Use Your Mouth By MaryEllen Tribby

Print ads, pay-per-click ads, direct mail, radio, and television. There are dozens of marketing channels that you can use to effectively get your message out to millions of potential customers. Now, you may be using all of these marketing methods… and even more. But I want to be sure that you aren’t neglecting one of the fastest-growing types of marketing available today.

I’m talking about word of mouth. That’s it – customers talking about your business and products. I started thinking differently about this powerful (and free!) marketing channel a while ago after reading Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking by Andy Sernovitz.

I applaud this book because it shows why customer service (or customer satisfaction as I call it) and marketing must go hand-in-hand. And explains that deceptive marketing is a very bad policy and that listening and talking to your customers are the best practices you can follow.

We have all heard of B-to-C (business-to-consumer) marketing. And we have all heard of B-to-B (business-to-business) marketing. We have even (more recently) heard of C-to-C (consumer-to-consumer) marketing. But what Word of Mouth Marketing explores is the new world of B-to-C-to-C marketing – business-to-consumer-to-consumer! It’s all about the second hop, the third hop, the fourth hop, and so on.

You may be thinking, “Word of mouth isn’t a new concept. It’s been going on forever. So what’s the big deal?”

What’s new is that with the popularity of social media, word of mouth has evolved from anecdotal to actionable, from something that “just happens” to something you can influence. In fact, because we now have the tools and knowledge to work with it, word of mouth marketing has become the fastest growing form of marketing.

Word of mouth is about authentic consumer conversation. That means marketers join in a conversation with their customers, participating in it but never manipulating, faking, or degrading its fundamental honesty in any way.

The Five T’s to Word of Mouth Marketing

1. Talkers: Finding people who will talk about you

Talkers are any group of people who have enthusiasm and the connections to relay your message. Talkers are regular people, your best customers.

A while back, I attended a seminar in Atlanta – along with about 2,500 other people. Jim, the very first person I met, asked me what I did. When I told him about the company I was running at the time, he said, “Oh, I know them. The only publication I read is their flagship newsletter.” We spoke at length about how that newsletter has helped him grow his business, how he has told friends and industry colleagues about it, and how many of those folks are now fans.

Jim is a great example of a talker.

You just don’t find talkers … you cultivate them. People talk about you for two reasons: They either had a very good experience with your company or they had a very bad experience. Either way, by responding to their comments you can turn them into big marketers for your company. Here’s how to do it:

• Acknowledge your mistakes. If you screw up, you should never try to sweep it under the rug. Instead, apologize to the customers it affected, correct the problem, and thank your customers for staying with you. You’ll find that your customers will thank YOU for correcting the mistake. And they may even go on to recommend your company to people they know.

• Acknowledge compliments. Many people think that if someone pays you a compliment, a response is not necessary. This could not be further from the truth. That person took the first step by making a comment. Now you need to seize the opportunity to turn her into a talker. You do this by replying to your customers’ letters, e-mails, and forum postings.

• Acknowledge your fans. Sometimes you can turn a person into a talker just by talking to them first. Look for signs of extreme enthusiasm. Look for customers who frequently attend the events you sponsor or know the names of your employees or wear your logo.

For example, while visiting my husband’s family in Long Island a few summers ago, I saw a man on the beach wearing an ETR hat with the company’s logo. I was so excited that I went over to him and introduced myself. Noticing the confusion on his face, I pointed to his hat and said, “I run that company!” Well, he told me it was his buddy’s hat, and he just liked the color.

I apologized for bothering him, and went back to building sand castles with my kids. An hour later, a different man came up to me and told me it was his hat … and that he had been a client of ours for years.

“Steve” and I talked for a while about his Internet business. And when I got back to the office, I asked our customer service manager to look up his address – and I sent him a personal note and a new hat. I’m pretty sure Steve is now a talker.

2. Topics: Giving people a reason to talk

All word of mouth starts with creating a message that spreads. In other words, with a good, clear idea that’s easy to repeat.

I ran a company that adhered to a philosophy called Ready, Fire, Aim. The company’s experts write about Ready, Fire, Aim and speak about it at the events they sponsor, so all of their customers can benefit from it. If you take a look at videos of the people who attend this company’s events, video after video shows them repeating this mantra.

The reason Ready, Fire, Aim works is because it is short and sweet. It was developed around a single idea that is easy to repeat. And it’s a concept that not only resonates with entrepreneurs but has been proven to work time after time.

Good topics are organic. They are based on the exceptional qualities that make your products stand out. They flow naturally from the products’ attributes, without needing to be pushed by marketing.

3. Tools: Helping the message spread faster and further

Non info-publishing, info-marketing companies have been doing this for years. Dining establishments spread the word by handing out 2 for 1 coupons. Cosmetics companies give away free samples. Apartment complexes offer one month’s free rent. Phone companies give you a $50 credit for referring a friend. And so on.

But with the Internet, it has never been faster, easier, or cheaper. Just think about it. How many times have you read something online and forwarded it to not just one or two friends, colleagues, or relatives but five or 10? And that’s without any marketing push. If you have a “Forward to a Friend” or “Tell a Friend” button at the bottom of your e-mailed publication, you’re adding exponential marketing power to it.

I have always been a big fan of forums and message boards. They encourage like-minded people to share ideas, problems, and solutions. Plus, they allow you to “listen in on” and participate in their conversations.

I love to find out what my customers are saying, because it helps me better understand their needs. If you ask me, any company that believes in their products and employees will have forums. Forums not only facilitate communication, they increase accountability.

4. Taking Part: Joining the conversation

Once you have reached out to real people and encouraged them to talk, there is no turning back. You must join the conversation. You must reply to e-mails, accept comments on your blog, participate in the discussion board, answer the phone.

Joining the conversation is even more powerful when it is public. For instance, you can publish readers’ comments and questions in your newsletter or other marketing publications. If one of your customers is struggling and takes the time to ask for help, you need to (1) acknowledge that, and (2) share your advice with others who may be in the same situation.

Again, if your customers are complimenting you, thank them. If customers are saying negative things, find out why and fix the problem.

There is no better focus group than your customers. Yes, you will get crazies every once in a while – and you may need to hire outside resources to communicate with them on your company’s behalf. But, at the same time, you are earning the respect and recommendations of your customers and building long-term lasting relationships with them … as long as you are helpful, truthful, thankful, and nice.

5. Tracking: Measuring and understanding what people are saying

Because of the popularity of blogs and online communities, people are writing down nearly every thought they have about your company. And because these B-to-C-to-C conversations are written down, they are easy to find and easy to track. You can find every comment about you and your company moments after it is written. And monitoring that online communication allows you to understand what your customers really think about you, your marketing, and your products.

There are wonderful online tools – such as Google Alert and Technorati – that can help you monitor your word of mouth. They are at your fingertips, and they are instant and free.

Start right now. Don’t make any marketing decisions without considering the potential for word of mouth. Ad agencies, media executives, and reporters no longer control the message. Real consumers with real communication power have added their voices to the mix. And their voices are drowning out traditional media. A single consumer voice, in the end, has a huge impact on your company’s future.

Word of mouth will become more and more important as the Internet continues to expand. But I am still a firm believer in the importance of direct-response marketing. The best thing you can do for your company is to successfully incorporate multiple methods into your overall marketing strategy. You’ll maximize your efforts, build your customer base, and reap the profits.

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