Robert Stephens is the founder of Geek Squad, a tech-support company that was acquired by Best Buy in 2002. He still runs the 17,000-employee company.
QI want to generate buzz about my executive search firm among potential clients. What is the best way to boost word-of-mouth marketing?
Linda Stewart Ceo and Founder Epoch Boston
Word of mouth starts with your company's name and how you describe it. What's the first thing that emerges in any culture or tribe? It's language. Your company's reputation spreads through language. So you should really force yourself to distill exactly what your company does. How many times have you been at a cocktail party and met someone who can't tell you what his or her business does?
I dropped out of art school, and when I formed Geek Squad, I asked myself, "What if a creative person went into a boring business?" Without spending any money on marketing, we were able to get people talking about Geek Squad by tapping into themes and archetypes people already understood. We embraced the fact that we were geeks, and we dressed all of our employees like 1960s NASA technicians, since NASA is a symbol of problem solving, teamwork, and impossible tasks. Our goal was to implant a memory of us in people's brains. And it worked. In our early years, we found that more than 90 percent of people found us through word of mouth.
If you can't do creative things with your company's visual appeal, you can take advantage of some of the newer tools for building buzz, like blogs and podcasts, both of which are particularly suited for business-to-business companies. All businesses are good at something. The better companies realize this. They adopt a strong point of view and work to convey it in a fun or interesting way. The key is to focus on promoting the foundational principles, the raison d'être, of your company. It's the one thing your competitors cannot copy.
I don't put much stock into overt word-of-mouth marketing campaigns, like paying someone to make a viral video. Paid word of mouth is an oxymoron; it's just paid advertising. Instead, the key to getting people to talk about your company is to find some way to express your individual relevance in the business world. In other words, why should people care?
Of course, my views come from not having any money when I built Geek Squad. If I had had money when I started out, I never would have learned that advertising is the tax you pay for being unremarkable. I would have paid someone else to come up with the logo and the design behind Geek Squad, and the idea behind my company would not have been the same. Geek Squad would not have been original or authentic. Today, the world of blogs and YouTube has made being authentic and original all that much more important.