In every survey Unity Marketing conducts with retailers on their marketing and advertising methods, word of mouth is hands down the most important, being both most used and most effective. For example, in a recent survey among furniture retailers, over 80% of furniture retailers named word-of-mouth their most powerful marketing tool. By contrast social-media marketing, also used by all of the retailers surveyed, was rated by only 5% of furniture retailers as very effective.
And it makes no difference about the retailers’ specialty. These findings are mirrored among retailers of every stripe, whether jewelry, fashion, gifts, home furnishing, greetings cards/stationery or other. Word-of-mouth marketing is always the most used and most effective. Its power dwarfs all other marketing methods.
Yet when people say “word-of-mouth marketing,” retailers tend to hear “social media.” And while social media marketing is one way to activate word-of-mouth, it is far less effective than good old-fashioned people talking.
Citing face-to-face word of mouth in consumer purchase decision-making, Engagement Labs says, ”It is perennially cited as the most trusted source of information by consumers,” this from a research firm that purports to be the world’s only offline word-of-mouth tracking system for brands.
The Word of Mouth Marketing Association quantifies this claim, finding that two-thirds of WOM’s impact is from offline communications, and only one-third from online. What’s more, it finds “an offline WOM impression drives at least 5 times more sales than a paid advertising impression, and much more (as much as 200 times more) for higher-consideration categories.”
How to make word-of-mouth marketing work
Inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender,” where he sang, “We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school,” I’ve interpreted Sernovitz’s five Ts of word of mouth with the help of classic rock:
- TALKERS: “By the time we got to Woodstock, We were half-a-million strong” Joni Mitchell in “Woodstock”
To make word of mouth successful, the first thing needed is to identify those among a retailers’ network of customers, friends, and fans that will carry your messages forward. You have to know your customers and know them well. That means talking with them.
It is more than just having a database of names and addresses, though too many retailers overlook building a vibrant contact list, relying instead on passive efforts to collect names like sign up forms at the register. If not doing so new, retailers should make it standard practice to ask for customers’ street and email addresses when writing up sales.
For lookers, not buyers, collecting their contact addresses takes more finesse. First, you have to ask, so training staff to invite every guest in the store to share their email is as important as training them on the guest welcome and service procedures.
In order to capture their contact information, retailers must offer incentives for them to share, preferably more than just the offer of specials and sales notices, like the promise to communicate news they can use.
- TOPICS: “Let’s give ’em somethin’ to talk about (Somethin’ to talk about)” Bonnie Raitt in “Something to Talk About”
How to “Give ’em somethin’ to talk about” is the message that Seth Godin so effectively focused on in The Purple Cow. It’s that you must do something remarkable, that people will not just notice, but will talk about. And being remarkable isn’t necessarily about being remarkable to everybody, but to those special customers who will really appreciate your remarkability and remark on it.
So in retail businesses it is important to do more than simply satisfy customers – too low a bar and boring – but to create a passionate, enthusiastic customer who will take the initiative to spread the word.
It means stepping outside your comfort zone and into your customers’ delight zone. It’s where they feel you have done something truly, uniquely, personally special for them, which they in turn want to and need to share with others.
For example, Barb Emmett, owner of pet boutique Godfrey’s, compiles a list of recalled pet food brands, mostly those that she doesn’t even carry in her store, and posts that list in the store, as well communicates recent recalls in newsletters and social media posts. This news pet owners can use gives them incentive to share their contact information and reinforces her brand message that “Dog is family.”
- TOOLS: “Walk this way! Talk this way!” Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, Aerosmith in “Walk This Way”
Retailers need to show their customers how to “walk this way” and how to “talk this way” to spread the word. It means providing an easy format through which delighted customers can easily spread the word. A concise and consistent branding platform that is memorable and unique can go far to power word-of-mouth.
Don’t just be a “gift shop,” be the store that offers gifts in some special way and with a unique point of view. Then talk about that distinction at every opportunity while the customer is in the store, as well communicate that different point of view on social media posts and in newsletters that invite sharing. For example, every morning on Facebook I am greeted by a beautiful picture from Beekman 1802, the company founded by the Beekman Boys, Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell.
Ridge and Kilmer-Purcell reject the “lifestyle brand” label, in favor of being a “living brand.” Their daily picture postings invite you into their lives and to share their pictures with your friends, not as a strong-armed way to market Beekman 1802, but simply because the pictures are so remarkably beautiful and inspiring. And so the story of their living Beekman 1802 brand goes forward.
- TAKING PART: “I’m running with the pack” Paul Rodgers, Bad Company in “Run with the Pack”
Once you got people talking, you must “run with the pack” and participate in the conversation. Thus your word-of-mouth program goes in a “virtuous circle,” an endless feedback loop of communications, both analog and digital, listening to what people say, then reinforcing the messages that resonate with more messages. Things customers say to you in the store or questions they ask can be the inspiration for new topics to share with your other talkers on social media.
“Running with the pack” is why Amazon.com asks everyone who places an order to post a review. It’s why Ridge, Kilmer-Purcell or a member of the Beekman 1802 team always replies to comments on their Facebook postings. And every retailer should too.
- TRACKING: “The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind, The answer is blowin’ in the wind” Bob Dylan in “Blowin’ in the Wind”
And finally the “answer is blowin’ in the wind.” Retailers have to listen to everything that is being said to you and about you. You have to engage customers face-to-face constantly, zealously and religiously. You must search blogs and posts, track all reviews on Yelp and others, and act upon it.
Retailers have a huge advantage in tracking customer input through the regular and frequent face time they get with their customers. But too often, businesses don’t have devices in place or the discipline to record what their customers are saying and what they heard.
It can be as simple as keeping a notebook by the cash register to record customer comments or as formal as an annual customer survey. But what is critically important is to put a mechanism in place to track raw customer input, review it regularly, then act upon it.
In closing, retailers need to think systematically about word-of-mouth marketing, and not just leave it up to chance or happenstance. Word of mouth is going on all around us all the time. Retailers hope it’s for the good, but it can also be for the bad.
While digital WOM is important, the most effective and powerful WOM is analog taking place person-to-person. Engaging customers in conversation that makes them feel valued and appreciated can go a long way to encouraging them to tell others about how exceptional your store is. Just posting stuff on social media sites and calling it word-of-mouth marketing with the hope that it will go viral won’t work. Retailers need to put a word-of-mouth marketing system in place that is heavy on the analog side of the equation that will amplify the social media efforts, but not the other way around.