Word of mouth marketing is a lot easier than you think

on December 20, 2008

Andy Sernovitz is the author of “Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking” and founder of GasPedal, a word of mouth marketing firm.

Andy Sernovitz by Christopher CarfiSummary:

  • If you have a strong personal brand or corporate brand it supersedes whatever the hot product of the day is.
  • Launching word of mouth marketing requires marketers to stop thinking about what can I get for my budget.
  • Once you start talking to people and they start talking back, you can never put that genie back in the bottle.
  • Word of mouth is a function of customer service.
  • For word of mouth to work you need talkers, topics, and tools.
  • It’s so easy to apply a little effort and get little successes to create a business case for word of mouth marketing.
  • Unbury that hidden statistic that shows that a huge percentage of your customers come to you for free. Compare word of mouth marketing costs to search engine marketing costs.
  • Could one person if they were sitting on Twitter would be more functional if they were on the phone?
  • Find the heroes within your company and the simple wins.

Full article:

Developing the “Andy” brand vs. the company brand

Andy Sernovitz is synonymous with word of mouth marketing. From his popular book to his firm, GasPedal, he’s a highly sought after thought leader for speaking engagements on the subject. But that hasn’t always been the case.

Originally, GasPedal was a dotcom incubator, and thus its brand was all about Internet start ups. Over time the company began focusing on email communications, and thus the brand changed to the email marketing people. Now that they’ve expanded that subset of word of mouth marketing, GasPedal’s formed the brand of being the word of mouth marketing people.

“The [company] brand has become a function of what I’m doing at any particular point in time, which is an interesting point in personal branding that if you have a strong personal brand or corporate brand it supersedes whatever the hot product of the day is,” Sernovitz said.

Because Sernovitz is a speaker, much of his work is associated with him personally. The problem is Andy doesn’t scale. Without the company, he’s the product. And only one of him can fly around and do keynote speeches and consult with companies. It’s a common problem for consultants. “What happens is you run out of you, and it’s exhausting. The reason there’s a GasPedal brand is the objective has got to be not buying Andy, but buying our education and our training and what we do so the de-Andification of Gas Pedal is a very explicit product. It’s a very explicit branding objective,” Sernovitz said.

The brand of GasPedal has very little of Andy Sernovitz in it. But separately, in a different brand space is his book and his blog with very little mention of his company.

Word of mouth marketing is not that difficult

Word of mouth marketing is so much easier than people think, said Sernovitz. He has companies that come to him and they say, “I’ve got $100,000 and I want to do  word of mouth marketing campaign.” It’s a common introduction because that’s how marketers work. They think about budget. Throw enough money at a problem and you’ll get results.

That’s not how marketers should be approaching word of mouth marketing. One must think, how do I build relationships with people and give them something they want to share?

“Word of mouth marketing is first and foremost about communications. And turning them on, and making them happy, and giving them things to talk about. So when you go into a word of mouth campaign with ‘We’re going to do a campaign that has a budget, and a start and a stop.’ That’s not how it works. Once you start talking to people and they start talking back, you can never put that genie back in the bottle. It’s a campaign misconception,” said Sernovitz.

Word of mouth is a function of customer service

Sernovitz doesn’t believe that social media is synonymous with word of mouth. Social media is simply one of the many tools you can use to generate word of mouth.

In actuality, word of mouth is a function of customer service. You provide that service in a way that your audience should want to share it. He references the popularity of Zappos, the online shoe company. They’re not popular because they Tweet, but rather they’ve developed a customer service methodology that bleeds through traditional and non-traditional (e.g. Twitter) forms of communications. To only talk about their success on Twitter is only capturing a small part of Zappos’ entire customer service story.

For word of mouth to work, three things need to come together:

  • Who’s going to talk about you? The talkers.
  • What are they going to say? The topics.
  • How are we going to make it easier for them to say it? The tools (traditional and social media).

Word of mouth doesn’t have to have social media involved at all. Sernovitz tells the story of Lowe’s 10% off coupons that he sees available on a weekday at the store. He realizes that Lowe’s figures that anyone that comes to its store before 12pm on a weekday is probably going back to work. So why not give people something to bring back to work that they can place on the office refrigerator? It’s a simple sheet that just says “Office Deals.” Lowe’s invites you to take this sheet, put it on your company fridge, offering up ten 10% off coupons for ten of your coworkers.

The Lowe’s coupon sheet is a very economical and efficient means of word of mouth, and it’s not social media. In the Lowe’s example, the “talkers” are the shoppers. The “topic” is the offer, but really you can also say the topic is connecting with your coworkers. And you make it easier with a single sheet with ten offers that you can put on the fridge (“the tool”).

How do you join in the conversation, expand it, and accelerate it?

The essential step of word of mouth marketing that so many companies have a hard time with is just “do it.” Not to do it big with a huge $100,000 budget, but just begin communicating and do it. It’s hard to fail with this stuff, said Sernovitz. It’s so easy to apply a little effort and get little successes to create a business case.

Sernovitz told the story of the Chicago Tribune journalist who became the social media evangelist for the paper with his character he dubbed “Col. Tribune.” All he did was send out light goofy Tweets on Twitter that garnered him a lot of success.

Sernovitz said that any individual can gather the same learnings as a business analyst by constantly trying stuff. All the word of mouth success stories begin exactly the same way – someone just started doing it.

Not all customers come from marketing efforts

Where do you get your business? Does it all come from marketing? Probably not. Unbury that hidden statistic that shows that a huge percentage of your customers come to you for free. No marketing effort brought them there. They heard about you through word of mouth. That’s your number one ROI. You want to get more of those free customers.

It’s easy to calculate the value of customers garnered through word of mouth. Let’s say you pay $5 for a lead through search marketing. A referral through search marketing is not nearly as a strong as a recommendation from a friend. If you add an “email a friend” link on your product page, that referral is worth at least $5 if not more. If you can get 5,000 people to click on that link, the value of that button is at least $25,000. It’s worth it to you now to spend some money on that page, the offer, and conversion. The cost to change that is far less than your SEM efforts.

Shift customer service efforts to enhance word of mouth marketing for the same cost

Word of mouth makes a lot of good things obvious. For example, in the case of a great customer service call (the customer calls, gets their problem fixed, and everyone’s happy) that moment is lost once the phone hangs up. Nobody knows that the call happened. But if that same customer had the same problem and they wrote it up on their blog, the cost to your business is the same. When someone goes to search that same problem, they find it, and can have that same experience. You help a lot more people, but you spend the same amount of money.

I told Sernovitz my story about the woman who couldn’t get satisfaction calling DirecTV’s customer support, but did when she sent out a Tweet. While I thought it was ironic that the two departments weren’t talking to each other on how to handle customers, Sernovitz said it made perfect sense. Twitter allows a company to have a fresh new start with customer service, said Sernovitz. The phone system is loaded with baggage. They can start customer service over again with a presence on Twitter.

When I asked Sernovitz what’s the biggest mistake he’s made in social media, he admitted that he often makes things too complicated. For example, he will set up huge communities with all these varying technologies and functionality, but in the end realizes that the most functional tools are often phone calls and an email list. He finds that the less he does, the more successful he becomes.

Andy Sernovitz’s advice for companies getting started in word of mouth marketing

Offering up the same advice Chris Brogan gave in his “Be the Voice” interview, Sernovitz suggested companies should start by listening. That doesn’t mean hiring an analytics company. Just set up Google Alerts, said Sernovitz. (NOTE: I suggest doing a lot more than Google Alerts. Google Alerts only catch a small portion of conversation about you.)

Second step is to find someone who really wants to do this. Find the person who loves social media and who’s wearing the company shirt on weekends, Sernovitz said. Ross Mayfield suggested the same thing in his “Be the Voice” interview as well. Although it was really hip at one point, don’t have your CEO blog. The CEO should be running the company.

And finally, find the simple wins. Could one person if they were sitting on Twitter would be more functional if they were on the phone? Take them off the phone and find out. Or instead of spending $5,000 on an SEM campaign, why not soup up a tell a friend form?

Simply put, find the heroes within your company and the simple wins. It’s really hard to screw this up, said Sernovitz.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Stephanie Valentine March 3, 2009 at 6:36 pm


This post is very inspiring and INCREDIBLY applicable to my industry, MLM, which is all about word-of-mouth. You boil the process of word-of-mouth down into something that is very simple and organic, and your article urges us to all dive in, without making it too complicated. While you seem to mostly work with larger corporations, your process can easily be applied to MLM and network marketing. Thanks for the insightful post and your invitation for us all to dive in without overthinking or overspending. Most people in MLM don’t tend to overspend, but they do overthink way too much!

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