This month’s Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly column: Get them talking

I write a monthly column about social media for the Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly. This month’s is about social media as a word-of mouth accelerator.

Get them talking

Positive word of mouth has always been the holy grail of marketing. Unlike exposure generated through advertising or print materials, word of mouth is free. And because the message is conveyed by your customers, it’s perceived as much, much more credible than the messages you deliver about your own product or service. In short, it’s by far the most effective way to get the word out.

As you might expect, however, there are a couple of catches:

  • Generating word of mouth doesn’t just happen. Your product or service has to be truly outstanding in order to get your customers talking; and
  • You can’t control word of mouth. It’s up to your customers to decide whether they’re willing to tell your story.

While these factors might tempt you to leave word of mouth to chance, it’s never been more important to understand its power and understand how you can position yourself to generate as much of it as possible.

Today, social media acts as a word-of-mouth accelerator, allowing your customers to connect with others at an unprecedented scale and speed. Taking advantage of the opportunities this presents begins with an understanding of how social media is changing communication among your current and prospective customers.

Here’s one example that demonstrates how word of mouth has changed as a result of social media. My friend, Heather, recently posted a question on her Facebook wall. After more than 20 years with the same optometrist, she was looking for someone new.

She could have gone to the phone book to investigate her options. She could have gone to Google. She could have waited until an optometrist’s advertisement found her at exactly the right time and place. She could have gone to her friends one by one, on the phone, face to face or via e-mail. But instead, she posted a message on her Facebook wall, crowd-sourcing the problem to her friends.

The results, as they so often are, were astounding: within 16 minutes, Heather’s friends recommended five different optometrists, each one getting rave reviews. (There was also one mention of an optometrist who was not recommended — a great reminder of the power of negative word of mouth.) With her choices filtered through her trusted connections, she was ready to make a choice.

Heather’s story reveals a few important lessons about social media’s impact on word of mouth:

  • It’s never been more important that your name come to mind first when someone has a need related to your product or service.
  • Brands are not invited to participate in these conversations — jumping in with a unsolicited sales pitch would likely do more harm than good — but it’s vital that they listen to what’s being said.
  • Putting the proverbial glass against the wall — on Facebook or any other social media site — can shed new light on perceptions about your business and your competitors. The challenge is to resist the temptation to react to everything that’s said, and instead look for trends, working to reinforce positive impressions and fix problems. It’s like an ongoing focus group, but only if you know how to listen objectively.
  • The quality of your network matters more than ever before. The better connected your customers are, the more new customers you’ll be able to reach through them.
  • Having a social media presence won’t, on its own, generate positive word of mouth, but it can help. By making yourself available and sharing content that’s relevant to your customers’ needs, you’ll build stronger relationships even when you can’t be with them in person. That, combined with a great product or service, makes it more likely you’ll come to mind when your customers are asked to share their opinions.

Word of mouth has never been more important to the success of your business, and it’s never been easier to get your customers talking. Focus on offering a product so great that they’re eager to recommend you, take the opportunity to listen and give them the means to share your story.

By doing so, you’ll take full advantage of word of mouth, the only marketing tool that’s impossible to ignore.

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