AS ANY AUTHOR with a book plugged by Oprah can tell you, word of mouth (WOM) can be a wonderful thing. Not only does it cost virtually nothing, but it can also be more effective than advertising.

One problem with advertising is its increasing volume: With so much of it, advertising has become white noise. Another is that people don’t believe companies tell the truth in advertising, according to research firm Yankelovich, which fixed the number of consumers who feel that way at 76%.

WOM cuts through and rises above the noise because it’s coming from a source — a friend, a co-worker, an expert on the subject — who is objective and therefore more trustworthy than an ad agency, which everyone knows is being paid to say nice things about a product or a company. What everyone doesn’t know (yet) is that companies often hire ad agencies to help them generate WOM. Just as not all search engine marketing is organic, neither is all word of mouth.


Before we dive into the specifics of cultivating WOM, let’s define our terms. Definitions abound, but several terms associated with WOM are becoming more common than others. For this article, let’s define word of mouth (WOM) as the sharing of an opinion among people independent from the company or its agents; buzz as another term for WOM; buzz marketing as the staging of an event or activity designed to generate free publicity and inspire WOM; and viral marketing as the quick, exponential spreading of a corporate message. Viral marketing, then, is a desired result, not a tactic or a strategy. So if your marketing/PR/ad agency volunteers to create a viral marketing campaign for you, make your contacts their explain in very precise terms exactly what they’re proposing.

For your company or product to be considered WOM-worthy, it must meet two prerequisites. First, your customers must consider patronage of your company or use of your product a superior value. Second, your company or product must have a distinction relevant to the consumer. These conditions are nonnegotiable.

So when considering whether to embark on a WOM or buzz campaign, be brutally honest: Does the product (or company) have a clear distinction relevant to the customer, and does it provide a great value? If not, don’t waste your time. Concentrate instead on improving product quality and customer satisfaction. Customers will eventually notice, and good WOM will be the organic result.


If you do have something WOM-worthy, marketers agree, the key to gaining attention and generating WOM is doing something far outside the ordinary. According to John Hughes, author of Buzzmarketing, an extraordinary event features at least one of six characteristics: the taboo, the unusual, the outrageous, the hilarious, the remarkable, or the secret.

That may be correct, but remember that sexy TV commercial with Paris Hilton? The ad for — was it a car? No, wait…it was…food, right? A hamburger. Not McDonald’s. It was…Carl’s Jr. PR professional Dan Crowther, in his blog on 101PublicRelations.com, estimates that the hamburger chain spent $8 million-$12 million on the Paris Hilton commercial. It was designed to generate buzz, and the ad was widely written about and talked about. The Website where the ad could be downloaded received more than 4 million hits. Crowther calculates that for the first full month the ad aired, sales at Carl’s Jr. increased by $1.1 million. So by one account, Carl’s Jr. spent approximately $10 million more than it made to generate a ton of buzz — for Paris Hilton.

Thinking outside the box can be fun and gratifying, but you don’t want to leave the box so far behind you can’t see it anymore. Think your idea through carefully. Determine if the cost will justify the expense given your goals, and evaluate whether the idea is likely to do what you think it will.

If you’re going to go through all this effort, you might as well do something that will go beyond increasing awareness and might lead to increasing sales as well. Simple actions that can lead to more sales including handing out extra coupons to customers for them to distribute to friends, including a section on an order form where your customers can fill in the addresses or e-mails of friends they think would appreciate a copy of your catalog, and enabling someone to send your message via e-mail “from a friend.”

George Silverman, founder/president/CEO of Nanuet, NY-based consultancy Market Navigation, suggests being systematic as well as imaginative in your efforts to generate WOM. Design your marketing, he says, to get potential customers over the biggest obstacles to becoming actual customers.

According to Silverman, people make anywhere from 20 to 100 major and minor decisions before purchasing. Thoroughly research your customers’ decision-making process to identify the blocks or hurdles that may impede someone from buying your product or patronizing your company. Conduct focus groups and convene user panels. Find out what questions the participants asked themselves before buying: Am I in the market for this? Should I seek more information? If so, where? How can I try it safely?

Next, bring in a mix of interested but skeptical consumers and your top evangelists, Silverman says. Get them talking together, and find out what convinces the skeptics and gets them over their stumbling blocks. For example, an obstacle that keeps many people from buying high-end cameras is the perception that they’re too complicated for the average person to use. What can a camera company do to address that obstacle? “Hire 10 buses, get the Leica rep, and take everyone to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens to learn how to shoot flowers,” Silverman suggests.

Silverman is also an advocate of testimonials. Most products are designed by committee and therefore are unlikely to be clearly superior to competing products, he contends, so you want to target what’s different. “Have your testimonials say, They’re not just another company. It was a pleasure to do business with them. I had a problem and they fixed it right away.” In short, be sure that the testimonials focus on relevant specifics. “Don’t waste your time getting testimonials along the lines of ‘They’re great,’” Silverman says.

To maximize the breadth and effectiveness of WOM, integrate whatever you’re doing in terms of inspiring buzz with your other marketing, advertising, public relations, and customer relations activities. As Andy Sernovitz, CEO of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), puts it, “Word of mouth is not a discrete kind of marketing. Good service, for instance, gets you good word of mouth.”


The possibilities for inspiring buzz are limited only by the imagination. WOMMA says most activities fall into a small handful of broad categories:

Buzz marketing — sponsoring events that will get people to talk about your company or product. Motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson hosts gatherings all over the country, including its big annual ride in Sturgis, SD. Beverage brand Red Bull sponsors “flugtags” (German for “fly days”), where contestants build vehicular contraptions in which they hurtle down ramps and “fly” into local rivers and lakes.

One of the newest buzz stunts is the pop-up store. These are storefronts intended to remain open for only a few weeks. Companies that have recently operated pop-ups include Meow Mix, Wired magazine, and Italian coffee merchant Illy. Photo brand Kodak operated what it called galleries in upscale neighborhoods in New York and San Francisco this past November to attract different influencer groups.

Community marketing — forming or supporting communities likely to share interests about the company or a product. These include user groups, fan clubs, and discussion forums. Successful examples include Millsberry, a Website from packaged goods provider General Mills that features games, activities, and chat rooms for kids. The company asserts its presence in numerous ways, from the Lucky Charms leprechaun’s appearance in a game to overt ads for Honey Nut Cheerios and Trix.

Evangelist marketing — cultivating advocates and encouraging them to recommend your company or product. Evangelists are often people with some expertise that consumers perceive as relevant to the product being discussed.

Defending the Caveman, a one-man show about miscommunications between men and women, opened in San Francisco in 1991. Performing the show in Dallas in 1992, writer/performer Rob Becker realized it was resonating strongly with couples. At the same time, he discovered that the then-president of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) had seen the show and was recommending it to her colleagues, according to show publicist Todd Grove. When the show moved to Broadway in March 1995, every ticket for the entire first month was given away to AAMFT members and other therapists — experts on communicating within relationships. Caveman set the performance record for a one-man show on Broadway. Since then, every time the play moves to a new city, its promoters send free tickets to every AAMFT member in the area.

Influencer marketing — identifying key communities and opinion leaders who are likely to talk about products and have the ability to influence the opinions of others. It’s similar to evangelist marketing. Research company RoperASW asserts that 10% of the people in the country tell the other 90% what to buy, where to shop, where to eat, and how to vote.

Apple Computer supports a network of Mac user groups, some with Websites hosted directly by Apple. User-group participants advise other Mac users on how to solve problems and get the most out of their Apple products. Apple gives participants advance information and previews of new products.

Grassroots marketing — organizing and motivating volunteers to share their opinions in public forums. Advocates in a grassroots campaign do not need to be experts — in fact, they probably shouldn’t be.

Devotees of Maker’s Mark bourbon, for instance, can sign up to become “ambassadors,” who are then encouraged to recommend the whiskey. From time to time the company mails items branded with the Maker’s Mark logo (say, coasters that appear to be made of the same distinctive red wax used to seal each bottle), usually sending enough items for the ambassadors to pass on to others. “We’ve always been a word-of-mouth company,” says Emily Reid, Maker’s Mark’s ambassador coordinator. Although she won’t divulge sales figures, Reid says the five-year-old program is more successful than expected; the company had a major distillery expansion two years ago.

Other examples of grassroots marketing would be the fan sites hosted by studios for many of their films and TV shows. Fans typically need little encouragement to contribute to an official Website as well as to other sites (submitting reviews to the Internet Movie Database or Amazon.com, for example) or to establish their own fan blogs.

Product seeding — placing a product into the right hands at the right time. Moonstruck Chocolate Co. got its products in the 2002 Emmy gift bags given to attendees. After the awards ceremony Moonstruck owner Sarah Bany saw a friend of Oprah Winfrey’s enjoying the chocolates, and she introduced herself. The February 2003 issue of O magazine, included Moonstruck chocolates in Oprah’s list of favorite things. Hits on the Moonstruck Website soared from 20,000 in December 2002 to 1 million in January 2003 (when the February issue of O came out).

Cause marketing — supporting social causes to earn respect, support, and patronage of people who feel strongly about the issue. In response to both consumer group and competitive pressures, Starbucks since 2001 has sold fair-trade coffee. Instead of getting coffee beans as cheaply as possible and working through middlemen buyers who exact a percentage of the purchase price, Starbucks is signing contracts directly with farmers and paying what by local standards is considered enough to support living wages.

Conversation creation — generating interesting or fun advertising, e-mails, catch phrases, entertainment, or promotions designed to get people talking. Happy Bunny, a pudgy cartoon rabbit, began appearing about five years ago on keychains, T-shirts, and notebooks with speech bubbles saying things like “I’m not mean. You’re just a sissy” and “Crazy doesn’t even cover it.” Happy Bunny inspired spontaneous WOM simply by being amusing.

Brand blogging — exactly what it sounds like. A good example is Microsoft, which has more than 2,000 employees with blogs that focus on their jobs, the products they create and use, and their lives. That count is from Robert Scoble, Microsoft’s technical evangelist and one of cyberspace’s most prominent bloggers. For Microsoft, the blogs are less about increasing sales than about softening the company’s image as a faceless corporate bully.

Referral programs — enabling satisfied customers to refer their friends. Every single product page on Build-A-Bear Workshop’s Website has a button that kids can click to send an e-mail that will bring a stuffed animal or an accessory to the attention of a friend (or a parent).

When Celestial Seasonings began to sell teas in 1970, the company often enclosed a note from president Mo Siegel saying the company was small and couldn’t afford to advertise. The note asked people to tell their friends about the company’s teas or, better yet, to serve some to them.


Some marketers contend that a company can not only inspire WOM but also create it. Heed that advice at your own risk. A company that creates an opinion about itself or its products is being deceptive at best and committing fraud at worst. In 2002 the state of Connecticut sued Sony for printing fabricated blurbs from a nonexistent reviewer in an ad for its film A Knight’s Tale. Sony had to pay the state a $326,000 settlement.

Many people suggest unsolicited e-mail as a good vehicle for growing WOM exponentially — to make it viral. Others will suggest using software bots to automatically post corporate messages in blogs. Don’t do either without very, very careful consideration. You invite not just bad WOM but also retaliation.

What’s more, you can inadvertently inspire your own bad WOM, and bad WOM lingers. So whether or not you’re actively running a WOM campaign — perhaps especially if you’re not — it is important to know what the WOM about your company or product is.

The Web has also changed the rules of WOM. “If people are talking about you and they’re unhappy, before they’d tell maybe five people,” Sernovitz says. “Now they get on review sites and blogs where millions of people see it.” It is in your best interest, then, to monitor reviewers, Websites, blogs, chat rooms, and other forums where your company or products might be discussed.

Bad WOM is based on the inverse of the principles of good WOM (Is your product notably bad? Is it a bad value?) and can therefore be fought by improving the quality of product and service, coupled with some of the same techniques used to inspire good WOM.

Brian Santo, a freelance writer based in Portland, OR, has written for CableWorld and EE Times, among other publications.


IF YOU’RE PLANNING to work with a WOM or buzz marketing agency, get ready to be figuratively assaulted with incomprehensible slang. To whit:

“All viral marketing campaigns require two things: appropriate material to engage viral audiences, and specialist seeding in places where the viral audience already gathers, making the communication easy to find and interact with.”

That’s Justin Kibby of Digital Marketing Communications. Kibby and Digital Marketing have created successful buzz campaigns for Mazda, MTV, Virgin, and Microsoft’s Xbox, so all that seeming gibberish (viral audiences? specialist seeding?) might actually mean something. On the other hand, it might be claptrap that either reveals careless thinking or was designed to convince befuddled clients that the agency is hipper than it is.

If you want to maintain control over your marketing efforts, insist that your WOM or buzz experts speak intelligibly. If they won’t speak clearly in English, at least make them define their terms.