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Strategy

7 Strategies That Build Organic Word of Mouth

WoM is a crucial marketing tool, but a difficult one to produce and scale. Here's where you should start

Todd Wasserman
October 20 2018

If you’re like most consumers,  you don’t make a big-ticket purchase without bouncing the idea off  someone. Similarly, an endorsement from a trusted friend will push you to try a new product or service more often than an ad will.

A recent study found that more than two-thirds of consumers were more receptive to recommendations from family and friends than to online advertising. The same is true in B2B, where social proof in the form of a positive review from a colleague is often integral to closing a sale. Word of mouth is the primary impetus for 20-50 percent of all purchasing decisions, according to McKinsey.

Word of mouth is at the heart of one of the most important metrics in marketing, the Net Promoter Score. Many companies, including Expensify, Slack and Netflix, were built by word-of-mouth. The same could be said for Google, Uber and Airbnb, none of whom ran splashy TV campaigns to gain prominence.

The problem is that building word of mouth is tricky. It’s not as easy as placing a multi-million buy. Efforts to orchestrate word-of-mouth, like paying influencers to talk up your brand, can also backfire. The good news is that there are at least seven viable ways to build organic word of mouth:

  1. Make your offering remarkable. Marketing guru Seth Godin’s observation that people will remark upon a truly unique experience is true. Take Expensify. The brand is built around the promise to offer “expense reports that don’t suck.” The company’s marketing strategy was to get people to try the product, then decide that it was a vast improvement over existing expense report software. The happy users would then tell others. This is exactly what happened. As CEO David Barrett has explained, the company built word of mouth by listening to users’ criticism and desires for product features and met those as best as it could.
  2. Include a network effect. The network effect means that a product or service is more useful as more people use it. Facebook is the best example of this since the network wasn’t much fun until everyone you knew was on it. (And then it became less fun, but that’s another story.) If one employee wanted to try Slack, for instance, then he would send invitations to everyone else in the office. That way, instead of getting one new user, Slack got 30. As Hackernoon has outlined, you can also build a network effect by creating a marketplace.
  3. Develop a point of differentiation. Zappos is just another online retailer selling shoes. That niche isn’t so unique. If Amazon had wanted to, it could have made shoes more prominent on its homepage and killed Zappos off. Instead, Amazon bought Zappos in 2009 for about $800 million. The shoe e-tailer had earned a reputation for stellar customer service. This was a conscious strategy that founder/CEO Tony Hsieh had put forth to provide a point of differentiation for Zappos. Employees were trained to focus on that service instead of sales. Zappos also made its phone number front and center on its website, a rarity in e-commerce, and had human reps available to answer phones 24/7.
  4. Build in virality. The oldest example of built-in virality is probably Hotmail, whose emails all bore the message “Get your free email at Hotmail.” That meant that everyone who received a Hotmail-based email also saw an ad for the company. That led to an exponential increase in people who saw that message.
  5. Use an invite-only strategy. This technique, which Google often used for new product launches, bestowed social capital on early invitees. In the early days of Gmail, for instance, only invited people could use the app. That ensured that those allowed within the velvet rope would talk about Gmail and those outside would wait eagerly for their invites.
  6. Forget about marketing and focus on the product — at least at first. This is the approach that Expensify and others, including Evernote, have taken. Evernote Founder Phil Libin has said that he believes companies that build up marketing too early will pull their focus away from product development. That’s why in Evernote’s early days, it put all its effort into fielding user feedback about the app to make it better. Once you’ve perfected the product, it’s time to amplify the word of mouth that’s already out there from your superior product.
  7. Use product landing pages to boost SEO. Companies like HubSpot have generated great organic SEO by creating a huge amount of content. As a result, if users ask Google any marketing-related question, there’s a good chance a HubSpot link will appear. But Slack found a clever way to get the same kind of SEO without creating content. Instead of doing that, Slack created landing pages for its integrations. If you searched “google drive,” for instance, Slack’s Google Drive integration landing page was among the top results. (That page was No. 13 on the search at this writing.)

Once you’ve generated organic word of mouth, it’s time to amplify it by featuring customer testimonials in your social media feeds and advertising. The trick is to maintain those elements that made you special as you grow. For example, despite its success, Zappos still features its customer service phone number on its website. Remember, even if a potential user hears about you from an ad, they will still likely ask someone for a real word-of-mouth reality check.

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Todd Wasserman

Todd Wasserman is a journalist with 25 years of experience. He has been freelancing full time since 2015. Before that he was the business editor for Mashable from 2010-2015. From 1999-2010 he worked at Adweek's Brandweek, starting as a reporter and ending as editor-in-chief (2007-2010). He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, The Washington Post and The Economist, among other publications.

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