It’s the Simplicity, Stupid

image of Hugh MacLeod cartoon

I’m a cartoonist. This is my tenth year blogging. My work has been mentioned in big media including Wall St. Journal, Financial Times, New York Times, and The Guardian. It’s been mentioned in bestselling books like Groundswell and Tribes. And it’s been mentioned on thousands of blogs, including many of the big, A-Lister ones.

That’s all well and good, I suppose. We artist types can use all the PR we can get.

But looking back, it occurs to me that none of that “hot PR media action” has moved my business forward nearly as quickly or effectively as this one simple thing:

My newsletter subscribers telling their friends about my newsletter, and suggesting that they sign up.

No, really, that’s it. That is the money shot. When that happens, my business grows, end of story.

More traditional media PR … well, that can work, sometimes.

You never know. The results are always foggy at best, and it’s always a lot of voraciously time-consuming, pain-in-the-ass work to make something happen. And even then, it may not actually increase sales.

I know getting mentioned in huge media outlets is sexy and all, but seriously, hear me out. I’ve been at this for a while.

Traditional PR works, when it works. Most of the time though, it doesn’t. Same with traditional advertising.

But my list telling their friends — that never fails.


Make it easy

Another thing I’ve learned the hard way is: I cannot make my subscriber list tell their friends about the newsletter, no matter how hard I try to apply my Jedi mind tricks.

All I can do is make it easy for them to share. All I can do is make it as friction-free as possible.

So this is what I did to achieve that: I created a simple link on the bottom of the newsletter.

Hello from Hugh: Please share this link with your friends.

If their friends get the link and click on it, the page has a personal message from me.


One of your friends sent you the link to this page, and so here you are. Welcome!

My name is Hugh. I’m a cartoonist. I have a newsletter, “Hugh’s Daily Cartoon,” which I send out five mornings a week. A wee chuckle in your inbox, to start your day off on the right foot (so to speak). I hope you will subscribe.

That’s it.

Nothing fancy. Nothing complicated. Just a short and sincere message from me. I also threw in a few cartoons, just to give them something fun to read, other than my sales pitch.

A recommendation from a friend carries more weight than a hundred media recommendations.

It’s the simplicity, stupid

If my subscribers aren’t telling their friends, I’m doing something wrong, end of story.

If I’m not making it as easy and friction-free as possible to get my list to tell their friends, I’m doing something wrong.

You read Copyblogger, you’re a member of The Third Tribe, and you probably read a bunch of other savvy marketing folks. Great! They have a lot of killer stuff worth knowing about. Tons of it.

But just for a minute, forget all that and let me ask you two simple questions:

  1. Is your list telling their friends about you? I mean, really telling them?
  2. Have you made it as easy and friction-free as humanly possible for your list to tell their friends?

Until you can honestly say “Yes” to both questions, you have a severe marketing problem that no cutting-edge marketing theory — Copyblogger’s or anyone else’s — will ever solve.

About the Author: Hugh MacLeod is a cartoonist who blogs over at He makes his living by selling fine art prints, doing Cube Grenade commissioned art work and sending out daily cartoons on Hugh’s Daily Frickin’ Newsletter.

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Reader Comments (81)

  1. says

    Keeping things simple, allowing readers to find your subscription link easily sure does help.

    No need for complex 5 steps or 10 pages to subscribe. One visible link would do.

  2. says

    I didn’t believe the “tell a friend” stuff worked … until I tried it. But it just makes sense. People are generally receptive to the suggestion.

    We should never be afraid to ask people to share great content (but that means you need to always write content good enough to share).

    Just got your book in an am enjoying it – keep the good stuff coming.


  3. says

    Your style fits the e-mail list personally – the aesthetics of your site are good, but mainly, the “aesthetics” people are looking for are in the drawings themselves. It’s also something we can do and jump off and five seconds.

    So, it’s quite an acceptable medium for e-mail, where we are used to the three second digestion. For straight written content providers, I don’t think it works as well, because much of the appeal lies in aesthetics – which can be difficult to develop in an e-mail without the $. I still don’t think, as consumers, that we’re ready to “learn” from plain type in an e-mail program.

    At least I’m not.

  4. says

    I frequently tell clients that we have to give their donors (I work in nonprofit marketing) the tools to share their dedication and thoughts on us and empower them to do so. A friend is a much more powerful vehicle for our message than is anything else.

  5. says

    Hey Hugh,

    Keep it simple is always great! There is nothing more powerful than the ‘word of mouth advertisement’, just like you mentioned.

    Chat with you later…

  6. says

    “Friction-free.” That’s a good test to put up against not just reading content, but also how to share it… I’ll apply that test today. Thanks for the post, Hugh.

  7. says

    @Ross, you might be surprised at how effective text-only email is. You always want to be wary of assuming your customer has the same reactions you do. :)

  8. says

    I can answer in yes to the 2nd question…but I am not sure about the first one..

    But a great peice of advice..I have heard this advice before…And it is true..Friends care about each other…and so they recommend what they personally like…and so friends trust what they receive from friends!

  9. says

    What a great post – I frequently try to work the PR angle, and when it works, it’s successful. But there are definitely dry spells when it comes to that approach. Now I’m going to work more at building my email list (and asking them to recommend me to their friends!)

  10. says

    Best blog post I’ve read in a long time. You can’t go wrong with the KISS (keep it simple stupid) philosophy. That’s what people are looking for on the web because it’s quick and practical. Your primary responsibility to ensure this “peer sharing” success is consistently provide quality content to your audience.

  11. says

    “You never know. The results are always foggy at best, and it’s always a lot of voraciously time-consuming, pain-in-the-ass work to make something happen.”

    my mantra for the next six months…

  12. says

    This is very fresh for me. I launched my blog just a week ago and have had visitors from all four corners of the world and many countries in between, purely from a handful of emails and word of mouth. I can see how a personal message on a newsletter would amplify this.

  13. says

    Great advice! Can we go more further by offering them referral money if they introduce the newsletter to their friends? Is that a good idea?

  14. says

    @Mike, I wouldn’t. Ethical people (the ones you want referring your stuff to their friends) won’t sell their friends’ email addresses for pay. And offering a financial incentive rewards the unethical people, who may do something uncool like send you names from email lists they’ve bought or rented.

    If you have to pay people to refer your stuff, instead put that energy into making your stuff more worth passing along.

  15. says

    I remember the abstract from “The Elements of Style” by Strunk, William that the shorter and simpler, the better.

    Think of a customer, who doesn’t have enough time to notice all those worthless things but came to you will something already in his mind. So, its better to give them directly what they want.

    Similarly, the simpler you keep, better the chances of reactions.

  16. says

    Hi Hugh, love this post and love your work!

    Waiting for word of mouth is like waiting for stars to align. In my world it comes down to someone asking “Know a good dentist?”

    Like that’s a topic on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

    Friction-free – I like that. Social lubricant. Slippery slide from stranger to a devoted advocate shouting from the rooftops.

    Providing simple tools for effortless referral can improve the odds dramatically. Having a decent web presence that serves as a direct referral source is even better. Then again, that’s only because my field of work is so geared to being a search-engine version of the Yellow Pages.

  17. says

    It’s true. That’s why I think Twitter is becoming such an important marketing medium. It’s facilitated telling your friends about awesome stuff en masse.

    No, you might not get the same raw traffic numbers as you do from Digg or whatnot, but it’s much higher quality. It’s funny how often people forget more traffic does not always equal more attention. And the latter is what’s important.

  18. says

    Great advice. I would like to add a third question to your list of questions, Is the content in your newsletter is worthy of spreading, so that people would be proud to forward it to their friends.

  19. says

    Word of mouth advertising is all business owners are looking for. But to “K.I.S.S (keep it simple, stupid)” is not all business owners are doing… Great advice…

  20. says

    I’ve always been a believer in the little things. It’s not enough to just assume that people who like your stuff will want to share it. Ya gotta ask! This is so simple and elemental, that it gets overlooked too often.

    Ask for the referral and follow-up. Make it easy to be liked!

    Steve Benedict

  21. says

    “We should never be afraid to ask people to share great content” – @Dave Navarro, I think that’s the biggest hurdle when it comes to growing a business.

    Hugh is right that this type of word-of-mouth marketing works better and faster than any traditional method. But for a lot of people the problem isn’t how easy they make it for their customers to share, but being too afraid to actually promote their work at all.

    If you’re proud of your work – not sharing it is selfishness.

    If you’re not proud of your work – do something you can be proud of.

  22. says

    I really like this article. It’s really important to ensure that customers have the easiest route to purchase or recommend a product. Otherwise, they’ll give up with the slightest frustration. In this article Hugh does a really good job spelling this out and showing the importance of simplicity. Thanks, Hugh!

  23. says

    I’m a performer and have just added a “Review Me” button to my site, now I have a follow up for the Thank you page. Simplicity simplified.

  24. says

    I feel like you’ve just taken a super duper, high voltage flash light and switched on in my head. Give A Brick was founded on the principle of asking everyone to Give A Brick and then tell their friends. We have a retweet button on the Thank You page after someone donates but that, until now, was the only way we encouraged our givers to ask their friends to get involved.

    I’m heading over to Paypal now to see how I can add a line to the email so we can keep it simple and give them a link to click to tell their friends.

    Thank you, so, so much :)

  25. says

    I know there have been a number of times when I get way to into something and make it complicated. While I think its cool and awesome I forget about my members coming in who would get so confused they would leave. Thats why its always important to remember KISS Keep It Simple Stupid 😉

  26. says

    I totally agree with you guys. But sometimes, even my friends wouldnt want to help me out on these kind of marketing but I am glad you pointed out what area I was doing wrong. At least I am only starting, I can correct it as early as now. Thanks again for writing this article.

  27. says

    keeping things simple is always the best thing to do. There are a lot of people who makes things very complicated just to show other people that they know more. But if they would realize in the things that they are doing, they are just going around circles in one thing that they really need to do. This is a very inspiring article since it is simple “as simple as the content”.

    Thanks for sharing this!


  28. says

    On eof my favorite teachers used to say “Keep it simple stupid” K.I.S.S. your title totally reminded me of him… Anyway, thanks for great advice.

  29. says

    Agreed. Simple is Huge. Newsletters are huge. A few years back, as blogs became popular, lots of people started to abandon the email newsletter for RSS feeds. I advised clients to stay the course and grow their lists, their email lists. Glad I did. Lower barrier to entry for the vast majority of tech challenged people who still have no idea what an RSS feed is. It’s a “both and” strategy to me. Newsletters however are simple, can be sent proactively and better for community building.

  30. says

    I’m an indie publisher and storyteller. I work all the major social networking sites. YouTube, too. Yet since last October, emails are always giving the biggest bang, still. Only question, working from a blog, there are a number of free software packages out there that allow one to put together a mailing list. That may be outside this article’s subject matter, but seeing my email hit rate, and it’s pass along, it is something I am beginning to investigate. And to set up smoothly, professionally, to take advantage of the insight in this article.

  31. says

    Thank you – and you are right. It works in any business – it’s the word of mouth and then people buy from people who’s been recommended.

  32. says

    I also love the idea and will include it in my posts. As an interior designer who offers free home decorating advice, I’m forever asking readers to tell their friends about me. This is even more direct.

    However, I have what may be a stupid question. If I add the link at the bottom of my post, how exactly are they supposed to share that with their friends? Somehow that part isn’t computing for me. Lots of my readers are not real blog followers and need hand holding for the simplest navigational stuff. I’m going to have to explain how to do it and I’m not even sure how to share it.

    Can someone help me out? What am I missing?
    Thanks – Terrie

  33. says

    Today, my post is about Car Buying, Word of Mouth and Sales. As a PR practitioner of 26 years, I did a self study to determine the consumer touch points on my decision.

    Public relations in Fast Company and Wall Street Journal directly influenced my decision. People on Twitter and those driving the vehicle I looked at influenced my decision.

    What it came down to for me was sales. Did that sale person want my business? Did he earn it?

    Bloggers must do a soft sell, and on occasion, we need to do more of a hard push to bring in subscribers. Thanks for these thoughts; mirrors my findings, too, albeit cartoons to cars.

  34. says

    Most of my sales have come from friends & co-workers so I’m not surprised. The more they know & ask about the Art, the more inspired they are to buy something. ‘Strangers’ usually are too timid or afraid of Art, they just don’t get into it and therefore don’t feel close enough to the Artist to have a reason to buy something they know nothing about, other than reading a Bio/Statement.

  35. says

    @Terrie, if your readers aren’t big blog people, make sure you’ve got email subscription enabled — it’s much easier for folks to send email along than a blog post. But also as more people get on Twitter and Facebook every day, you want to be sure it’s easy to share with both of those tools.

  36. says

    This is also the most simple and effective way to get a new job. People who like you tell other people to hire you.

    So, are you making it easy for people to reccommend you for a job?

    Thanks Hugh. You just gave me a new blog post!

  37. says

    Ok, I have a burning question. What newsletter application do you recommend we use to start publishing our newsletters? I’ve never done a newsletter before.

    Hugh? Brian? Sonia?

  38. says

    doing things right and love is an important part and if that is seen by others is the best way to grow. Thanks for seeing things as they are … bluntly.

  39. says

    keeping things simple is the best thing to do.

    There are a lot of people who makes may things too complicated just to show other people that they are more inteligent that any other.

    I think this can be a very inspiring article by the point it is simple.


  40. says

    Think about it, all tha great solutions, all the great discoveries, are, in essence, simple. In science, when a model gets too complicated, is indicative that there is something wrong. remember ptolomeo’s solar system?, and how simple it became when we put the sun at the center of it?, was beautyfully simple. now it’s obvious, but back then, wasn`t.

    Thank you!

  41. says

    This a very educational and inspiring article. Bloggers and article writers should learn how to express their writings this way so that their content would be really useful. Anyway, regarding scamming and all kinds of fraud, this content is very useful and straight to the point. Online workers and bloggers should apply this because it will be very useful.

    Thank you very much!

  42. says

    Hugh, just found your blog.

    You´re so right! Keep things simple seems to be the best course of action. I´m a newcomer in the blog community and I´m learnig how things work. Thanks for your tips and advice I will KISS all my proyects.

    Thanks for sharing.

  43. says

    From my point of view I think the easiest and simplest is the most effective and decisive results we do not get anything to show that we want if we do things difficult for users, great contribution.

  44. says

    You’re absolutely right! Things have to make it easy for users because that depends on the success of a project. Usability and do a good tracking and web analytics will achieve the desired objectives.

  45. says

    Oneday a friend told me the kiss rule. It has been so much easier since then. There are a lot of people who makes things very complicated just to show other people that they know more but the are really loosing their time. This is a very inspiring article since it is simple “as simple as the content”. Thanks you!

  46. says

    Indeed the Internet less is more. The complexity of many websites causes irreversible loss of prospects and potential customers. We always put ourselves in the shoes of our customers and put them all easy to get. Thank you for this fantastic article that reminds us that like many things in life, also in business and especially in the internet business less is always more.

    I note this great article that I will always consider.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Best regards,

    Omar Jareño

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