Word of mouth marketing
Word of mouth marketing is the best kind of marketing imaginable.
It’s free, it scales exponentially, and it’s powerful enough to overcome many of the objections, hesitation, and points of friction that might slow down or stop potential customers who find you by other means.
That said, it’s not something you hear much about in digital marketing. There are a ton of courses, books, podcasts, agencies, and practitioners focused on SEO, social media strategy, running ads, or optimizing your website for conversions (hey that’s me! 👋). But when’s the last time you read a LinkedIn post or heard a conference talk on “word of mouth strategy”?
There’s not a ton of useful info out there, but here’s a collection of the good stuff I’ve found.
Write Useful Books - Rob Fitzpatrick on recommendable fiction
It says it right there in bold on the book’s Amazon sales page:
The goal of book marketing is to stop needing to do it
(When’s the last time any marketing practicioner told you their goal was for you to stop needing their services?)
According to Rob in this interview, the secret to book recommendability is to
- Identify a problem that is “sharp enough that people will verbalize their suffering” from it
- Write a book that is the best-in-class solution to that problem
This seems generalizable beyond books! Whatever you’re selling (services, SaaS, products), if it solves a painful problem that people talk about, you can expect existing/past customers to recommend it.
This recommendation loop may or may not be enough to displace all other marketing activity. It’s important to note that Rob sees this as the optimal approach to book marketing because there’s a ceiling on how much you can charge for a book. Paid search advertising with an average cost per action of $75 might be a great approach if you sell services packages in the multiple thousands of dollars. But if you pay $75 in ads to get someone to buy your $9.99 book … you’re tithing to google.
Shopify on effectiveness of word of mouth vs other channels
Given it’s published as part of the content marketing strategy for an ecomm platform, it makes sense that this guide focuses on word of mouth marketing for retailers.
It’s got some helpful stats (which we should take with a grain of salt).
- Google Ads click-through rates are going down (not to mention cost per action)
- Same for social media
- Apparently 40% of leads come from word of mouth (?)
(The last point is fascinating - I would have thought the number was much lower for retailers.)
The article goes on to map out a 7-point strategy for word of mouth marketing:
- Create something buzzworthy
- Provide quality service and experiences
- Amplify brand advocates
- Empower fans and experts
- Build an active social media following
- Become a local thought leader
- Collect online reviews
They’ve lost me at #1. First, because “create something buzzworthy” is the kind of vague directive you could easily spend your life trying (and failing) to fulfill. Second, because the Rob Fitzpatrick “solve a sharp problem” approach demonstrates that buzzworthiness is not a requirement.
Maybe Step 1 should be “decide between buzzworthiness or sharp problem-solving as a strategy” ?
There are some useful tenets re: what makes people recommend stuff. The following are beneficial:
- Having a story
- Tapping into emotions
- Making the recommender look good
- Creating triggers that keep you top of mind for existing customers
There’s a list of examples that I find mostly unhelpful. Allegedly Zappos, In-N-Out Burger, Threadless, and Casper mattresses all rely primarily on word of mouth marketing. But the details are scant - it sounds more like these are brands that happened to survive without much other marketing investment, and looking back we call it “word of mouth strategy.” I’m still looking for examples of businesses that deliberately focus on word of mouth at the expense of other tactics.
“An emphasis on great customer service” does seem to be a common thread in the above stories. Maybe Step 2 should be “put 90% of your energy into making your existing customers extremely happy.”
The article ends on a frustratingly vague note:
The key is to create products worth talking about.
Well, sure. That’s almost tautological - to benefit from word of mouth advertising, make something that people will advertise via word of mouth.
I suspect the answer is very specific for each business. A reframing of Step 1 above could be: ask yourself what has to happen in order for one of your current customers to recommend you to someone else.
And a reframing of Step 2 might be: do everything you can to make those circumstances more likely to arise.