The Way We Work
June 6, 2011 by Julia Camenisch

Recently, my car required some repairs at the mechanic. Thinking I knew the problem, I told the employee what needed to be fixed. But when the store called me a few hours later, the owner said that instead of the costly repairs I’d expected, all that was needed was some minor adjustments. As that kind of honesty (at least in the car repair industry) seems rare, you can be sure that I’ll recommend that repair shop whenever possible. And therein lies the definition of effective word of mouth marketing.

Word of mouth marketing occurs when an excited customer shares with their friends about a product or business that they love.  And the power of that one-on-one recommendation can’t be overstated. A study recently published in the American Marketing Association's Journal of Marketing showed that customers referred by a friend generated more capital for a company and were 18% more likely to keep patronizing that same business than the non-referred customers.

So how can you encourage your customers to talk about you more? It all depends on the type of relationship you have with them. A casual customer should be approached differently than a fanatic brand advocate...kinda like how you’d treat your grandma differently than your hot new girlfriend. Here’s how to work with each stage of the customer/business relationship to make the most of the word of mouth marketing potential:

  • Stage One: The “Acquaintance” Customer
    This is the most basic of relationships. The customer occasionally goes to your store and buys your product, but it’s rare. They’re satisfied but not excited.

    • WOM Strategy - Provide Superior Service:
      Yeah, great service should be a no-brainer, but surprisingly, it can be easy to overlook the power of exceptional customer care. I was an infrequent, indifferent customer at the auto repair shop. Yet the store’s one act of honesty moved me to a new stage in the customer/business relationship spectrum. It also prompted enthusiastic referrals to any friends that needed their car fixed. If you can blow the acquaintance customer away with your great service, they’re likely to move to the next relationship level.
  • Stage Two: The “Friend” Customer
    This is probably the stage where most of your regular customers reside. They like your product or service, but need a bit of prompting to become brand ambassadors.

    • WOM Strategy: Help ‘em Spread the Word
      These kinds of customers need to be empowered to share. They’re not necessarily going to look for opportunities to talk about you unless it's easy. So make it easy!First, separate the satisfied from the indifferent. You can do this by asking for feedback when you send them an invoice or give them a receipt. (Note: you can use Survey Monkey, a free survey generator, to easily capture customer opinions.) Don’t make the survey too long or complicated. Remember, people will only complete the survey if it doesn’t inconvenience them.Second, identify which customers provided a positive response and send them an e-mail requesting a review on whatever review site suits your fancy (Yelp, Amazon, ResellerRatings.com, etc.). Make sure your e-mail includes a link to the preferred site. Again, the process should be as painless as possible for the customer.

      Third, give them something exciting to share. Provide these customers a special limited time deal...then allow them to pass on that deal to their friends and family. This gives them a specific buzzworthy item to share with others and provides an incentive for their friends to try you out. But please make the deal really good or this strategy won’t work. Remember, your goal is to get people excited.

  • The “Fan” Customer
    This is the customer that really likes you. They wear your t-shirt and have your bumper sticker. Don’t let these fans go unnoticed. Keep them as excited customers by making them feel valued.

    • WOM Strategy: Reward Their Loyalty.
      More than likely, this type of customer “likes” you on Facebook. Reward that loyalty by providing them a return benefit. Make your Facebook page a first stop for important announcements. Put sales codes or store specials on that page before posting them elsewhere.  And encourage their input by asking directed questions. For example, what’s a service they think you should offer? What type of innovative ways have they used your product?Also, provide some fun ways for your fans to engage in word of mouth marketing. Let them submit videos and then post the best on your blog and Facebook page. Encourage them to share testimonials, then feature those stories with a link back to that customer’s blog. The more you allow these coveted customers to make your brand their own, the more likely they are to continue spreading the word about you every chance they get.

Like any relationship in life, you can’t expect more from someone than they’re able to give. So treat all your customers, whether acquaintances, friends or fans, with respect, encourage them to share and value their contributions. For an in-depth look at some great word-of-mouth marketing case studies, check out this list at the Word of Mouth Marketing Association website.


Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to oDesk a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.