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Carol Forden

Carol Forden Freelance Writer & Customer Experience Marketing

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A No B.S. Guide To Word of Mouth Marketing

I’ve written on this site before about how word of mouth has been one of the main drivers of growth at my own business and how I use word of mouth marketing for clients.

But while word of mouth sounds simple on the surface, I’ve been hearing a lot of questions lately about how you actually put it into practice.

What is it that makes consumers share the products they love with others?

And how can marketers encourage this particular type of viral sharing for their software products?

That’s why, today, I’m taking a look not just at what word of mouth actually is, but also at the specific strategies you can use to start taking advantage of it at your company.

What is Word of Mouth?

At its core, word of mouth is about personal recommendations. As humans, we’re hard-wired to seek approval from others before making decisions. For instance, we know that:


Thanks to technology and new forms of social sharing, word of mouth recommendations occur through more channels than ever before. It isn’t just asking a friend for tips.

Now, it’s also searching online, asking questions on digital forums and reading reviews and testimonials.

As a result, there are several different channels through which word of mouth occurs that marketers need to be aware of, including:

  • User-generated content (UGC) and hashtags, which help expose potential new users to your company
  • Reviews and testimonials, which offer the social proof consumers are looking for
  • Product and service ratings, which provide seemingly objective evidence to consumers who are comparing different options
  • Incentivized sharing, such as Dropbox’s viral promotion to offer extra space for every referred friend
  • Formal referral program, which attempts to turn your existing customers into a new sales force for your company
  • Influencer marketing, which adds elements of social proof and authority to your outreach.

Not all of these strategies will be appropriate for your software company since word of mouth isn’t a cookie-cutter strategy.

The most effective methods for generating referrals are going to look different if you’re operating an e-commerce store or sharing video, rather than running an auto dealership. But since most of my experience is in running marketing and CPG companies, that’s where I’m focusing my suggestions in this article.

It’s also worth noting that neither the list above nor the strategies I’ll cover next are comprehensive.

Word of mouth is fluid – just because I haven’t included a particular channel or tactic in this article doesn’t mean that it can’t be leveraged successfully (or isn’t already driving results) for your company.

What Makes Word of Mouth Work?

Although there are plenty of different types of word of mouth marketing out there, they aren’t all equally effective.

Take Dropbox, for example.

Although every software company wants to run out and replicate their incentivized sharing program, the reality is that Dropbox successfully capitalized on a new strategy at a specific moment in time. Viral-style referral programs aren’t as effective as they used to be, in part because so many copycats followed in their footsteps.

So what does work these days? Although the specific combination of word of mouth elements that’s appropriate for each company may vary, the strategies below are ones I’m still seeing work effectively today.

Offer Early Users a Great Deal

No one launches a new market entry product, be it a new car model or any product for that matter with a fully-realized or utilized product. So why not offer the early users who are willing to give you a try anyways a great deal?

With our e-commerce store, we offered our first users a lifetime deal at a great price, both because we knew our product wasn’t where we eventually wanted it to be, and because we knew we’d be relying on them for critical early-stage feedback.

Take your service department an what do you think will happen if you offer lapsed car buyer who are not getting service from your dealership a 25% off all oil changes from now to when they trade in their vehicles?

Doing this has the added advantage of driving word of mouth since those who took you up on the deal shared the value they received with others in a similar situation. 

You'd be surprised how many people never hear from their dealership after month 36 post-purchase.

You don’t have to do a lifetime deal, but do consider that treating your lapsed service clients well can lead to a lifetime of future referrals and sales.

Figure out how to get your first hundred or your first hundred people using your product to spark that fire, and then the system works by itself.

Create Something Epic

You can also think about “freemium” in terms of content and customer experience. Hubspot is a great example of a software company that has grown on the basis of high-value, virally-shared free content – to the tune of more than $500M in revenue in 2018.

Yes, Hubspot has the advantage of having nearly a decade of content creation behind it, but there are advantages to entering markets late as well.

Today, very few dealerships create content that is based on guerilla marketing or word of mouth marketing. 

Imagine if you did and turned this into a content machine that was shared by customers on social media channels throughout your community?

How many of their coworkers, peers, church members and social or gym groups would they share these interactions with?

A few dozen or hundred?

Any dealership can benefit significantly from a “last mover advantage.”

In an already-crowded space, you are able to see the gaps that exist.

You can look at customer reviews to see what was working and what wasn’t.

And you can draw on those lessons to build a customer experience that was so different from what was already out there that people can't help but talk about it.

“Epic” doesn’t have to be big, either. It just has to be valuable.

There are tons of different ways to offer a stellar UX in 2019, from investing in customer service to optimizing your communication channels and making your product or service as easy to purchase as possible.

Find the right combination for your dealership by asking yourself what value you can provide for free or for a reduced cost to the customer that consumers would not have otherwise. Then communicate this to them and ask for referrals.

Organic vs. Amplified Word of Mouth

Organic word of mouth is great.

Any new customer you capture for free, by referral, represents a big win for your company’s bottom line.

But free can be slow when you’re starting out, which is why paying to amplify your message can make sense.

In a Bigcommerce article, Matt Warren shares the example of Flash Tattoos, which created a partnership with Beyonce to wear the company’s products at music festivals and performances.

It's worth noting that the paid collaboration boosted the brand’s sales by 1,100% and led to coverage on sites like Buzzfeed, TIME and Marie Claire.

Start small with amplified word of mouth campaigns until you’re confident you’ve got something that’ll convert. You can always scale up later to create further buzz.

Ask for Word of Mouth Shares

This might sound too simple to actually be effective, but the data tells us that, although referrals are so important for word of mouth marketing, only about a third of businesses are actually asking for them.

For best results, time your ask for the right moment.

Don’t spam new customers with requests.

Instead, wait until you’ve hit an “aha” moment until you’ve had a positive interaction or until your users have successfully completed some other type of milestone to make your request – whether or not you’ve decided to incentivize your referral program.

Leveraging the Power of Word of Mouth Marketing

Word of mouth marketing doesn’t have to be something that just “happens” at random.

There are specific choices you can make – no matter where you are in your company’s growth – to encourage this viral sharing from one person to another.

It’s critical that you do.

Half of American consumers, if they had to rely on just one source of information, would choose word of mouth referrals, while 83% have personally made a word of mouth recommendation. The #1 reason they’ve chosen to do so? 71% cite “a great experience” as the main motivator.  

Having a high-quality product with an epic customer experience is only the starting point.

By implementing the tactics described above, you’ll create a marketing machine that feeds itself through word of mouth recommendations.

What other strategies are you using to drive word of mouth referrals? Leave me a note below sharing what’s working – or not working – for you.

I'm happy to offer incites to make any WOMM plan successful.

Paul Negulecu

Carol, great article.  Asking for referrals and on-line reviews is actually part of my retail sales training program I implement for accessory retailers.  We incorporate the referral request into our "Post Sale" Sale phase where we talk about levering customers for future business via referrals and on-line reviews.

Bart Wilson

There is a lot to this post.  I think most salespeople understand the importance and value of a referral, but aren't necessarily comfortable asking for them.

Nadine George

Great article Carol. You can't argue that word of mouth is a brilliant signal for business growth. Going back to your comment on user-generated content & influencer marketing there is a third that is growing rapidly. This is Google Organic ranking. If you or your brand name is getting quite a lot of search volume Google see's this as a signal to a great "word of mouth business" and tends to rank your website ahead of competition for your targetted keywords. I have done it with my driving school Ladybird Driving School. But lets not forget to have a great word of mouth business you need to providing a exceptional service or product. The rest just happens organically. 

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