11 Star Exercise: The Key to Word Of Mouth Marketing

Published by Colin Finkle on

Envisioning the perfect experience for your customers so you can enable viral growth.

Executive Summary | Abstract | TL;DR

Crafting an experience that inspires people to tell friends creates viral growth. Defining what an exceptional experience is the first step in creating it for customers. Brian Chesky of Airbnb laid out the process he uses to do that on the Masters of Scale podcast.

The process is defining a one, three, and five-star experience. What factors make the experience a total failure or meet all expectations. Then you go beyond. What experiences would be people have to have to write a seven, nine and eleven-star review? (If such options existed.) What would make the experience above and beyond, memorable for a lifetime, or even life-changing? Going to the extreme will generate valuable insights and make a great experience seem attainable in contrast.

1700 words  |  7 minute read.

Airbnb logo by DesignStudio

The only way to grow your brand on a massive scale is to have an experience that your customers, clients and / or users want to tell their friends and family about. No amount of advertising, growth hacking, or user acquisition will make up for a miserable experience that no one is inspired to talk about… at least positively.

There is a method envisioned by Airbnb founder, Brian Chesky, to help determine what the experience is that will get your customers talking. It is defining the experiences that would result in a one, a three, and a five-star review. But it doesn’t stop there; you need to think about what an experience that would warrant a six-star review (i.e., above and beyond) if that option was available.



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Brian Chesky talked about it with Reid Hoffman on the Masters of Scale podcast and was then highlighted by Tim Ferriss in the “Ten Commandments of Startup Success” review episode and in a posts on Tim’s Blog.

The Eleven Star Experience for Airbnb

This the transcript of the Ten Commandments episode of Masters of Scale:

“If you want to build something that’s truly viral you have to create a
total mindf–k experience that you tell everyone about,” Says Brian Chesky, Airbnb founder.

In the early days of Airbnb, Chesky and his co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk would go to hosts’ houses to either take professional photos or stay with them overnight.

The experience of having the company co-founders show up and stay with them gave the early hosts an experience that they would talk about with friends and family. After Chesky realized this, he knew that they could not stay with everyone once Airbnb reached a particular scale, but it made him wonder what other experiences they could have that would inspire them to share.

“We basically took one part of our product, and we extrapolated what would a five-star experience be,” says Chesky. “Then we went crazy.

Padlock on a metal gate. Black and white.

“So […] you get to your Airbnb and no ones there. You knock on the door. They don’t open. That’s a one-star.

“If they never show up and you’re pissed, and you need to get your money back, that’s a one-star experience. You’re never using us again.

“Maybe it’s a three star if they don’t open, you have to wait 20 minutes.

“So, a five-star experience is you knock on the door, they open the door, they let you in. Great,” says Chesky. “That’s not a big deal. You’re not going tell every friend about it. You might say, “I used Airbnb. It worked.”

On website reviews, Like Amazon or Yelp, users generally don’t want to give anything less than a five-star review unless there was a part of it that didn’t meet their expectations. So a five-star experience is one that checks all the boxes. Order a desk chair from Amazon? It was comfortable, adjustable and easy to assemble… five-star. Staying with an Airbnb host? They were there when I showed up, it was clean and tidy, and I knew my way around… five-star.

Colin here: You might be confused that a five-star review would meet expectations; I was. Isn’t a five-star review reserved for above and beyond service? Like a five star hotel or restaurant?

Back to Brian: “so, we thought, “What would a six-star experience be? A six-star experience: you knock on the door, the host opens. “Hey, I’m Reid. Welcome to my house.” [… The host] would show them around. On the table would be a welcome gift [, maybe] a bottle of wine, maybe some candy. You’d open the fridge. There’s water. You go to the bathroom, there [are] toiletries.

Wine, pastries, and fruit in a nice hotel.

“The whole thing is great. That’s a six-star experience. You’d say, “Wow I love this more than a hotel. I’m definitely going to use Airbnb again. It worked. Better than I expected.

“What’s a seven-star experience? You knock on the door. […] “Welcome. Here’s my full kitchen. I know you like surfing. There’s a surfboard waiting for you. I’ve booked lessons for you. It’s going to be an amazing experience. By the way, here’s my car. You can use my car. And I also want to surprise you. There’s this best restaurant in the city of San Francisco. I got you a table there.” And you’re like, “Whoa. This is way beyond.”

“So, what would an eight-star start check-in be? An eight-star check-in, I would land at the airport. I would show up, and there would be a limousine waiting for me. The limousine would be like, know all my preferences. It would take me to the house, and it would be like a total surprise.

“So, what would a nine-star check-in be? A nine-star check-in, I would show up [at] the airport, and there’d be a parade in my honor. And I would probably have an elephant […] waiting for me as the traditional Indian ceremony. I would ride on the elephant, and there’d be this parade taking me to the to the house.

“So, what would a ten-star check-in be? A ten-star check-in would be The Beatles […] in 1964. I’d get off the plane, and there’d be five thousand high school kids cheering my name with cars welcoming me to the country. I’d get to the front yard of your house, and there’d be a press conference for me, and it would be just a mindf–k experience.

“So, what would an 11-star experience be? I would show up at the airport, and you’d be there with Elon Musk, and you’re saying, “You’re going to space.”

Colin, again: that is the end of the eleven-star thought experience for Airbnb. And you might be asking, why take it to such an extreme?

“The point of the process is that maybe 9, 10, 11 are not feasible,” says Brian Chesky, “but if you go through the crazy exercise of keep going, there’s some sweet spot between they showed up and they opened the door, and I went to space. That’s the sweet spot.

“You have to almost design the extreme to come backward. Suddenly, doesn’t knowing my preferences and having a surfboard in the house seem not crazy and [actually] reasonable? It’s actually [still] kind of crazy logistically, but this is the kind of stuff that creates a great experience.”

You can never design up, only down.

From my nearly two-decade experience in industrial design, I can say with complete certainty that you cannot take a three-star design and add on to it features to make a five-star design. The process is such that concept will get weaker as you make the necessary compromises to bring it into reality. This lesson applies when designing experiences as well.

The only way to go is to come up with a five-star concept, and then try to execute it with as few compromises as possible. The process is the same in experience design, as Chesky astutely points out. If you take the concept to an extreme, the far-reaching aspects of the original idea suddenly do not seem so unattainable.

The steps of the eleven-star experience

The process of the Eleven-Star Experience exercise is to get you thinking about the customer experience, and how that could be made better.

A lot of this comes from your imagination, but if you already have products in the marketplace or are researching competitors who do, you can mine written reviews from places like Amazon, Yelp, Google Maps, Capterra, Trip Advisor, GlassDoor, and FourSquare.

As always, there is no replacement for talking with your customers about your service. Airbnb was able to do this exercise because the co-founders, Brian and Nathan, used their service as guests and spoke with hosts. An impersonal survey is fine, but a conversation is best.

In a solo or group setting, write out a brief paragraph for each of these:

One-Star

Define what experience would lead someone to write a one-star review.

What would sink the experience it for the customer, and make it a complete failure?

Three-Star

Define what experience would lead someone to write a three-star review.

What factors would make leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth, even if their problem was solved in the end?

Five-Star

Define what experience would lead someone to write a five-star review.

How would one describe an experience that solved their problem entirely in a pleasant way?

Seven-Star

Define what experience would leave someone with an experience above their expectations.

What is an experience that would amaze the customer? Something that made it personal or solved problems for them that they didn’t know they had.

Nine-Star

Define what experience would leave someone with an experience way beyond their expectations.

What experience, delving into fantasy land, who blow the user away? Something that would leave them with an experience they would tell people for the rest of their lives.

Eleven-Star

Define what experience would blow someone’s mind.

What experience would change someone’s life forever?

Conclusion. Push yourself to find the ideal experience for your clients.

If you want to build your brand, then you need to define what an experience that is above and beyond. While an exceptional experience is not possible every time (by definition), shooting for that is going to deepen your relationship with your customers and inspire them to be evangelists. The experience will develop Brand Depth, and the viral promotion will build Brand Awareness; both will build your Brand Equity.

Now it is time to take action to grow your brand.

Solo-preneur? Set a date in your calendar to sit with a pen and paper and write out a one, three, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, and eleven-star experience would be.

Part of a team? Schedule a fun meeting to do this exercise with your colleagues. Maybe cater an enjoyable lunch, like tacos, to get people energized. Not only will you garner great insights, but you will also build morale.

Either way, try asking your customer what would blow their mind if you offered. Not everyone is going to know, but asking will put you ahead of 99.9% of your competition in their eyes. And you may garner an insight that will put your brand’s experience ahead of the pack.


Colin Finkle

Colin Finkle is a brand marketer and designer with ten years of experience helping Fortune 500 companies tell their story at retail. You can see his work at finkle.ca

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