It was the mid '00s. The pilot of The Office was premiering on NBC, iPods were all the rage, and psychologist turned marketer George Silverman was faced with a dilemma.
An online grocery service had come to George’s marketing agency with the objective of increasing their sales. The “block,” Silverman describes, was their target audience — women doing shopping for their families — were dismissing the idea of an online grocery service in anticipation of their spouse’s negative reactions.
The women were certain their partners would be against buying groceries through a computer screen. After all, how could you be sure the meat is good, or the bread is fresh if you aren’t there to poke and squeeze?
So what did George do? Did he launch an omni-channel campaign promoting the trustworthy decision making of the grocery service, the freshness of the items and the safe return policy?
He asked the service's existing customers how they had convinced their partners. Over and over, he heard one common sentiment:
"I just told my husband that we’d never again run out of beer and his favorite snacks.”
George delivered this message to his prospects. Shortly after, sales skyrocketed.
For George, this success wasn’t random. This was yet another example of the power of word-of-mouth marketing, as he describes it in his book, "The Secrets of Word-of-Mouth Marketing," which he published after 40 years of research, experimentation and practice in the field. George is referred to as the grandfather of word-of-mouth marketing, and his writing will serve as the foundation for our discussion today.
Word of mouth is communication – the imparting or exchanging of information – that’s independent, unbiased and lacking a vested interest. Take that communication and aim it toward a group of people you’d like to persuade, and you’ve got word-of-mouth marketing.
So how’s that different from traditional marketing and advertising? Well, advertising and marketing is by definition a message with a vested interest. Advertisers and marketers create messages designed to get you to follow them on social media, come to their event, and ultimately buy something. This comes with a few inherent problems, the biggest of which is the issue of trust.
We’re exposed to as many as 10,000 ads every day. Can you even remember five of them? If so, did they intrigue you? Did you believe what they said?
People today, we’re all cynics. We know the world is filled with people saying whatever they can, to get whatever they want. YouTube pre-rolls, targeted e-blasts, sponsored content, interruptive advertising, inbound marketing. We know it’s all propaganda, a message carefully crafted to make us believe these cheese snacks are the best cheese snacks, and whether or not the creator of the message really believes that, is incidental.
You could be telling the truth, you could have the best cheese snacks ever invented, miracles of modern science so jam-packed with flavor they bring you to your knees in a Walmart parking lot and cure your arthritis to boot. You could scream these benefits from the rooftops, slap spots on every television channel and social media platform and the first thing people are going to think when they hear you is not, “I wonder if they really are the best, I wonder if they’re better than my preferred brand of cheese snack,” no. The first thing they’re going to ask is “Who the heck are you and why should I even listen to you in the first place? You’re just trying to sell me something.”
George Silverman knew this 40 years ago. So he stopped selling, and started asking questions. The answers he got not only informed his messaging, they were his messaging. This revolutionary approach earned him incredible success and a spot on marketing's Mount Rushmore.
First and foremost, you need to have something worth talking about.
Advertising, sales, marketing, it’s all communication. From Roosevelt to Reebok, you’re trying to convey a message or tell a story to your audience. The problem is you don’t speak the same language.
Pundits, CEOs and industry professionals are often too steeped in their field to know how to talk about it to an outsider in a way that connects and influences.
Most of the time, we provide too much info we think they need and not enough information they actually want: the information we think is too obvious to mention. We selfishly pile on line after line of copy, touting inconsequential features and generic benefits as though whoever says the most buzzwords wins the sales pitch — when all we're really accomplishing is boring or downright repelling our audience.
That’s why advertisers and marketers are brought in, to develop messaging that bridges that gap between ignorance and interest, while sounding snappy. But even the best writers and communicators are only considered successful when they meet the audience where the audience already is. That’s the benchmark, tell people what they already believe, show them the challenge they're dealing with and provide them with the solution.
Word of mouth cuts out all the middle people — creators, experts, advertisers — and communicates the product experience from existing user to potential customer. Propaganda written by its audience is no longer propaganda, it’s representation. And nothing sells like the feeling that you’re getting a better version of yourself. So how is word of mouth manufactured, and how do we direct it?
To get people talking about your experience, you first have to have an experience worth talking about. What about your product, association or brand is worthy of being passed from person to person? If you can’t identify this, you need to go back and rework your product, service or organization until you can.
Consider the Nordstrom tire story. Accounts differ and details are fuzzy, but it goes like this: Around 1975, an older woman walks into Nordstrom’s with a car tire she’s looking to return. She doesn’t have the receipt. So, the customer service rep simply asks her how much she paid for the tire. She says $29. Service rep pops open the cash register, happily hands her $29 and tells her to have a wonderful day. It’s not a marvel of a story by any stretch, but nice that the store would accommodate her without question, not many stores would. What’s really extraordinary about the story is that Nordstrom has never sold car tires.
The tale of ruthless accommodation spread across the country and quickly became a point of conversation whenever customer service, department stores or Nordstrom was brought up. Whenever a Nordstrom opened in a new neighborhood, what do you think the townsfolk talked about? Nordstrom paid $29 for a tire, and ended up with millions in good publicity.
The point is, you have to have something extraordinary, something nobody else has, that will get people talking. Marketing isn’t worth squat if your message is easily disregarded. But when you make phones that look as good as Apple, when you develop products as ethically as Lush, when you put on press-worthy performances like the Make-A-Wish Foundation, you become undeniable. When these organizations market, it’s not to convince you of anything, it’s to reveal more of what is already known.
And it doesn’t have to be an explosive spectacle.
When you’re a kid, your birthday and Christmas are these hugely stimulating events during which anything is possible. You could open up a gift or be treated to an experience that changes your life forever. But in all our lives, there comes the day when the magic, the feeling of possibility wears off. Presents take on this upper limit of possibility, you learn to anticipate events and aside from a cake and some cards, the day feels like any other.
Quality products that come with human experiences, these things aren't regular. They surprise us, they pull us out of our routine and remind us we don't always know what's coming next. They make us remember what it was like to wake up as a kid on Christmas morning, staring at all the presents under the tree, eyes wide with possibility. When we experience something that outdoes our expectations, we connect to our inner child. You remember Ratatouille? At the climax when the jaded old food critic takes a bite of the titular dish and is transported back to his boyhood dinner table? That's what we're going for.
Making people feel something they rarely get to feel with a sip of coffee, or a bite of velvety, decadent ice cream will create an emotional event worth posting. Instructors who show passion for their subject and remind us all of the grade school teachers who made something click for us will get your members talking about you to their industry buddies.
Okay so now we understand what inspires word of mouth, and how it develops out of the experience we create for our users. So how do we take that message and place it on the path of our prospects in an effective way?
The power of word-of-mouth marketing comes from breaking down the barriers between prospective customers and you. George Silverman called these barriers “blocks,” along the prospect’s “decision path.” In marketing circles, we typically think of these barriers as the five stages in the buyer journey and they look like this:
Pretend you have a coffee maker. Or if you have a coffee maker, pretend you didn’t, and now pretend you do. It makes an okay brew, it’s not straining grounds through a pantyhose but it’s not winning any world barista championships anytime soon. One day, you get a particularly bland cup and you decide to heck with this, I want more out of my life. Now you’re aware of your need.
You want a coffee maker that’s going to make a truly enjoyable cup without breaking the bank or taking up your whole counter. You jump from Amazon, to Reddit, to Walmart, to specialty coffee shop websites to see what’s out there. You make note of the pretty ones, the ones that do it all and the ones that fit your budget. You might get overwhelmed and ask other people for their opinions, make a short list, and then consider your options.
So now you've moved past considering what's out there, and you've got the intent to buy an option off your short list but first you want to get a taste of what you’re getting yourself into. You go to a few different coffee shops and friend’s houses and sample what they have, making note of the machines or brew methods they use. Hario V60 pour overs, fancy espresso machines, to AeroPress or Breville automatic brewers. You read further reviews from people who’ve owned these machines and brewers for years, and finally, you make your decision.
Do you buy online or from a brick-and-mortar store? Are you paying for faster shipping, or letting the store handle all that for you and you’ll just pick it up? When you do get your brewer, you don’t know how to use it. Maybe you talk to the clerk at the shop who shows you how to set it up, or much more likely you'll rush home to open up a tutorial on YouTube. Now you need some education, and that’s a whole thing. Not only is it labor intensive, it’s actually an emotional experience with potential for confusion, anger and pain, all of which can lead to buyers remorse. But thankfully, the company website has videos of different baristas setting up your brewer and making a coffee and soon you've got it figured out and everything is just lovely.
Now, you’ve dialed in your morning coffee. You’ve figured out how to set the timer so the machine starts brewing just before you wake up. You make whole carafes of delicious coffee for your friends and family. They are taken aback by your new coffee that is nothing like the disappointingly bland yet somehow still offensively bitter brown liquid you used to serve them, and you beam from ear to ear while you sing the praises of your new coffee maker, all the helpful tutorial videos out there and the manufacturer's easily accessible customer support.
Following a few simple guidelines that George lays out in his book, you can develop a word-of-mouth marketing strategy that addresses each of these blocks and creates a smooth path from your customer to you.
Present the benefit they’re looking for, and they’ll look for you.
Listen to your existing customers, figure out what’s swayed them over to you and use that as the basis of your message to prospects. Remember, it doesn’t matter what you want to say, all that matters is what they need to hear. Develop your messaging around the new, the possibility, and the dream that will show your audience they’re missing something: "You work in trades and you're not a member of an association? But they make it so easy to learn, make more money, level up your skills!"
When a member of your target audience is suddenly thrust into the open market looking for a solution to their problem, you’ll have set yourself up as that solution. You won’t need any flashy tactics, big campaigns or expensive commercials. As George says, “A clown can get their attention. You want their interest.”
Never interrupt anyone. Instead, be there when they look for you and simplify their decision-making process.
Identify the common wants, needs and pain points your customers had before buying from you. Develop high-level messaging around these. Rather than a five minute video doing a deep dive into all the features of your course, your product or your service, you can keep your messaging to one benefit statement.
“Here’s your problem, and here’s how other people solved it.”
“What most people won’t tell you about this product category is ‘X.’”
“I was once like you, until I found…”
Your customer has a few options on their shortlist and they are looking for any excuse to dismiss or select a given option. Today, people discover these excuses through watching reviews and googling the products to find out what other people say about them. Rarely do people want to go in-store. It’s time consuming, and we’re anxious.
So here’s bad news or good news, depending on how you’ve set yourself up. If you don’t have word of mouth plastered all over the internet about you, you are considered suspect. Especially important is the quality of your reviews.
The savvy customer doesn’t trust 80,000 five-star Amazon reviews anymore because those can be bought. Now it’s about third-party, trusted sources. YouTubers from small to large, thought leaders, influencers, people your audience relates to, or wants to emulate. If you can encourage people to talk about you on social, if you can send influencers products to review, if you can get a general consensus on you, you’ll have built an effective word-of-mouth pipeline.
Maybe I’m a warehouse manager and I want my company to join a material handling association so we can level up our training, expand our reach and keep up to date with industry trends. Maybe my boss doesn’t see the value in the association and says they can’t justify the annual spend. Couldn’t I get training from buying some textbooks, couldn’t I develop connections by just working in my industry?
With word-of-mouth marketing, you learn these stakeholder concerns and use them to develop a simple explanation of why an association is the smart choice. You provide that message to stakeholders and answer these questions before they’re asked.
After the purchase, you still have the work of getting people to use your product. Businesses that don’t care what happens after they get your money don’t last, and associations that forget about their members after they sign up don’t exist. How well you perform depends on how engaged your user is. Now’s the time for you to spread word of mouth messaging around your product’s ease of use, how simple it is to find valuable resources on your association's website or how accessible and flexible your course schedules are.
Human beings, how we think and express ourselves and relate to each other, it’s all storytelling, much in the same way word-of-mouth marketing is, it’s communicating a message and looking for a response, and often, that message revolves around purchases. We love to talk about the things we’ve bought, the things we’re going to buy and the things we want. When you have a product or a service that’s so good, people will happily shout about you from the rooftops. What are they shouting?
Well, they're not shouting what an advertiser wrote, or what you listed as the product features. They're shouting what connected with them:
The way a salesperson spoke to them in the store about their own unit, “this changed my morning routine.”
The way it affected people around them, “My mom says she’s never had coffee this good.”
The shock, surprise or entertainment value, “I’m obsessed with this video production company, we handed them our key messages and they created an entire video series that broke our event's attendance record.”
Retention and advocacy is arguably the most critical stage in the buyer journey. Whether they end up using your product every day, or forgetting about it after a week is what defines your organization in the eyes of your customer. If you become something they can’t live without, they’ll forget what life was like before you, and they’ll tell everyone who asks, and often people who don’t.
This is the stage at which you develop brand champions. George calls these people the “mavens” or “transmitters” of your word of mouth. Whatever you want to call them, these invaluable ambassadors are the rooftop screamers, the social media posters, the YouTube reviewers. They’re the lifelong users and new converts. They’re the ones who listen to your messaging so they know how to better articulate all the wonderful things about your product. They’re the ones who tell your story.
Marketers, business leaders, organizational stakeholders at every level, it’s our job to write the story of our organization. What are people going to say about you? When your product category is mentioned, will they get bummed out, and talk about your soulless company that keeps interrupting them with irrelevant ads?
Or will their eyes light up while they talk about the time you were there for them when they needed to return a tire?
We’ve heard our clients discuss their own desire to develop members into brand ambassadors who will champion for their associations. So we created a whole webinar on how to make that happen. It’s called Creating Lifelong Super Members For Your Association, presented by master marketer Brianne Wheeler from PropFuel, and our own Director of Client Solutions, Doug Coombs.
If you want to learn how to create brand champions and explode your association membership with some word-of-mouth marketing, hit the button below to sign up for our webinar.