The 4 key elements of word-of-mouth: A systematic approach

Oscar Wilde once said that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. The same could be said about businesses.
An org chart flowing downwards with pictures of lips, showing how word of mouth can be an effective way to spread a message

Oscar Wilde once said that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

The same could be said about businesses.

You can spend lots of money on advertising, but in an ideal world, your customers will do a lot of your advertising for you.

This so-called word-of-mouth marketing is different from paying “influencers” to sponsor your products, for one simple reason.

If the headteacher of one of your customer schools tells the headteacher of another school about your product or service, that recommendation will count for a great deal because it hasn’t been bought.

And that’s the thing: you cannot pay someone to do word-of-mouth marketing.

So-called “influencer marketing” isn’t the same: if you pay someone to sponsor your product, they have an obligation to declare their endorsement as a form of advertising.

And even if they genuinely love your product, who is going to believe them?

For these reasons, a recommendation from a friend or colleague is likely to be seen as genuine, especially if it’s unsolicited.

The only problem is, word-of-mouth marketing is in the hands of your clients or customers.

You can’t make them tell people about you. You can’t pay them to do so (well, you can, but then the value of their recommendations would diminish in the eyes of their colleagues).

Wouldn’t it be great if businesses could control word of mouth?

In their book “Talk Triggers: The complete guide to creating customers with word of mouth”, authors Jay Baer and Daniel Lemin carried out research to see if there are ways that a company can instigate word of mouth in a systematic/strategic way rather than relying on chance.

“Talk Triggers” synthesises these two approaches.

There are plenty of examples of what companies have done to stimulate word of mouth, but in addition, the authors have gone a step further by analysing exactly why certain ideas worked while others didn’t.

The Four Talk Triggers Criteria

Be remarkable

Literally, this means “worthy of remark”.

The authors have a saying: “Same is lame”. If you do the same as everyone else in the industry, what is remarkable about you?

I imagine that when the first wi-fi infrastructure company offered schools a free report on their current system and what they needed to do to improve it, that must have been seen as amazing. But these days (apart from the small matter of a pandemic) it’s expected.

It’s a challenge to think of what to do in order to stand out, but from the examples given in the book, it doesn’t have to be anything fiendishly difficult.

One company, for example, makes it easy for customers to call the CEO.

Another one is fully transparent about its pricing structure.

That may seem banal, it’s simply an acknowledgement that while you understand it, potential clients may not. It might be as simple as always quoting the price the customer will pay, not a fictitious “list price” that nobody pays.

Be relevant

Ideally, anything you do, or give to people, or make available as a competition prize, should be relevant to your business.

The authors cite the fact that many companies give away iPads. Why would you do that? Unless you’re Apple or an electronics retailer, surely an iPad is irrelevant — unless you wish to advertise a rival’s product of course!

A better idea for an ed-tech business might be to run webinars or (online) ‘teachmeets’ – on relevant topics of course.

The Society of Authors, for example, ran a program of online talks and discussions. These range from “worthy” topics like how to market your books and tax rules for freelance writers to “afternoon tea with Roger McGough”.

If a shoe retailer ran such events, people would be scratching their heads.

But the Society of Authors? A perfect fit.

Be reasonable

The authors talk about a “Goldilocks zone”, where the thing you’re offering as a prize or giving away is just right — not too big, or too small.

Applied to an edtech company, for example, offering a competition prize like replacing the entire school’s computing systems and infrastructure and giving every pupil and member of staff a free iPad (see above) would probably be construed as too good to be true.

A more reasonable option would be, say, win a school wide licence for your software.

It would be less likely to be regarded as probably over-promising and under-delivering. It would also be better for your company. That’s because of the final criterion…

Be repeatable

If you give away some hugely expensive freebie, how can you repeat that or build on it without going bankrupt in the process?

Indeed, the whole point about creating a repeatable experience is that it has to be repeated, time after time, for every customer.

Perhaps it is something as simple as giving away a mini-computer kit — screen cleaner, high capacity USB stick, and a troubleshooting guide — with every purchase of a computer system.

Something like that may not be enough to swing a purchasing decision in your favour, but it might well be something that customers talk about.