In March of 2014, Zillow made it onto Jeopardy with the answer: “Zestimate -; the value of your home at this website.” When a history professor named Babu Srinivasan asked the question, “What is Zillow?” I knew that we’d entered pop culture in a big way. Babu probably had no idea how pumped we all were when he said those three words.
We had bigger moments, like when we made our first acquisition, launched our first app or went public in 2011. But making Jeopardy was a big deal because it signaled that we’d entered the vernacular of our audience. We’d become a verb synonymous with home. Companies like Uber, Netflix and Venmo have all entered our everyday vernacular too.
Becoming a verb gives you an incredible leg up on the competition because your brand becomes synonymous with an entire category. What steps can you take to put your brand on the path to verb status?
1. Know who you are as a company.
One factor that largely contributed to Zillow reaching verb status was communication. From the moment we founded the company, we valued comms as a core competency. Some businesses don’t get how vital communication is until they run into some sort of trouble that only comms can help them out of. Just like the HR department, the PR function should be a strategic differentiator, not just a risk mitigator.
Think hard about how to message your brand, how to pitch it and if there are interesting ways to package your data or insights for your target audiences. It’s not enough to make great stuff; you have to deliver it in an attention-getting way that people can understand and follow.
Admittedly, great communication is easier when you have something with mainstream appeal. It’s harder to make a compelling case for a B2B service, but that’s where communication becomes vital. For example, I love when I get email from founders with a 100-word description of their company. It’s really smart because the brevity forces you to articulate your value proposition. You need to be good at that throughout your life as a company, so valuing it from the start is a good muscle to build.
2. Provide a new way of doing something.
Looking for real estate data used to be like searching for something in a dark room. You had to look across multiple resources like tax records at the county registrar’s office and resources like MLS books (printed weekly with listings). It was disparate and complicated, reserved for the computational geniuses and Nancy Drews of the world. Zillow turned on the lights for consumers, converting complex data on every home into insights even kids could understand. Because we were the first to do this, people began to associate the action of looking up info on a home with Zillow.
Other “verb” companies have gotten this right too. Consider Venmo. While banks have allowed people to transfer cash for decades, the process had been clunky and mostly offline. Venmo provided a new way: a peer-to-peer transaction platform that’s fun and social, not cumbersome. To become a verb, you have to dramatically improve an existing service or create a new one. That’s where innovation comes in.
3. Keep proving it.
When you’re on the path to becoming a verb, you can’t get too comfortable. Others will try to follow in your footsteps, and you have to keep innovating.
In Zillow’s case, we still need to be the best at what we do when it comes to search and insights, and we need to continue to be the most trusted resource out there. And that requires incremental innovation — harnessing the latest technology and consumer insights to give people what they want and expect. Continuing to hone what you’ve been known for is crucial, but to get your business to the next level you also need to expand your definition.
That requires transformational innovation. Netflix, for example, began by mailing DVDs to consumers and evolved to become a streaming platform with original content. Today, when we think of content streaming services, Netflix is the dominant player thanks to its constant evolution.
Stay focused on your mission.
But innovation needs a focal point. It needs a mission so you always know who you’re “proving it” to. Our mission is to build the largest, most trusted and vibrant home-related marketplace in the world, and to do that we have to continually prove our value to the consumer.
If we start innovating on behalf of anyone’s interest but the consumer’s, we lose our ability to prove it. Always ask who you are proving yourself to with the decisions you make; the answer should always be your audience.