When the recession decimated the corporate-gift-market accounts of the  Goulet Pen Company, founder Brian Goulet sought out new ideas--and customers--at a fountain pen show near his Richmond, Virginia, home. "It was a revelation, seeing all these fanatical people in fishing vests with pockets stuffed with fountain pens," says Goulet, who quickly realized that pen fans represented a community that he'd missed. He wrote a new business plan, going from pen maker to online fountain-pen retailer. He began to participate in online message boards and forums, and also created a large social media presence, a newsletter, a blog, and more than 1,800 how-to videos, along with interactive, live-stream ones, generating hundreds of comments daily. With revenue in the low eight figures after growing 25 percent in 2018--his wife, Rachel, is co-owner and COO--Goulet has simple advice for companies eager to generate positive consumer comments: "Go where the conversation is happening, solve problems, and add value."

Unsure of how to make the Big Ask? Many entrepreneurs are bold types, but in seeking help, "they basically cede their authority" to customers without giving them a reason to act, says Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at University of Texas at Austin and author of Smart Change: Five Tools to Create New and Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others. There's an art to converting customers into your evangelists.

1. Keep it legit.

Reviews that single out your company's great customer service are disproportionately likely to rate it with five stars, says Darnell Holloway, Yelp's director of business outreach. "What customers want is to be so inspired by your business--mainly through impassioned employees who understand the value of ser­vice in building a brand, along with personal communication from the owner--that they'll spontaneously want to tell people how great you are," he says. Don't extend a quid pro quo--for example, offering a gift card for a good review. That violates Federal Trade Commission guidelines. Yelp advises companies to display signage rather than ask for reviews, such as its "People love us on Yelp" stickers. The implicit message to customers, he says, is "You too can love us there, by posting a review," without asking them directly.

2. Give customers the tools.

The owners of AuraGlow, which sells teeth-whitening products, turned to technology to offer a virtual free trial to prospects, as well as a way to showcase product benefits. The company built a tool that uses pattern recognition and neural networks to allow users to "whiten" their teeth from an uploaded selfie. It's word-of-mouth in every sense--people then share their before-and-after pictures on Facebook and Twitter, which drives sales. "The best way for people to hear about AuraGlow is by seeing how others could be improved," says Marco Massaro, the company's CEO. "That's how we've stayed the No. 1 teeth-whitening brand on Amazon."

3. Quality over quantity.

Sending bulk requests to save time is not the way to go, advises UT's Markman. "Recipients sense the desperation--and the 'somebody please do it' or 'share this' vibe makes every recipient assume the next person will spring into action," he says. Better than these cries for help to the masses is the personal request to select customers in an individual email that acknowledges that you know them through their most recent transaction. "Most important," he says, "genuinely state your appreciation, especially to influencers, should they be willing to post a comment."

4. Be careful with big customers.

When New York City speaker and trainer Ashira Prossack, who advises companies on overcoming workplace generation gaps, was starting out, she was advised to ask for client testimonials she could post. Prossack still makes such requests from a variety of clients, but not in the same way. "If a corporation is paying you a significant fee for your expertise," she says, "be mindful of who you ask for a recommendation. Be sure you get their permission to use their name, title, and company in the testimonial."

5. Laugh off the rejections.

Don't overestimate how much you'll be hurt if a customer says no to your request for a post or review. If a customer doesn't post on your site, it doesn't mean she will shift sales to your competitors. A no could signal that your company isn't enough of a known quantity yet. Customers who turn you down may also feel so guilty about it that they'll avoid future interaction--unless you let them know it's OK. "Remove guilt from the equation," says Markman, who advises thanking your customer for even considering your request. "There's a good chance, if you make another request in the future, those people will recall they previously declined but, because you were understanding, now might want to rebalance the scales in your favor."


Applying Numbers to Words

Can the power of words be measured? Yes, according to Evaluative Lexicon 2.0. To compile the lexicon, researchers examined nine million online reviews that participants scored, and then narrowed them to 1,541 words, which they quantified for emotionality (the degree to which someone's reaction to them is based on emotion), valence (whether the reaction is positive or negative), and extremity (the extent of that positivity or negativity). Most important, some words have more power than others to influence people. For example, the words perfection and amazing are both positive words, says Derek D. Rucker, a professor at Northwestern and co-author of the study. But amazing scores higher (6.6) in emotionality than perfection (4.27). When you promote customer reviews, keep in mind that slight differences in words can have disproportionate results.