Websites, social media, email: You should be focusing your marketing efforts on digital channels, right? 

Hold on a minute: In a new survey by LeadPages of nearly 2,000 entrepreneurs, 50% of respondents said that word-of-mouth marketing and referrals are where they find the majority of their new customers. Online marketing came in at a distant second, with just 17% saying that's how they find new customers.

That's right: A marketing strategy that has been around for thousands of years trumps social media.

This finding is supported by other surveys like the one done by Nielsen in 2013 on consumer trust in advertising. 84% of respondents from around the world chose "recommendations from people I know" as their most trusted source of information.

Does this mean you're wasting your time by focusing too heavily on digital marketing?

Absolutely not, writes Darcy Coulter on the LeadPages blog. "Word-of-mouth marketing isn't getting washed away by the digital marketing wave, but it is changing shape. Savvy business owners are finding ways to make word-of-mouth marketing even more powerful by taking it online."

Coulter then shares several ideas for moving word-of-mouth marketing strategies into the digital realm. Here are just a few:

1. Automate (and scale up) referrals and recommendations.

"Referrals and recommendations are the backbone of good word of mouth for most businesses. But in the offline world, they're a bit unpredictable, and their reach is usually limited." Coulter suggests several tactics to automate your word-of-mouth referrals and rapidly scale them up, like rewarding customers for referrals and reviews. 

The off-line world is no stranger to referral programs. But off-line programs can't scale quickly because they're limited by things like how often a customer can redeem points or a coupon they've received. By taking your loyalty programs digital, you can let customers accumulate points and then redeem them.

Of course, big companies have been doing this for a while. But now's the time for smaller businesses to start converting their off-line rewards programs into online versions that scale up far more rapidly.

Getting a single referral in the off-line world is good. But why not leverage the power of social media to spread the word to other potential customers -- around the world? Coulter suggests turning the endorsement into a graphic that includes a quote and an image that you can then share on popular sites like Instagram, or on your website.

2. Converse with your customers.

Recommending a product to a friend comes naturally to most people, but online, it can seem a bit forced, says Coulter. The solution? Encourage people to talk about your brand and product. And how to do that? "Pay attention, then follow-up much like you would in person."

Don't treat social media as a big advertising platform. Engage with customers as if they were standing in your store browsing what you have on offer. One of the easiest and most powerful ways to do this is by encouraging a conversation. Add a question at the end of your post and invite people to leave a comment. This can kick-off a network effect that generates even more attention and engagement with your post.

3. Tap into the power of personal networks. 

We're social animals, and enjoy being in the company of people we are familiar with. Tap into this basic human need by encouraging new customers to invite their friends to your in-person or online events. Including prominent social sharing buttons on your sign-up pages is a good way to do this, suggests Coulter.

4. Shine the spotlight on your best customers.

Remember what Andy Warhol said about everyone enjoying their 15 minutes of fame? Tap into your customer's desire to be known to the rest of the world by placing them in a starring role on your social media channels.

Coulter suggests inviting users of your product to send in photos of them using it. Or you can run a photo contest that rewards winners with cash or prizes in exchange for photos of them using your product. And you don't have to offer a physical product to use this tactic.

Coulter concludes: "These word-of-mouth strategies won't replace a happy customer telling a friend about a great experience. That will never go out of style. But even the most old-school marketers can take...opportunities to foster connections with their companies where your customers hang out most -- on their screens."

Published on: Aug 3, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.