5 Common Myths About Word-of-Mouth Marketing

Marketers love the idea of word-of-mouth marketing (WOM ). It’s authentic, trustworthy and often (although not always) inexpensive. The Internet has given new energy to the potential of WOM , but there’s actually nothing new about it. In the days before advertising in mass media, WOM was the only type of marketing.

We’re all familiar with some of the most famous examples of WOM , including Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches and the Cadbury Gorilla. These programs used Internet video to great effect, but there’s no requirement that great WOM demands a Web browser. Here are five common misperceptions about word-of-mouth.

WOM is cheap

Word-of-mouth phenomenon occasionally spring organically out of nowhere, but most involve careful planning and often significant investment. Agencies may be enlisted for concepts and orchestration, armies of brand ambassadors may be needed to maintain momentum and advertising and promotion may be involved as well. Volvo Trucks’ Epic Split feat starring Jean-Claude Van Damme was the most successful B2B viral video ever, but it was actually the sixth video in a series of dramatic stunts involving the big rigs. Others had much more limited success. It took time – and considerable amounts of money – to get that viral campaign right.

WOM is about a campaign or event

The most memorable WOM success stories usually involve a single idea played out at a particular point in time, but the most successful campaigns last years or even decades. Consider Costco, the discount wholesale club with a market cap of $64 billion. It does no advertising or any other kind of marketing, for that matter. Its success is based entirely on word of mouth. Some brands persist in delivering a unique experience that competitors never manage to copy. Apple advertises, but without the legions of adoring fans, it’s unlikely it would have achieved the status of the world’s most valuable company. This is the best kind of WOM you can hope for.

WOM is intentional

Ice bucket challengeThat’s usually true, but some of the best success stories have come out of left field. Remember the dramatic resurrection of Twinkies? The snack cakes were pulled from the shelves by a financially strapped Hostess Brands in late 2012 and returned following an outcry in social media. Meat packer Hormel probably wasn’t crazy to learn that junk email was being labeled Spam, but it quickly capitalized on its unintentional fame and used humor to reinvent the brand. Last year’s phenomenally successful Ice Bucket Challenge was a complete surprise to the ALS Association, which hadn’t thought up the idea.

These days, word of mouth awareness can be kicked off by a single customer, and that can be good or bad. It’s great when customers tell each other about their delightful experience with your brand, but it’s equally important that you not be surprised by their disappointing encounter with one of your support reps. The point is that WOM can happen at any time for any reason. Be ready to move quickly.

WOM is viral

True viral marketing is rare, and if you hope that your campaign will go viral, you’ll probably be disappointed. These days most WOM campaigns are thoroughly planned and involve accelerants like advertising and street-level promoters. Even true viral phenomena tend to run their course pretty quickly and need to be refreshed in order to keep the momentum going. BzzAgent is one of the best-known of the many agencies that are making virality a science.

WOM is online

Yard sign for Troy Library book-burning partyThat’s usually true, but not always. Localized campaigns, in particular, can do very well without a strong online component. When my favorite examples was the 2012 campaign to save the Troy, MI public library. Supporters of the library protested budget cuts that were scheduled to close the institution by actually siding with their opponents, but to an extreme degree. They announced plans for a book burning party to celebrate the library’s closure. Residents were so horrified that they restored funding. Although there was a social media dimension to this campaign, it was carried out mostly with yard signs and coverage in the local media.

Word-of-mouth marketing is great when you get it, but it can be risky and even disastrous when it backfires, as certain hamburger chains and investment banks can attest. It’s a wonderful complement to your marketing investment, but probably not the single basket where all your eggs should rest.

About Paul Gillin

Paul Gillin is a writer, speaker, online marketing consultant and social media coach with Profitecture. Since 2005, he has helped business-to-business marketers at companies of all sizes and in many industries use social media and quality content to reach and engage with customers. He is also a prolific writer who has published more than 200 articles on the subject of new media. His books include: "The New Influencers" (2007), "Secrets of Social Media Marketing" (2008), "The Joy of Geocaching" (2010) and "Social Marketing to the Business Customer" (2011) and "Attack of the Customers" (2013). He has written the monthly New Channels column for BtoB magazine since 2006. Paul is a veteran technology journalist with more than 25 years of editorial leadership experience. His website is gillin.com and he blogs at paulgillin.com and Newspaper Death Watch.