How Can You Be the Word in Someone Else’s Mouth?

by Ian Doescher

I am writing this blog article on a train ride from upstate New York to Grand Central Terminal.  There are three guys seated around me, all in the early 20s.  If their conversation and their appearance is anything to judge by, these guys are probably the perfect audience for the book I just wrote, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars.  In other words, they look young (but not too young) and educated (but not stodgy).  If I overheard them saying something about Shakespeare or Star Wars, I would strongly consider mentioning my book to them.  (Now, the fact is I probably wouldn’t, but that has more to do with not wanting to appear prideful than whether or not I think they would like it.  My nine-year-old son, on the other hand, would jump at the chance to mention Dad’s book to a perfect stranger.)

We have all been in this scenario, right?  You overhear a conversation and in that conversation you hear someone wondering about a particular product you’ve used or whether they should see a new movie that you have an opinion on.  How many times have you piped up?  “Oh, I saw that movie last week.  Brad Pitt’s performance is pretty good, but overall the movie didn’t live up to the book.”  “Hey, sorry to interrupt, but I have that company’s cell phone service and they are fantastic.”  “Couldn’t help but overhear—Dr. Jones actually charges more than most people in town, but there’s a new dentist a half mile away who charges less and is much friendlier.”  You’re not a paid employee of that movie studio or that cell phone company’s competitor or the new dentist in town—you’re just a consumer who has had particular experiences.  But more than that, you’re a consumer who has had such powerful experiences that you are prompted to mention them to other people.

This, of course, is word-of-mouth marketing, and it is still the most powerful marketing tool around and the hardest to control.  You can buy billboards and print ads, you can record radio spots and TV commercials, you can purchase airtime and do research on the best places for your ads.  You can do all that, but you can’t control whether or not people talk about your brand, or what they say about you if they do—for good or ill.

Now, take a minute to think carefully about your own company, including its products and services.  If you were a consumer using your own products, would you say positive things to others about them?  I can confidently answer “yes” to that about Pivot; I believe we treat clients well, bill fairly and do great work.  But not everyone can honestly say something powerful about the company they work for—in fact I’m willing to guess many people are in that camp.

Next, think about the companies you do speak up for—the companies you would happily interrupt a conversation for or mention to your friends and family.  What is it that these companies do to put themselves in your mouth—how are they getting free, powerful word-of-mouth marketing through you?

You can’t control word-of-mouth marketing, but you can help position yourself for the greatest likelihood it will happen.  Here are three things you can provide that will give you the best chance of being spoken of well:

1. An awesome product and/or service.  If I overhear someone say, “I saw World War Z, but I can’t decide if I should read the book,” I am going to jump into the conversation and say, “OH MY GOODNESS YES YOU SHOULD READ IT RIGHT NOW.”  I’m going to do that because I love the book.  I don’t like zombies, I’m not a huge sci-fi fiction fan, I don’t have a particular fondness for end-of-the-world literature—I just think Max Brooks wrote a fantastic book, and I believe it so strongly I will accost a perfect stranger with my enthusiasm.  “Well,” you may argue, “that’s easy—books and movies and other forms of entertainment are easy to recommend because everyone talks about them, everybody is looking for review, and everyone has an opinion.  But I don’t sell anything exciting.  I work in [textiles/telecommunications/teapots/timber].  Why would anyone talk about my product?”  Honestly, I don’t think it matters what you make or sell—if it is a great product, people will talk about it.  I am passionate about Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencils.  They have great ends for writing, and their erasers work better than any pencil eraser anywhere.  Would I speak my opinion publicly about these pencils?  You better believe it.  If you are providing a great product, people will talk about it.  And if you don’t provide a great product, people may also talk about it—and then you’re in real trouble.  So take a look at the products and services you offer—are they as great as they can be when it comes to quality, value, or both?  If not, why not?

2. A great purchasing and/or user experience.  There is a cashier at my local Trader Joes who is hilarious.  His name is Mike and he’s the funniest cashier I’ve ever met.  I will wait in line behind four other people and avoid the empty line three feet away just to chat with Mike.  He and I banter, we joke—I feel like a funnier, cooler person because Mike is in the world.  Does Mike’s customer service make me more loyal to Trader Joes?  Of course.  And all he’s doing is having a good time and letting his friendly personality shine at work.  Customers’ experiences can make or break your company in their eyes, and if they have a remarkable experience they will talk about it.  (And again, if they have a bad experience, they will probably talk about it.)  Your customer service is something you can control through ongoing training with anyone who is in direct contact with your customers—which is, potentially, every employee of your company.  If someone isn’t able or willing to give your customers a pleasant, helpful, friendly experience, one wonders whether they should work for you.  Note: I don’t believe every employee needs to be as passionate about your company’s products and services as the CEO is (or whoever the most passionate person is—it may not be your CEO!).  Passion for the product is a plus, but not a requirement.  What should be a requirement—from the customer service representatives to the mailroom attendant to the President—is a willingness and ability to give your customers a great experience every time.  I have no idea whether Mike thinks Trader Joes’ groceries are the best available, but I know he’s friendly and inviting each time I see him.

3. Positive feelings.  This may seem the same as providing a great purchase or user experience, but it’s not.  Sometimes positive feelings are more important than either a great product or great customer service.  When I’m in New York, I love going to a Nuts 4 Nuts stand and getting honey-roasted peanuts.  (Nuts 4 Nuts are little metal booths all over the streets of New York City that sell different varieties of—you guessed it—nuts.)  Do I get a great customer service experience?  Not really.  I mean, the guys who sell Nuts 4 Nuts are nice enough, but they’re basically typical New Yorkers who may or may not be super excited to be selling nuts on the street corner.  Do I get a great product?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  When the nuts are really warm and fresh (especially on a cold winter night), then yes.  When the nuts have been out all day and are lukewarm and it’s a humid day, no.  Not at all.  But it doesn’t matter, because I get a great feeling EVERY TIME.  For some reason, Nuts 4 Nuts has come to epitomize my New York City experience.  They make me feel like Robert DeNiro: thick-skinned, tough, hardened by life experiences, and crunching my honey-roasted peanuts.  (I don’t pretend that this is logical—positive feelings often aren’t.)  I’m buying a feeling, an atmosphere, an image of myself that I like.  This is all part of effective branding.  Effective branding tells a story about a business, and invites others to be a part of that narrative. Inviting customers to step into the culture of your organization allows them to assign all the great qualities of your company to themselves as well; they get to say they’re a part of it too. Sometimes I’m buying the “I look good” feeling (my Clarks shoes), sometimes I’m buying the “I’m cool” feeling (my MacBook Pro), sometimes I’m buying the “I just saved money” feeling (my $1 sunglasses).  In each of these cases, it’s less about the product or the experience of the purchase, and all about the way it makes me feel.  And yes, I have preached the gospel of Nuts 4 Nuts, Clarks, Macs and dollar store sunglasses to people in multiple situations.  (The possible exception here is the MacBook Pro—Apple, of course, is renowned for providing the trifecta of great products, amazing customer service, and positive feelings aplenty.)  You too can provide positive feelings about your products and services, no matter what they are—mostly this has to do with your branding and positioning.  Body wash wasn’t manly/funny until Old Spice made it so.   Multiple studies have shown that some products sell better when priced higher, because the higher price suggests quality and exclusivity.  Early adoption is the name of the game when it comes to social networks.  This is equally true for tech geeks and people ages 15-29—both receive social capital for being on top of the latest trends.  Positive feelings sell products, and get people talking.

Again: you can’t control word-of-mouth marketing.  But there are things you can do—enhance your products and services, improve your customer service, develop a brand that gives your customers positive feelings—to put your best foot forward.  If you have one or two of these things, you’ll get good word-of-mouth traction.  If you have all three, your company will be unstoppable.  My last piece of advice is to make yourself known—if your strength is in amazing products, let that feature shine in your marketing products.  If your customer service team is the best in the state, invite everyone to give you a call to experience it for themselves.  If your brand will give people good feelings, get that message out there and let the happy times begin.  Bear in mind, it is possible to have all three of the elements I’ve named above but fail to get the word out.  In other words, it doesn’t matter if you have great products and services, provide a great purchase experience and positive feelings after purchase if no one has ever heard of your company.  That’s where we—the marketers—come in.  And by the way: we do our job even better when we know the companies we work for are offering some or all of these things.  Are there clients I brag on to complete strangers?  You better believe it.

Good luck, and may word-of-mouth marketing be with you!

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