Met Your Mother, Barney Stinson takes pride in the fact that he has a “guy for everything”. This is the ultimate faux luxury - making people feel better/smarter/more powerful by the mere fact that they know you. Taking gender out of it, you want to be everybody’s go-to person for your thing. Hence the Points Guy, the RideShare Guy. You don’t even need to be the World Expert on your thing. Just plant your flag, put out your bag signal, make it easy for people to know what to call on you for. I have been “the __ guy” in my office for everything from Excel to food recommendations.
2021 Edit: Eugene Wei calls this the “Chinese Whispers problem” in his Compress to Impress.
Whatever you are into, whatever your field is, look at the successful movements that are going on and spot the Two Words:
- Developers might like the idea of being a Indie Hacker or Digital Nomad. They explain Rust to each other as enabling Fearless Concurrency. I often explain Netlify as Serverless Heroku. Everyone uses Open Source and wants to be Cloud Native even if they don’t quite agree on precisely what it means.
- Business minded startup folks are Growth Hackers and Product Managers. John Cutler almost regrets the virality of Feature Factories.
- Mottos: Naval tells us to Productize Yourself, gather “Specific Knowledge”. Bezos reminds shareholders it is always Day One. Don Valentine wants us to keep in mind Who Cares?
- Musicians embrace Hillbilly Flamenco and “power-pop”!
- The Health-conscious might be into Intermittent Fasting, Quantified Self, or even Weight Watchers.
- General socio-political movements can often take this form: Lean In, Be Better, Time’s Up, Me Too
- Time Well Spent became Humane Technology
- Greta Thunberg’s School Strike for Climate became #ClimateStrike.
From the last example, it can be tempting to conclude that the hashtag, SEO, and online communication in general have contributed to this trend of ignoring nuance and condensing complex ideas and systems down to two words. That’s surely partially true, but I think the reasons for the Two Words phenomenon are more fundamental.
Why Does It Work?
It is no secret that brevity is powerful. So why not shrink everything to One Word?
I think One Word ideas are possible, but can be too vague. You can run a campaign on Hope or write a bestseller on how we are all Hooked, but the words in themselves don’t really explain your specific point of view on the world. You could try to go for an acronym, or a portmanteau, but good ones are rare and take a while to get acceptance.
For maximum virality, ideas should be:
- Easily memorable/quotable
- Self explanatory
- But still open to interpretation and therefore being co-opted and therefore being spread
- Repurposable by others (e.g. who want to carve out subsections of your idea)
- Different - sets itself apart from the norm in some way
The easiest way to attach yourself to something important and yet differentiate yourself is to add a word to an existing important word. Hence: Inbound Marketing. Servant Leadership. Atomic Habits. Bonus points if you imply that not doing your thing would be ridiculous. Who’s against Effective Altruism? Is anyone for InHumane Technology?
The Two Word Idea is the Minimum Viable Concept.
Two Word ideas don’t literally have to be Two Words.
Prepositions, Conjunctions, and other articles are “free” as in they don’t really count. “Just Do It”, “Good to Great”, “Crossing the Chasm”, Disagree and Commit or Learn in Public anyone? VC Idea Pitches are often mocked as derivative X for Y cargo culting. It works.
Numbers could be free too. The 4-Hour Workweek hyphenates the number.
Some words are used so frequently together they tokenize to basically be one word. DevOps. Web Design (ergo Responsive Web Design).
Usually, successful many-word ideas have a Two Word Core. The Law of Shitty Clickthroughs isn’t about “The Law of”. Nobody wants to be the Poor Dad in Rich Dad, Poor Dad.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People might win the prize for longest Two Word idea. Of course, these days, it just gets shortened to “7 Habits” 😉.
How to Figure Out Your Two Words
Two Words is the ultimate microcopy. It is at once trivial, yet important (by sheer memetic value). Obviously it has high marketing value, but finding a good Two Words to hang your hat on for the life of your idea is not easy. As Naval says:
Become the best in the world at what you do. Keep redefining what you do until this is true.
Authenticity is critical - nobody can compete with you at being you.
One way to figure it out is have people repeat back your idea in their words, after you give your spiel. Your words don’t matter, theirs do. You don’t need to adopt exactly what they use, but a message that doesn’t take after repeated attempts is a problem.
You can’t force these things on people. Two Word ideas perform best when they give people the words to describe something they already want to talk about. There has to be some innate agreement to it already. And it’s a viral loop - if the words come unbidden, people think of your idea/brand naturally. This is why Nike’s heavily invests in Just Do It - it comes up even without talking about sport apparel.
This post is dedicated to Clay Christensen, who pointed out the Innovator’s Dilemma, and Leila Janah, who showed that the best method of poverty alleviation is to Give Work.
- “X your Y”: https://twitter.com/nathanbarry/status/1221996517797425152?s=20
- Mental models that are all 2 words: https://twitter.com/G_S_Bhogal/status/1225561131122597896
Appendix: One Worders
Exceptions to the rule are noteworthy because of their rarity.
- Nir Eyal - hooked, indistractable
- Dan Pink - Drive (really about intrinsic motivation). when. to sell is human.
- Essentialism https://tim.blog/2019/01/09/greg-mckeown-essentialism/
- The Secret
- Outliers - gladwell
- Quiet - susan cain introverts
- Mindset - carol dweck: really about growth mindset!
- Vulnerability - brene brown
- Principles - dalio
- Originals - adam grant
What puts all these in common? I haven’t figured it out yet.
Appendix: List of Two Worders
This is a living list - I will update as I go. Tell me good candidates for the list!
- Movements: indie hacker, digital nomad, intermittent fasting, life hacking, lean in, me too, times up, weight watchers, artificial intelligence, machine learning, growth hacker, product manager
- Just Do It
- inbound marketing
- personal astrophysicist
- tristan harris: humane technology
- think different
- under armor: i will
- Company Names
- Lucid Chart
- Under Armor
- Pager Duty
- naval: productize yourself, specific knowledge
- effective altruism
- don valentine: Who Cares? (thanks rauchg)
- vgr: premium mediocre
- jocko willinck: extreme ownership
- carpe diem
- bezos: disagree and commit. day one.
- open source
- samasource - give work
- digital minimalism
- radical candor
- everything store
- surveillance economy
- black swan
- atomic habits
- rich dad
- purple cow
- effective executive - peter drucker
- miracle morning
- innovator’s dilemma
- infinite games
- chicken soup for the soul?
- narrow waist/ internet protocol
- kant: categorical imperative
- servant leadership
- spiritual leadership??
- law of shitty clickthroughs
- gatsby - content mesh
- rails - convention over configuration
- dev ops
- responsive webdesign
- inclusive components
- three worders
- getting things done
- time well spent
- just do it
- one important thing
- why we sleep
- start with why
- highly effective people
- microsoft: Be What’s Next
- totota: let’s go places. mercedes: The best or nothing. bmw: Ultimate Driving Machine. tesla: sustainable transport