Word of mouth marketing: what newbie social media consultants should know!

It seems safe to assume that everyone knows what “word of mouth” means. However, “word of mouth marketing” is a topic that appears frequently on many of the blogs and newsletters that I subscribe to and I’ve often wondered what the heck it actually means. Word of mouth has been the best form of marketing since the dawn of time but it appears as though there is more potential in it now than ever before. Here’s what you should know as a social media consultant.

Traditional advertising vs. word of mouth

Traditional advertising:

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  • It’s made for the masses and its sheer ubiquity can be overwhelming – often causing us to tune out the “noise.”
  • Although we become aware of the messages, we are not always receiving them at times which are convenient to us.
  • We do not always know or trust the source of the ad, creating a loss of credibility.

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With word of mouth, we can see the opposite effect. Messages are:

  • individualized and relevant
  • sent at convenient times – when we are actively listening
  • sent by credible sources – the people you know and trust (your friends, family, colleagues, etc). These sources are also considered credible because they have nothing to gain by sharing their experience/sending the message.

So, we can see that advertising creates impressions and awareness and word of mouth (WOM) creates credibility. Alright, but how does word of mouth marketing work? David Balter, CEO and founder of BzzAgent, defines word of mouth marketing as “the most powerful medium on the planet. Itʼs the actual sharing of an opinion about a product or service between two or more consumers. Itʼs what happens when people become natural brand advocates. Itʼs the holy grail of marketers, CEOs and entrepreneurs, as it can make or break a product. The key to its success: itʼs honest and natural.”

How are marketers creating/using WOM?

The two of the most common WOM-related marketing techniques are:

Viral marketing – an attempt to spread a message quickly and exponentially. Social media enables users to share the messages that have made an impression on them. Viral marketing has turned to videos/YouTube to disperse their messages quickly. Take a look at some of the most successful viral videos from 2009. You’ll notice that they don’t promote any specific product or features, but rather, they simply create interest and curiosity.

Buzz marketing – Dave Balter explains that buzz marketing “typically includes one shot of adrenaline and a chaser of product information. The adrenaline is intended to help customers forget theyʼre being marketed to. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesnʼt.” Essentially buzz marketing is the promotion and advertising of a brand using non-traditional and innovative means. It captures the attention of both consumers and the media to the point where the message becomes entertaining and newsworthy. Some attempts are considered humorous, taboo or outrageous. To better understand the idea of buzz marketing, check out this example from IKEA.

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As the last example strongly demonstrates, the advent of social media supplies people with the tools they need to spread WOM online. But as Spike Jones, former “firestarter” with Brains on Fire, has explained, 90% of WOM happens OFFline. Nothing is more powerful than face to face WOM. Pay attention to both your ON and OFFline strategies and make sure they support one another. Build your credibility by being real with your clients and sharing these facts with them.

What about ethics?

My boss and I stumbled across a German company’s website who offer a “new” type of service, claiming to be the “leaders in buzz marketing” (in Europe). I watched their company video outlining their word of mouth marketing techniques. Their process: select groups of people, give them the tools to spread WOM, generate more trials through qualitative sampling – enabling a bigger reach. At no point did they say who these “select” groups are…which leads me to believe they are paid focus groups who are given products to try out for free…then send positive WOM messaging across social networks. This seems unethical to me. Isn’t WOM supposed to about genuine recommendations without ulterior motives? There is an organization that exists to maintain ethical WOM standards: The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) Take a look and see what the best practices are for WOM marketers.

Thanks to Jay Baer, Spike Jones and David Balter for your wonderful resources on the subject of WOM!

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9 Responses to Word of mouth marketing: what newbie social media consultants should know!

  1. Spike Jones says:

    Many thanks for the kind words. And you’re right on target with your thoughts. On and offline have to work hand-in-hand. It’s so easy to get distracted by the shiny social media tools, isn’t it? When we keep our eyes focused on PEOPLE, then it’s a lot easier to know when and where to implement the tools.

    Keep on keepin’ on.

  2. thinkinn0vation says:

    Spike! Thanks for your comment. Your Twitter interview with Jay Baer totally clarified this subject for me! And yes, we get so caught up in online activities that we quickly lose focus of the real people around us. Thanks for the reminder :)

  3. Terez says:

    This is so thorough. I really appreciate it. I especially like the part on ethics. I read on someone’s blog that people are doing this with the high fructose corn syrup debate. Bloggers are paid/sponsored to say good things about it, whether they agree or not. That’s contemptible!

    As a freelance writer, how do you think that small business owners can utilize these tactics on a smaller scale?

  4. Julie says:

    Hi Katie,
    Interesting question about ethics. If the people are paid by a company to ‘talk’ about it, isn’t that just them doing their job? I suppose that if people who ‘listen’ are misled into believing that the speaker isn’t an ‘employee’ then that might be unethical. On the other hand, buyer beware right? Then, I think it becomes more a question of credibility. If the audience finds out that the WOM is, in fact, from a paid source, then the entire campaign could backfire (think WALMART and the parking lot RV couple) however, it could also create significantly MORE media coverage and WOM than initially planned (think bride wig-out on youtube and its incredible success for Sunsilk). Interesting times these days for professional communicators! Looking forward to following your story here!

  5. Kate says:


    Thanks for your nice comment! Word of mouth is especially important for small businesses, since most do not have the big advertising bucks.

    It’s obvious that you must first do a good job to get a client to even come close to use WOM on your behaf. Any company could “get the job done,” but it takes a special company or person to make a connection that really motivates the client genuinely want to promote you. Therefore, it seems especially important for small businesses to not only do an excellent job, but also to invest the time in relationship-building. It’s so important for those PR strategies to be integrated into the company’s overall business plan from day one. As Spike Jones said, 90% of WOM happens offline…so don’t rely on SM to promote yourself. Sometimes the old-fashioned way is the best.

    Without going too far into PR theory and tactics, here are a few things I think small businesses can do to promote WOM on a smaller scale:

    -Take the time to get to know your clients. Prove to them that they are more than just a number or a “job to be done.” Always add a personal touch. This doesn’t mean you have to wine and dine them…even a simple phone call to “check in” demonstrates exceptional service. You can also use other PR tactics like newsletters, e-zines, blogs and SM to keep the communication flowing. Even after your project is finished, they may still wish to receive this tangible information and pass it onto others.

    -Be available and consistent to build some credibility. There’s no better feeling than knowing you have a go-to person whom you can rely on to assist you. That’s worth sharing with a friend, don’t you think?

    -Why not plant the seed? Be open. Ask your clients to share their positive experience with their friends. Do the same for them! Maybe you could offer to write a testimonial for their website. It gives you the chance to mention the relationship you’ve built – and at the same time – can help you promote your own business/spark curiosity.

    – Don’t fall off the radar when a project is completed. Stay in touch and be “unforgettable.” Continually create compelling content. Keep your clients interested in what you’re doing and show them that you’re on the forefront of your industry.

  6. thinkinn0vation says:

    Hi Julie!

    You are so right. It’s a buyer-beware world! Not to sound like a broken record, but this stat of 90% of WOM being off-line makes total sense. In the online world, you never really “know” anybody until you meet them face to face!

  7. Terez says:

    Thanks for all those great tips! I really like how you mentioned writing a testimonial for someone. I’ve asked for testimonials for my website, but I never thought to offer one for them. I really like that! It makes me feel like I’m doing something genuinely nice for them, not just trying to plug my services.

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