Crash Course in... Word-of-mouth marketing

You've spent a ton on advertising, but what you really want is to get people talking about your products. Apparently there's this new thing called WOM - or word-of-mouth marketing - which can do it for you. So how does that work?

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Find your advocates. Call them influencers, advocates, early adopters - the aim is to find those among your potential customers whose word carries weight, and whose recommendation will win over others. There are different models for doing so; one company, BzzAgent, has a standing panel from which it selects those appropriate for a particular client; others identify a bespoke panel for each client. 'Every product has a fan base,' says Andrew Needham, founder of youth marketing agency Face.

Give them something to talk about. 'We give influencers the product, or offer it at a heavy discount, and make sure they have it before it goes on sale,' says Ivan Palmer, founder of WOM agency Wildfire. 'We also give them far more information. Then we ask them to share their opinions with everyone else.' The key is first-hand experience: influencers need to get their sweaty hands on whatever it is you're selling.

Even better, get them to design it. 'Involve them as early as you can in researching new products and generating insights,' says Needham. 'Then when it comes to spreading word of mouth, it will come naturally.'

Provide a channel. Build an online community or at least a bulletin board, so the influencers have a forum in which to tout their opinions. One advantage if you build the forum is that you're in a better position to monitor what's being said.

Be open. Word of Mouth should be in the open, so everyone knows what they're signed up to. Says Palmer: 'The point is that people trust word-of-mouth from consumers in a way they don't trust advertising.'

You can't control the message. You can invite influencers to try the product, but you can't influence what they say about it. 'If your product is no good or doesn't work, don't use WOM - you'll just accelerate the process of people finding out,' says Palmer.

Play by the rules. The ethics of WOM dictate that you be honest with your influencers, that you don't tell them what to say, and that they are in turn honest with the people to whom they give their recommendations, says Needham. There's a WOM UK association with a set of guidelines.

Measure the results. Like any other form of marketing, you need to see that you're getting a return on your investment. 'Net promoter scores - which compare the proportion of customers who recommend you to those who don't - are a useful tool,' says Needham. 'And you can isolate the effect of Word of Mouth by creating a control area where there is no WOM activity.'

Do say: 'The more people talk about us, the better.'

Don't say: 'Recommend us or we won't let you be on our panel any more.'

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