Here’s the definition of word of mouth marketing:

1. Giving people a reason to talk about your stuff

2. Making it easier for that conversation to take place

Even simpler: It’s everything you can do to get people talking.

If you like acronyms, think of it this way: Word of mouth marketing is “CtoC” marketing. You’ve heard about business-to-business (BtoB) and business-to-consumer (BtoC) marketing. Word of mouth marketing is about real people talking to each other—consumer to consumer (CtoC)—instead of marketers doing the talking.

Actually, it’s BtoCtoC. Your job as a marketer is to put out an idea worth talking about. That’s marketing. When a real person repeats it, that’s word of mouth. It’s about the second hop (and the third hop, and the fourth hop, and so on).

Right after our son was born, my wife and I saw an ad for a weekly show at our local movie theater where you were encouraged to bring infants. Now featuring screaming and pooping right in the theater! What a great idea! Any parent of a newborn knows that you probably won’t see another movie together until the kid gets old enough to be embarrassed to be seen with you.

What was the first thing we did? We called every other parent in our apartment building and brought them with us. The promotion that we saw was traditional marketing. The 12 conversations we had with other parents was word of mouth marketing at its best.

It’s All About the Second M

Word of mouth has been with us forever. What’s new is the second M—marketing.

Word of mouth exists. Word of mouth marketing is working with it toward a marketing objective. Word of mouth marketing is a new specialty that is as actionable, trackable, and planable as any other form of marketing.

Word of mouth is natural conversation between real people. Word of mouth marketing is working within this conversation so people are talking about you.

Word of mouth is about genuine consumer conversations. Word of mouth marketing is joining that conversation and participating in it—but never, ever manipulating, faking, or degrading its fundamental honesty in any way.

Why Now?

If word of mouth has been around forever, there must be some reason why marketers suddenly began talking about it.

Here’s what’s new: We can finally do something about it.

It’s evolved from anecdotal to actionable, from something that just happens to something you can influence. Word of mouth marketing has become the fastest growing form of marketing because we now have the tools and knowledge to work with it.

Until a few years ago, we sort of wished that good word of mouth would just happen on its own. You could have a special sale or do some silly publicity stunt and hope people would talk.

Now we can work with people who want to talk about us and help their ideas reach a new audience. We can provide a platform so more people hear what our fans are saying. We can use the internet to give far more visibility to a conversation that has always been happening.

We’ve also gained the ability to track and measure that conversation. Thanks in part to blogs and the web, we can see who is saying what about us. We can listen to the conversation and understand it. We can figure out who is talking and why they are talking. It’s not such a mystery anymore.

Family legend has it that my grandfather Gene was the first person to hire a teenage Elvis Presley to perform in public. At the department store where he worked in Memphis, he had this unknown kid play his guitar from the back of a truck in the parking lot. I’m sure it got some people talking, but it wasn’t a big deal at the time.

These days, we’d do it a little differently. We’d announce the concert on the web. We’d email a note to people who blog about the local music scene. We’d give flyers to kids at local high schools and invite them to a free show. We’d put the invitation in an email so it could get easily forwarded. We’d try to hire a band with a big social media following, so it could get its fans to show up. We’d use all those cheap and easy things that get lots of people talking.

Later, I’ll go into detail on these techniques and explain how to make them work for you.

It’s More than Marketing (or Maybe Not Marketing at All)

In many cases, word of mouth marketing isn’t actually about marketing at all. It’s about great customer service that makes people want to tell their friends about you. It’s about fantastic products that people can’t resist showing to everyone.

This is called organic word of mouth—word of mouth that springs naturally from the positive qualities of your company. Many experts would argue that this is the only legitimate form of word of mouth. The opposite concept is called amplified word of mouth—word of mouth that is started by an intentional campaign to get people talking. I like the organic kind better, but we’ll learn about both.

I like the idea that consumers reward companies that have earned their respect with great word of mouth. Nothing beats coming up with a product so interesting that people just can’t help talking about it. Nothing is better than customers taking it upon themselves to support a business that they love.

TiVo is the classic example. They aren’t known for their advertising. In fact, TiVo has hardly advertised at all. But everyone knows what TiVo is.

TiVo owners are maniacs. They absolutely will not stop talking about their TiVos. They will chase you down and drag you to their living rooms to make you see a demonstration. Their love for the product turns them into crazy, passionate word of mouth promoters.

You see the same passion from people who love OXO utensils, Aeron chairs, or Camper shoes. You see it from Yankees fans and teenagers in love with rock bands.

Organic word of mouth is created by products that get your customers to love you so much that they just can’t shut up.

And sometimes the best word of mouth is exceptional customer service—think of the famously generous return policies of Nordstrom or the fact that Enterprise Rent-A-Car will pick you up at home.

I pay a little more than I should to do business with my cell phone company and my web hosting company, because they answer my calls on the first ring, and they usually solve my problems on the first call. Of course, I also tell everyone who asks that they’d be crazy to work with anyone else.

There’s a great little conference call service in Fairfield, Iowa, called Conference Calls Unlimited. Pretty much all conference call services look the same and do the same thing, so it’s difficult to stand out from the crowd. It’s a boring business, and advertising is expensive and ineffective when you sell the same thing as everyone else.

So what did they do? They stopped advertising. They put everything they had into customer service. These guys will do anything for you. They take care of their customers, whatever it takes. It’s surprisingly pleasant and interesting to work with them, despite the uninteresting nature of what they sell.

As you can imagine, the word of mouth they get is fantastic. This isn’t the first book to mention this tiny company.

Traditional marketing is no longer the safe way to go. It may make you more comfortable, but it is becoming gradually less and less effective for more and more companies. It’s time to focus on making customers happy—earning their trust and respect and getting them talking about your stuff.

The Four Rules of Word of Mouth Marketing

Rule #1: Be Interesting

Nobody talks about boring companies, boring products, or boring ads. If you want people to talk about you, you’ve got to do something special. Anything. If you are boring, you’ll never get a moment of conversation. Your word of mouth will fall flat on its face. (Actually, it will just fade away, unnoticed.)

Before you run an ad, before you launch a product, before you put something new on the menu, ask the magic question: Would anyone tell a friend about this?

Take a trick from the Chicago Bagel Authority’s 56 bizarrely named sandwiches, like the Hoosier Daddy and the Muenster Mash. Or the seven-inch-high corned beef sandwiches at New York’s famous Carnegie Deli. It would still be the best corned beef sandwich in the world if it were a normal size. But its insane mass guarantees that hundreds of tourists leave the restaurant every day to spread the word about one of the greatest sights in the Big Apple.

There are probably hundreds of shoeshine stands in New York City. But everybody goes to Eddie’s in Grand Central Station. They tell their friends to make a special trip to go there (passing plenty of other good shoeshine stands on the way). Why? Eddie’s has huge, comfy, old-fashioned, red leather easy chairs to sit in. You feel like a king when you sit back and enjoy a few minutes of peace in those chairs at the end of the day.

Give people a reason to talk about you.

And please, I beg you, stop for a minute before you buy more advertising. Think about how much money you are about to spend. Think about how fast you, and everyone else in the world, flip past hundreds of ads without even noticing them.

Don’t run another ad unless it is truly worth talking about.

Rule #2: Make It Easy

Word of mouth is lazy. You’ve got to help it along if you expect it to go anywhere.

You need to do two things: Find a super-simple message and help people share it.

Start with a topic that anyone can remember. Something like, “Our software doesn’t crash,” or “They have chocolate cream cheese!” or “They give you snacks while you’re waiting for a table,” or “Stupid name, but it sure does work.” (Anything longer than a sentence is too much. It’ll get forgotten or mangled.)

We all think of Steve Jobs as the greatest computer marketer who ever lived. So what did he do when he returned to Apple in 1996 with the mission of reviving a stumbling company? Did he talk about great software? Stable operating systems? No.

Jobs’s great marketing insight was . . . pink and purple computers.

It got everyone talking. It restarted positive word of mouth about the company. Everyone told a friend, because they had a simple topic of conversation that was interesting to share. And when people heard about the cute computers, they were ready to take another look at the more important features.

Once you’ve got your big word of mouth idea, find a bunch of ways to make it easier to spread. There are countless easy ways to make your ideas portable. A special announcement on a website or brochure is stuck in place. But when you put it in an email or post it to a social network, it’s in motion.

Rule #3: Make People Happy

Happy customers are your greatest advertisers.

Thrill them. Create amazing products. Provide excellent service. Go the extra mile. Make the experience remarkable. Fix problems. Make sure the work you do gets people energized, excited, and eager to tell a friend.

When people like you, they share you with their friends. They want to help you, they want to support your business, and they want their friends to enjoy what you offer. You will get more word of mouth from making people happy than anything else you could possibly do.

Let’s look at one of the great mysteries of the modern age. In 1999, why did 60,000 people drive their plain Saturn sedans to Spring Hill, Tennessee, to meet the people who made them? What car could possibly be less interesting than a Saturn?

The annual Saturn Homecoming was a great word of mouth marketing strategy. But it wouldn’t have worked if people didn’t trust and respect Saturn. People really liked the company. They liked its attitude. They felt taken care of by the nice salespeople and the company’s no-haggle concept. They were amazed when they got a friendly note twice a year with instructions on how to adjust the clock for daylight saving time.

So they told their friends. They supported the company that supported them.

Let’s look at another great mystery of the modern age. Why do some people like Target so much? This I won’t attempt to explain, but I’m not the only guy who, while on vacation, has been taken to visit a Target that looks exactly like the one we have at home. (Aargh.) But they have some stylish stuff. Decent prices. Clean stores. A fun attitude.

Target makes my wife happy in a way that would threaten a less manly man.

And she talks to everyone about it.

Rule #4: Earn Trust and Respect

If you don’t have respect, you don’t get good word of mouth.

Nobody talks positively about a company that they don’t trust or like. Nobody puts their name on the line for a company that will embarrass them in front of their friends.

Always be an honorable company. Make ethics part of everything you do. Be good to your customers. Talk to them. Fulfill their needs.

Make people proud to tell your story to everyone they know.

Southwest Airlines is one of the most trusted brands in the world. It treats its customers well, with few hassles and a great attitude. It treats its employees well, with stable jobs, a no-layoff policy, and decent pay. People like Southwest. People like the company so much that they sent cash to the airline after 9/11 to help it out.

Lots of people are spreading great word of mouth about Southwest. Does anyone have anything good to say about most other airlines?

Every company can be nicer, and every employee can work to make his or her company a little better to its customers.

My bank, Washington Mutual, offers pretty much the same services as every other bank. But they are really nice. Really, really nice. Tom and Abby remember my name and my wife’s name. They even remember my baby’s name, and she doesn’t do much banking.

I banked at one of the top three banks for ten years, and at one time my company had more than $1 million on deposit. I could barely get them to cash a check or take my calls. And after a while, the random, punitive fees started to eat away any respect I had for this venerable institution. Negative word of mouth from people like me has sent a whole lot of money to banks that treat people better.

The Three Reasons People Talk about You

You won’t get good at word of mouth marketing until you really understand what motivates people to talk about the stuff they talk about.

People love to talk and share opinions. They love to talk about people and ideas. They love to talk about stuff to buy, from the sexy and fun to the dull and mundane.

Three basic motivations drive word of mouth conversations.

Reason #1: You—They Like You and Your Stuff

People talk because you’re doing or selling something that they want to talk about. They love your products. They like how you treat them. You’ve done something interesting.

It’s about giving them a reason to talk about you. The more interesting you get, the more motivated the talkers are. Your customers aren’t going to love or hate you (or feel indifferent to you) for no reason.

Bottom line: You’ve got to arouse some passion before your advocates will begin talking about your company. If you’ve given them something to love, you can build on that. If you’ve given them something to hate or ignore, you’ll have to address that before you can worry about the rest.

A decent product gets recommended to a friend, but only passively—usually when they are asked directly about it:

“What kind of grill should I buy?”

“I’ve got a Weber; it’s pretty good.”

You get much more word of mouth when you make your products worth talking about. The more you make your product buzzworthy, the more it pushes itself into the conversation. The special satisfaction that people get from something great is what moves them from being a passive recommender to an active one:

“Check this out. My new grill has a Pork-A-Licious Thingamabob. You’ve got to try it!”

Being worth talking about doesn’t mean being complicated or expensive. Let’s look at a $2 pen, the Zebra F-301. I mean, what is there to talk about, really? A pen is a pen. It has ink, and it writes. What’s the big deal?

Well, it turns out that it’s a pretty good pen. No radical leap forward in pen technology, just a cool-looking, stainless-steel, smooth-writing pen that people want to talk about. It’s so good that it has inspired actual fans, as well as a huge amount of word of mouth. These fans write hundreds of product reviews and blog posts raving about . . . a $2 pen.

Giving people something to talk about means being creative with how you present your products, services, and company. The day-to-day existence of your business doesn’t provide a reason to talk. You’ve got to keep putting new topics out there.

Even your most die-hard fans need something new to keep them interested on an ongoing basis. Without that extra oomph, you don’t have a conversation. But when you do something special, your fans go bonkers.

We all love White Castle (in that Rolaids kind of way). And White Castle gets decent word of mouth. People talk about it, even make movies about it. But it’s not a part of our day-to-day conversation. So what did White Castle do? It announced that you could make reservations at White Castle on Valentine’s Day. What a silly idea. What a wacky dinner date. What a great reason to talk.

You don’t need to be that clever. You just need to keep it fresh. If nothing special is happening at your business, there is no reason for anyone to talk about you. Find something. Do a promotion, publish a report, have a sale, stock a new line of products. Anything.

What makes your product worth talking about?

Reason #2: Me­—Talking Makes Me Feel Good

Word of mouth often comes down to emotion more than products or product features. We’re driven to share by feelings that are far more about us as individuals than about what a business is doing.

The emotions that drive us to talk aren’t complicated.

We Want to Look Smart. A lot of people get their kicks out of being the expert on their favorite subject. When we tell people about what to buy, we’re showing off what we know. Some people do this really well, and everyone goes to them for advice. We love to talk to these people when we’re making a purchase, and they love to tell us what they think.

With blogs and online communities, it’s gone to a whole new level. People put up pages where they can show off and share. It becomes a labor of love. You also see these people on message boards, those die-hard volunteers who answer everyone else’s questions. They are out there as the expert for everyone to see.

Help these people look smarter. Give them newsletters, inside information, technical detail. More is better. They’ll love you for it.

We Want to Help Other People. The desire to look smart is often paired with a higher-level motivation: to help other people. Some people are so passionate about what they know that they want everyone else to enjoy what they are enjoying. It bugs them to see someone buy the wrong brand or get stuck with an inferior product.

These are the folks who come up to you in a store when you’re trying to decide what to buy and give you an unprompted sales pitch for what they think is the greatest product in the world. Annoying, yes, but driven by a genuine desire to help you out.

Ever met a Macintosh groupie? How could you not? A certain kind of Mac user is so emotionally connected to the brand that they want everyone else to use it. They believe it will surely make everyone’s life easier—and possibly cause peace on earth.

Help these folks help others: Give them samples to share, flyers to distribute, and messages to forward.

We Want to Feel Important. Some people talk because they like being asked. They get a kick out of being the expert. The more people ask for their advice, the more important they feel. It feels good to be an authority figure.

Find ways to recognize these customers and give them higher status simply by acknowledging them, keeping them in the loop, and asking for their input. Being a frequent flyer used to be as much about the gold luggage tag as the miles and rewards.

These customers will talk about you and your stuff because it shows off their importance and expertise and because they feel like they’re in the inner circle.

Give them things that make them feel important: special status, private shopping hours, or advance news.

Reason #3: Us—We Feel Connected to the Group

The desire to be a part of a group is one of the most powerful human emotions. We want very badly to be connected.

Talking about products is one way we achieve that connection. Our jeans, our cars, where we shop, and the beer we drink all are ways we show who we are.

We are emotionally rewarded when we share excitement with a group that has a common interest. We share a bond with people who like the same teams or bands that we do, and we feel a similar connection with those who like the same cars or clothes. The passion generated by being in a group of enthusiasts translates very easily into word of mouth.

Members of groups that coalesce around specific brands, such as Harley-Davidson riders, Macintosh users, and Nikon owners, are the most likely to talk about the companies’ products.

Working with this motivation is all about group recognition. It’s giving away T-shirts, hats, bumper stickers, or temporary tattoos. It’s holding events and rallies that bring people together.

You’ve got to make these people feel special, like part of the family, as though they have some skin in the game.

How to Stop Word of Mouth

Prizes and Rewards

Mixing love and money is usually a bad idea.

Offering customers incentives to spread the word about your stuff is often a mistake. Here’s why: You make them feel dirty if they’re paid for it. Some things just shouldn’t be for sale—friendship, certain kinds of favors, and your recommendation.

People are engaging in word of mouth because they love you or it makes them feel good. When you offer a monetary reward (or discounts, points, or miles) for a referral, you make it awkward and creepy.

Just at the moment someone is about to recommend you, they think, “If my friend finds out I’m being paid for this, they’re not going to trust me. I’d better not say anything.”

Even worse, incentives and rewards often create negative word of mouth. When you pay for it, you risk having people say, “This product is so bad, they need to pay people to talk about it.”

The very powerful emotions that create word of mouth and the resulting affinity with your brand are nothing to be trifled with. You can deeply insult a loyal talker by offering to pay them for doing it.

Like everything in word of mouth marketing, these ideas are plenty obvious when you think about them. But you’ll soon realize that these obvious ideas turn out to be the opposite of what traditional marketing teaches us to do.

A lot of companies offer their current customers rewards for signing up their friends. Whenever I get one of these emails or cards from a friend, I always think, “Well, that’s great. You get $50. But what’s in it for me?” It turns the friend-to-friend relationship into a salesperson-to-prospect transaction. Even good friends or family members are less believable when they’re working for rewards.

But do you remember the original MCI Friends and Family promotion? It was all about mutual benefit. When you told a friend about the program, each of you got a reduced phone bill. You both benefited, equally and together. It kept the motives pure, it respected altruism, and everyone felt good about it. It was all about sharing the savings, not one person making money off the other. It’s still one of the greatest word of mouth programs in history.


When you understand why people talk, one more lesson is clear: Overexposure kills word of mouth.

When everyone knows about something, no one needs to talk about it. Nothing could be dorkier than saying, “Hey, have you heard about Star Wars?” There’s an obvious but often overlooked aspect to word of mouth—it is inspired and kept going by newness. When inline skates and Sony Walkmans were new, they were on everyone’s lips. Twenty years later, they’re not so remarkable.

Forgetting Why People Talk About You

Krispy Kreme was built on word of mouth. Then they killed the conversation with overexposure.

Remember when those were the most special doughnuts on planet Earth? Krispy Kreme had an amazing word of mouth topic—hot, gooey doughnuts. And there was a big neon sign that lit up—“HOT NOW”—when fresh doughnuts were coming off the line.

If you lived in a town with a Krispy Kreme, it was an event, even a tourist destination. You did silly things to show it off. When my wife visited a college friend in Toledo, they went on a mission to get those doughnuts at the instant of freshness. There were two stores about a mile apart. They actually drove back and forth between the stores until the light came on and they could dash in to get those hot doughnuts.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, was talking about those doughnuts. The word of mouth gods smiled upon them and their sugary goodness.

Then the company tried to make Krispy Kreme as common as Dunkin’ Donuts. What built the chain’s great word of mouth—the fact that the doughnuts were hard to get, fresh, and in limited supply—disappeared when Krispy Kreme put its pastries, cold and stiff, on every store shelf. This sudden and massive overexposure killed what was special—in other words, what was buzzworthy or remarkable.

Nobody tells their friends about food you can buy in a gas station.

Excerpted from Word of Mouth Marketing, copyright 2012, Andy Sernovitz. All rights reserved. Published by Green Leaf Book Group Press. Reprinted with permission from the author.