Word of Mouth: Coming to a Marketplace Near You

As I prepare for this week’s Word of Mouth Basic Training (WOMBAT) conference presented by Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), I’m taken by the degree to which word of mouth has entered mainstream marketing dialogue, especially around marketing campaigns’ online elements. I say “dialogue” because, frankly, that’s mostly what it is: people talking about word of mouth. And that’s understandable. The rise of word of mouth has to start somewhere, and it’s only fitting it do so via talk around an emerging channel that’s all about… talking.

We’ve just completed 28 (yes, 28) 10-minute episodes for WOMBAT’s podcast series. Each features an author, practitioner, brand marketer, or thinker sharing word-of-mouth experiences. Though much is conversation between word-of-mouth professionals, that’s OK. The first real interest in any new product, service, or marketing discipline is likely to be found by those most interested in it. In fact, this quality essentially defines genuine word of mouth and largely explains its rise in popularity. Marketers are seeking new ways to reach increasingly harder-to-reach consumers while those consumers, including business consumers, are seeking new ways to exert control over their personal information flows. Word of mouth feels attractive, whether offered in person, online, or otherwise, because it promises to bridges the gap between people who know something and people interested in learning more. And the time to act is here.

The challenge before those of us working in word of mouth and related areas of social media is to leverage standout word-of-mouth campaigns and move on a large scale from dialogue to action, and from professionals to everyone. To this end, consider WOMMA’s five basic steps in implementing an effective word-of-mouth campaign:

  • Find your core talkers and get them talking. Easy to say, harder to do. The low-hanging fruit is the engagement of volunteers, bloggers, and, of course, actual customers. There are lots of great examples of brands doing just this: Samatha Skey, SVP of strategic marketing for Alloyed Media and Marketing led a successful volunteer program for Polo Jeans, and Higher One‘s CMO Sean Glass and Chris LaConte leveraged word of mouth early on and built a successful campus presence as a direct result.

    More difficult, but essential, is fostering fiercely loyal customers and true evangelists. As Harley-Davidson’s president put it when speaking to a group of us at Progressive Insurance Company 15 years ago, “When people tattoo your name on their body, you’ve got loyal customers.” An extreme example perhaps, but your word-of-mouth campaign is pretty much dead in the water if current customers aren’t talking.

  • Give people something to talk about. This is key to success in programs like those above. Does your brand have a map of all the places its customers interact with or otherwise experience it? Have you ranked those touch points in terms of relevance and importance? Do your touch points connect your brand with topics consumers find important? Marketers can roll out special offers, coupons, and new features all day long and still miss the things that really connect people to issues and, thereby, generate talk.

    On the touch points themselves, do you know what a consumer would say about your brand after any given interaction? Unlike brochures and TV spots, word of mouth cuts both ways. Imagine the spokesperson in the ad saying, “Of course I don’t use this product myself: it gives me a rash. But hey, you should try it!” If you don’t know what people say about you, chances are at least one of them is telling a story about a rash. And if you do know and they’re getting a rash, you need to fix it.

  • Offer talkers the tools for talking. This is an easy one: on your Web site, enable every single product description, reference page, and company interview with tell-a-friend capability. It amazes me how many brands miss this one, but it isn’t really surprising given the common view of a Web site as “my” property. The thought of being part of a community being marketed to isn’t universally embraced. It should be. Beyond tell-a-friend, there are message boards, blogs, and true online user communities, all of which provide vehicles for getting your message into the hands of people who are interested in it. My previous column describes how Web 2.0 enables this. That means it also enables your competitors to beat you in the marketplace. There are two great times to build word of mouth into everything about your brand: the day you launch it and right now. It’s time to get hopping.
  • Take part. Why must an ad be an uninvited guest? In French, “advertisement” literally means “warning.” An informative message from you to your interested customer ought to be greeted with a “welcome” rather than a spam filter, don’t you think? In my podcasting column, I discuss the rise of longer-form marketing content via podcasting versus the “brought to you by” model common now. Get into the conversation: establish yourself as an expert in your marketplace. Outreach teams, customer service, and in-store experiences all provide natural places for this.
  • Track it. Literally dozens of firms offer quantitative tracking platforms for word-of-mouth and consumer-generated media. ClickZ columnist and Intelliseek CMO Pete Blackshaw moved on this when he first visualized PlanetFeedback 10 years ago while working at Procter & Gamble. Can you track everything? Of course not, but neither could you ever conclusively say, “This ad led to that purchase.” As Cymfony‘s Jim Nail put it, “This is really the wrong question to be asking, anyway.” The right question is, What are people saying, and to whom? How is that amplifying (or subverting) your marketing efforts? This is knowable, and it’s incumbent on you as a marketer or agency executive to know it.

There you have it: five steps to help you practically implement word of mouth in your online marketing and supporting efforts. Tip your organization in the direction of your customers, give them the reasons to talk, enable them to do so, and stand back; you’ll have the best sales force you could ever ask for.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.