How to Drive "Word of Mouth"

“Where did you hear about us?” It’s a critical question for gauging the effectiveness of your marketing strategy. It’s a question you ask every customer (or at least know you should!) Our favorite response — and probably yours, too — is “a friend told me about you.” Referrals from a friend are powerful and effective. There’s simply no match for the credible testimony of your friends and colleagues.

But as you investigate a little deeper, you’ll discover that a simple referral from a business associate is not quite as simple as it seems. In fact, it’s usually the result of a complex set of factors. When we ask someone, “Where did you hear about us?” the answer we receive is typically mentions only the last in a long series of interactions with our company and its products and services. When we ask a different kind of question, we get more detailed information. As an example, we recently surveyed our web users and asked them to review a list of places we advertise and check any that they noticed.

After more than a hundred surveys were completed, we noticed emerging trends that gave us a much better picture of what drives the “word-of-mouth” advertising that we value so highly. It’s not unlike the picture described in Jay Lipe’s book, The Marketing Toolkit for Growing Businesses. Lipe describes the long chain of events that brought a single new  customer to his consulting business.

It started with a piece of direct mail, followed by a face-to-face meeting, then a proposal. But then it took nine newsletters, a visit to his website, another email and meeting, and a  second proposal before this prospect became a client. Altogether, the journey took five years.

In our own experience, we get plenty of new customers because of word of mouth. But that “wordof-mouth” referral took place in the context of a larger marketing strategy that reinforced our message consistently through advertising in a variety of media, over an extended period of time.

So what’s the best way to drive this process?

Understand The Strengths of Different Media. One example: We’ve been in business for ten years and we’ve used billboards for several of those years. We’ve never made a direct sale from a billboard, as far as I know.  But that’s not why we use them. We use them to reinforce other aspects of our marketing strategy.

In contrast, one strength of online advertising is that we can measure its immediate impact on our website traffic. A website offers prospects a way to “kick the tires” without a salesman lurking over their shoulder, ready to pounce. But after many years in the business, we recognize that it usually takes repeated visits to our websites to turn a prospect into a customer.

So here’s a typical chain of events: A customer may visit our website because of some online advertising, then find themselves reminded of our service through some offline advertising. Then they’ll come back to the website again for more information. Finally, in a conversation with another business owner, they might hear about the success their friend is having by advertising on

Now at last we have that wonderful word-of-mouth referral. But it’s been supported and reinforced all along the way.

Maintain a Consistent Message Across All Media. Since we know that effective advertising requires repetition, it’s important to maintain a consistent message across your media mix. Why dilute your message when you can give it strength by reinforcing it in all the channels in your marketing mix.

Every successful business understands that the real value in advertising is achieved over the long haul. As part of an effective marketing strategy, strong advertising reinforces existing customer relationships, sets your business apart in the marketplace, builds trust, and brings customers to your door.

It even leads to one friend telling another about your business. So what’s the best way to drive word-of-mouth? Keep giving them something to talk about! As one business owner recently observed: “I used to think most of my business came through word of mouth, so I decided to stop advertising. But the funny thing is, when I stopped advertising the word-of-mouth eventually stopped working.”