"Surprise and delight" stunts are big in marketing, and the allure isn't hard to fathom. In addition to attempting to create positive interactions with thousands of customers, a brand can, well, delightfully surprise a single customer. Supplying a special moment for one individual limits expenses while enabling a company to broadcast its generosity and charm as widely as possible.

The problem is, this tactic is one-and-done. Social chatter will spike after a successful surprise campaign, which is beneficial in the short term. The big question is: How do you scale the sentiment?

Instead of taking a gamble on one customer's good graces, differentiate your brand with a small but consistent gesture. It might be quirky hold music, a truffle on the customer's way out the door, or an extra helping of fries. All that matters is that the gesture gives your customers--every single one of them--something to talk about. This is the strategy word-of-mouth marketing experts Jay Baer and Daniel Lemin advocate in their new book, Talk Triggers.

"The objective of a talk trigger is for that communication to be more consistent and compelling than it would be organically," according to Baer and Lemin. "Talk triggers make word of mouth purposeful and powerful instead of circumstantial and uncertain."

For their book, Baer and Lemin partnered with Audience Audit to research the impact of word of mouth. The bottom line: "83 percent of Americans say that a word-of-mouth recommendation from a friend or family member makes them more likely to purchase that product or service."

So how do you execute such a strong yet simple strategy? Ask yourself these questions when implementing talk triggers in your own company.

1. What story do you want people to tell about your brand?

This isn't just for paid influencers--we're talking about every single customer. A talk trigger should be a core component of your brand's operation. Make sure the trigger complements your brand story, as the two will become inextricably linked.

For example, if you're in the hospitality industry, an ideal talk trigger might be one that makes customers feel welcome. Perhaps you provide guests who stay at your hotel with a small gift--a pair of warm socks would be most welcome at a ski lodge, say--or you consistently welcome them by name as they re-enter the lobby. By definition, a talk trigger is something that your customers will discuss with one another. Since the trigger is yours to design, think carefully about the type of story you want people to tell.

2. Is there a small way you can consistently stand out from your competition?

Figure out your differentiator. To be a true talk trigger, a differentiator must adhere to Baer's four R's. First, it must be remarkable in a literal sense--an effective talk trigger causes customers to remark on it. Next, it should be relevant to your brand. It must also be reasonable, since it requires customers to believe one another when they talk about it. Finally, it's no good unless it's repeatable. Buying every hundredth customer a new car isn't sustainable, but giving every customer a branded key tag might be.

If you've ever stayed at a DoubleTree Hotel by Hilton, you already know this hospitality chain's talk trigger. That's right--the hotel gives away 75,000 fresh chocolate chip cookies each day. Baer's and Lemin's survey of 1,000 customers found that more than a third of them mentioned the cookie in the previous two months, meaning that at least 25,000 customers per day are talking about the cookie. If you're a customer, you are the ad for Hilton.

3. How can you design talk triggers into your product or service?

If you've ever seen a Bird scooter whiz past you, there's a good chance that you remember it. You could argue that an electric bike would actually be a more effective form of transportation, but we see bikes all the time. When Bird launched, using scooters for personal transportation was unique, and that compelled people to talk about the concept.

When your product is still on the drawing board, figure out how to build talk triggers in. The Cheesecake Factory's talk trigger is its menu, listing 250 options over dozens of pages. The book-length menu may actually come to a customer's mind before the cheesecake! According to Baer, the renown of The Cheesecake Factory's menu is the reason the restaurant chain only forks over 0.2 percent of its revenue for advertising.

4. How can you improve customer experience across the board?

It should go without saying, but capitalizing on word-of-mouth marketing requires a consistently positive customer experience. Thanks to the social media megaphone, it's easier than ever for customers to broadcast their experiences to the rest of the world. If these experiences are negative, it will cripple your word-of-mouth marketing before it even has a chance.

Consider Zappos, whose CEO Tony Hsieh explains that the company intentionally prioritized customer experience over advertising from the very beginning. Buoyed by repeat business and positive word of mouth, the company now brings in billions of dollars in revenue. If you think you can't find the budget to improve customer experience, emulate Zappos and borrow from your advertising spend.

A good surprise and delight stunt will inundate social media for a time, but smart brands know they need to scale this strategy for the long term. By focusing on the power of talk triggers, you'll keep the conversation about your brand going. In the early days of DoubleTree, executives probably didn't expect to pin their marketing strategy on chocolate chip cookies. Fortunately, they--and you--now know better.

Published on: Oct 3, 2018