This column first appeared on RIMOFTHEWORLD.net on Monday, March 8, 2010.
A stray Labrador Retriever we found sitting quietly in front of the dog pound, Maggie was beautiful, loyal, intelligent and, unfortunately, quite destructive. She met me at the door when I came home from school; sat on top of her doghouse instead of inside of it, dumped over the trash cans inside and outside of our house and routinely opened the gate so our other pets would run away.
Fed up with her antics, my parents reluctantly decided to give her to my friend, Lori, and her family. Since Lori lived in the country, they explained, Maggie would be happier and less hyper. Devastated, I sobbed into my faithful companion’s shiny black coat the entire drive to Lori’s house. I’ll never forget Maggie’s sad brown eyes staring back at me when we left. I was certain she felt abandoned, forsaken and betrayed.
The weeks that followed were difficult. Usually a happy, bubbly kid, I was inconsolable, moping around as if I had lost my best friend. So the day my dad drove by Cherrylynn Elementary School during my lunch break, with Maggie in tow, remains one of the highlights of my life. It also marked the first and only time I got into trouble and had to stay after school.
When lunch was over and we went back to our classrooms, I was too excited to contain myself. Regardless of my classmates’ interest or lack thereof, I told everyone the news that Maggie was back in my life. Mrs. Tomasini repeatedly warned me to be quiet. But I was, literally, incapable of biting my tongue.
As punishment, I had to write “I will not speak out in class” 100 times on the chalkboard. Not exactly scared straight, if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. Sometimes, news is just too great not to share. And that is the essence of word of mouth marketing.
Word of Mouth is defined by Wikipedia as the passing of information from person to person. Originally the term referred specifically to oral communication (literally words from the mouth), but now includes any type of human communication, such as face to face, telephone, email and text messaging.
Any time you form an opinion and share it using your mouth to speak or fingers to type, you are engaging in Word of Mouth. Where you share the information determines how many people hear what you have to say and whether or not it is passed on to others. Until now, my story about Maggie was heard only by a small group of third graders at an Englewood, Colorado elementary school. But when content catches on and travels, it’s referred to as buzz or going viral.
Among the first to successfully systemize word of mouth marketing was Trip Advisor. Founded in February 2000, the free website provides a forum where customers can write reviews and share opinions, favorable or not, with Internet users. Amazon.com and eBay were also early adopters of the practice of publicizing unbiased customer reviews.
Of course, there are inherent risks associated with allowing folks to share their opinions. People expend effort to communicate only when they are passionately driven to do so for one of two reasons—a great experience made them fans or a negative incident turned them into foes.
In the Gas Pedal book I highly recommend, Word of Mouth Marketing, author Andy Sernovitz examines how the world’s most respected and profitable companies get people to talk about their company, their causes, and their stuff through the power of word of mouth. The nice thing about this particular form of advertising is that you can implement it regardless of your marketing budget.
Make it easy for folks to share their opinions about your products and service. To do this, first, make sure you provide excellent products and superior customer service. And then, add a public forum to your website. But don’t censor negative feedback or you’ll appear disingenuous.
On a Limited Budget—
Have your webmaster add plenty of links to “share this post,” “comment,” “subscribe,” “follow us”, “join our community,” “tell a friend,” and “share your experience.” The easier you make it for visitors to participate in your online community, the more invested they will be.
The Sky’s the Limit—
While you can’t pay for word of mouth, you can hire someone to help you publicize legitimate comments from your existing fan base. People trust people. Professional communicators know how to gather the best feedback, give full attribution and strategically position testimonials to let existing customers advertise your offering. Take my word for it.
Until next week, I’ll be Bowling for Business.