Every business loves free marketing. Anything that brings in leads and customers or clients without having to write a check is the new shiny object. Is ‘Word of Mouth’ one of these?

On another social media site (Alignable.com) designed for small business, the predominant answer most SMBs give as the ‘best source of new customers’ is Word of Mouth. (Ok, from now on, I will abbreviate it WOM to save my two fingers…)

When questioned further, though, none of the business owners can really define an ROI, or prove that WOM has been the key to their growth.

Is WOM a myth? Like ‘Elephant Repellent’, the gardening spray that proves it works by noting no elephants in your garden?

So let’s look at WOM. Is it a system? Can it be relied upon? How does it really work? (Enough stinkin’ questions, already, Mark!)


Is WOM really marketing?

Word of Mouth can be a rich source of leads and sales, no doubt. But to suggest it is a form of marketing is a stretch. Here’s why:

Is it a system?

Although almost every action your business does could be considered ‘marketing’. Great businesses have a complete system that gives them control of who they attract, what message they convey, and a closing system.

WOM is not a system.

Compared to systematic advertising

Here are the 5 basic requirements for an ad to work:

Step 1. Target an ideal client. You must know who you are trying to reach using at least 7 defining demographics/psycho-graphics. This builds clientele that are most probably interested as well as capable (can afford the product or service) of buying.

Does WOM do this? No. You get whoever gets talked to if you get anyone at all.

Step 2. Compiling a list, either online or offline, reflecting the ideal client profile. You want to focus your energy on a narrow list of people. Whether you use online or offline, there are many tools to laser target your message (step 3). Without a list that mirrors your ideal client profile, you will waste time or money. Just as important, your list will help you build a business backed by good prospects.

Does WOM do this? Not at all. There is no list, it’s all guesswork. And it’s not even you doing the guessing!

Step 3. Craft a compelling message. No matter what media you choose in the next step, your message must break through the 5000+ marketing messages your prospect sees and hears every day. It must be as compelling as a ransom note, and cause a need for urgent action.

Does WOM do this? Uhhh, No. You have no idea what message is passed to a friend, neighbor or other prospect. If the individual is a good sales person, it can be good. If not, you will never see whoever they talk to. Or worse, as you’ll see under ‘Double Edged Sword’. You have no control over the message, one of the most critical components of any marketing/ad campaign.

Step 4. Determining the optimum media to reach your profiled ideal clients. Once you have determined your target market/ideal client profile, you now search for a media that will put your well-crafted message in front of your target market.

Does WOM do this? Oops! No. You have no idea what media will be used, the timing, or as we saw already, the message. It may be an offhand comment when the other person is changing a diaper that doesn’t get past the ‘uh-huh, yeah’ stage of recognition. It may simply be an ‘I shopped at this place yesterday’ while driving. WOM doesn’t get your well-crafted message in front of your target audience.

Step 5. Conversion system. Any ad must have a way to bring interested prospects to a buying decision. This ‘conversion system’ is a key element that, if ignored, allows most sales to get away.

Does WOM do this? Sorry, No. The person telling of their experience has no method to convert the listener to a new customer/client. Even rabidly happy people aren’t necessarily sales people. If the new person actually does show up, your existing conversion/closing system may help, but prior to that event, you have no control.


No predictable result

WOM does not have a predictable result. Most marketing and advertising, properly done, can be shown to have a predictable ROI or lead generation figure. WOM does not. You may get 10 leads or customers this month and zero next month. And you have done nothing different in your customer service.


The Double edged Sword

WOM really has two elements- positive WOM and negative. While many only see the positive, the negative is becoming a dominant factor and problem for SMBs.

While smiles all around is great when a client says ‘I heard about your through a friend’, the internet is full of websites that record people’s opinions, and sometimes experience, with your product or service. Negative reviews quickly sink a lot of positive comments. This is negative WOM. A visit to almost any site shows there is a small but aggressive group of humans who could never be satisfied.

Reviews, using any methodology, is a form of referral, infused with WOM. Remember those negative Yelp reviews your business got from that one grumpy customer? That’s WOM at its worst.

Control your own destiny

Lastly, you are letting your customers choose your prospects.

While this sounds appealing, knowing ‘look alikes’ are strong candidates to be buyers, it isn’t necessarily so.

One example that came across my radar recently involved a custom jewelry designer. A happy customer, who was extremely popular, showed everyone her custom engagement ring.

Who wouldn’t want this free marketing, right? Unfortunately, her friends had no idea the price paid. They were embarrassed in the store when their boyfriend, hoping to duplicate the experience, brought his fiancé there. They couldn’t afford the service. Not the ideal client. Sorry, but it was the wrong market.


It can work

Who are the true experts at using WOM? Disney. Their over-the-top experience forces people to tell others. Can you match that? Possibly, but don’t delude yourself. Disney spends millions of dollars to make the experience incredible. (Have you seen all the ‘cast members’ with brooms and dustpans cleaning constantly? Their salary is a marketing expense).

While you may think your service is Disney-esque, your customers and clients may believe it’s more like the 25 cent pony ride outside the grocery store…

And Disney advertises in many different media. Their WOM is an absolute byproduct of a grand experience, and supplemented by additional marketing across various channels that puts their message in front of their target market.


Word of Mouth is a weak cousin to a referral system. While a referral system is completely under your control, WOM is completely out of your control.

Does that mean WOM is bad? Not at all! It’s added icing on the cake, additional potential leads and sales with no marketing cost.

If people talk about your business in a good way, that’s not something you want to stop.

You just don’t want to rely on WOM as your only marketing or advertising.

referral system is the better alternative.


Have a question?

Puzzled by something in marketing? A question you’ve been dying to ask? Send a note to: Mark@TakeControlMarketing.com.


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Mark Mehling is an award winning direct response marketing consultant and copywriter.