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Word of Mouth Marketing Strategy & Examples – Promoting Your Business for Less

When was the last time you sought out a trusted associate for advice about an important buying decision?

If you’re like most Americans, it probably hasn’t been that long. According to a Nielsen Harris Poll Online study, 82% of Americans seek recommendations from friends and family members before making a purchase. Two-thirds – 67% – are more likely to buy a product after it’s been shared through social media or email by trusted contacts.

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The bottom line is that word of mouth makes a difference. Whether they know or it not, millions of independent professionals and small business owners rely on word of mouth marketing to keep a steady flow of future customers heading their way.

What Is Word of Mouth Marketing?

Word of mouth marketing is as old as the division of labor itself. Before the Internet, television, radio, print, or outdoor signage, there was spoken language – and the quintessentially human urge to self-promote.

Word of Mouth Marketing vs. Dissociated Word of Mouth

Word of mouth marketing is distinct from “traditional” word of mouth. The latter is dissociated; it’s not organized at any level. Call it grassroots, if you like. The former is organized, campaign-style, by individuals or organizations that stand to benefit. Astroturf, perhaps.

In the traditional word of mouth model, consumers or clients share product or service recommendations within their networks without any direction or oversight from the person or brand behind it. When a small business owner recommends a specific graphic designer to a peer without being asked to do so by the designer, that’s traditional word of mouth. If hired by the peer, the graphic designer benefits from the recommendation without any out-of-pocket expense or effort.

Pro Tip: Word of mouth is an effective lead-generation tactic for independent professionals and freelancers with meager or nonexistent marketing budgets. However, it can precipitate a quid pro quo relationship, wherein you feel beholden to the current or former client whose recommendation secures your next gig. Word of mouth marketing relationships are less personal and more transactional.

Though the concept itself isn’t rocket science, word of mouth marketing is a more complex proposition.

Word of Mouth Marketing Campaigns: Basic Structure

Like traditional word of mouth, word of mouth marketing depends on vectors: product or service users who spread awareness to other potential users. Depending on the circumstances, vectors’ networks can include one or more of the following: friends, family members, coworkers, neighbors, social media connections, blog readers, business peers or competitors, and others.

Word of mouth marketing campaigns come in several different flavors. At a high level, most fall into these organizational forms:

  • Interpersonal Connections: Like traditional word of mouth, this model involves real consumers (vectors) providing suggestions and recommendations within networks. It depends on strong interpersonal relationships built on trust, and requires limited buy-in and investment by marketers themselves. A restaurant that includes a “Tell your friends!” message on its receipts and a landscaping contractor who asks satisfied clients to send new clients his way both benefit from interpersonal marketing.
  • Influencer Marketing: Influencers are ordinary people with outsize megaphones. They can be early adopters, prolific bloggers or authors, unaffiliated subject matter experts, celebrity spokespeople, and others whose profession or social status adds weight to their words and gets vectors talking. Influencers usually have ample social or traditional media followings, which marketers rely on to propagate their messaging to an even broader audience. Depending on the circumstances, they can receive monetary consideration or in-kind compensation (free products or services) for their efforts.
  • Network Coproduction (Seeding and Engineering): Network coproduction is the most complex form of word of mouth marketing. It builds on the influencer model, tailoring product- or niche-specific messages to individual audience groups. Seeding typically involves giving influencers early copies or samples of a product or service, then inviting them to spread the word through their networks. Engineering is even more hands-on, usually involving targeted messaging or talking points that influencers use to initiate and shape influencer-to-consumer or consumer-to-consumer conversations.

Advantages of Word of Mouth Marketing

  1. It’s Often Cost-Effective. For many independent professionals and small business owners, word of mouth marketing is an effective way to cut common business expenses. Interpersonal marketing requires little to no out-of-pocket expense. For small businesses, social media marketing campaigns are usually quite cheap – $100 or $200 in promoted Facebook ads goes a long way. Social deals, giveaways, and sponsorships might seem costlier, but they typically reach wider audiences.
  2. It Builds on Itself. You’ve heard of “going viral.” While most don’t make it, that’s the ideal outcome for every word of mouth marketing campaign – an explosion of peer-to-peer promotion that builds on itself beyond all expectation and earns your business a lot of money in the process. Well-executed, influencer-driven word of mouth marketing campaigns are more likely to take off in this fashion.
  3. It Seems Natural. The Economist cites a 2013 Boston Consulting Group survey that found brand authenticity is second only to the prospect of discounts in securing millennials’ loyalty. (For more insights into the fickle beast that is Generation Y, check out our post on working with and managing millennials.) Compared with other, more overt types of marketing, properly executed word of mouth marketing campaigns practically ooze authenticity –  even if it’s orchestrated from on high. There’s a flip side to this, however – more on that below.
  4. It’s Scalable. Word of mouth marketing is built to scale. As your organization’s marketing budget grows along with its headcount and revenue, you can simply add more influencers, network advocates, and vectors willing to sing your company’s praises. With adequate resources, you can also experiment with costlier channels – celebrity endorsements and paid collaborations with high-profile thought leaders, for instance.

Word Mouth Marketing Referrals

Disadvantages of Word of Mouth Marketing

  1. It’s Difficult to Control. As I said, word of mouth marketing isn’t rocket science. But, since it by nature relies on numerous stakeholders to behave predictably, it’s frustratingly difficult to control. You can do everything right – recruit influencers, seed a network, engineer consumer-to-consumer conversations – without earning an acceptable return on your investment. Before you invest in a word of mouth campaign, research your peers’ marketing efforts or speak with a marketing agency or consultant to determine whether it makes sense for your company.
  2. It’s Hard to Measure. But not impossible: Web and social analytics programs can measure the relative effectiveness of network and influencer word of mouth campaigns in the digital realm. But offline, the picture is muddier. You can’t possibly track every conversation that occurs between your customers and prospects, nor would those individuals want you to. Even when you are aware of such conversations, it’s impossible to prove conclusively that any one interaction made the difference.
  3. It Can Create Reputation Challenges. For better or worse, consumers hold businesses accountable for the actions of their public advocates. The list of celebrity or influencer endorsers who’ve thrown partner companies into reputational crises is long and sordid, but it bears repeating that influencers’ “crimes” often have little to do with the brands they endorse. For instance, when former employees accused celebrity restaurateur Paula Deen of a pattern of racist remarks and behavior, her partner brands couldn’t run fast enough from the ensuing firestorm. (You might say they dropped her like hotcakes.) In the blink of an eye, those brands’ self-interest outweighed any material benefit they could gain from Deen’s once-mighty influence. Unfortunately, these issues are by nature difficult to predict in advance, but I’ll outline some channel-specific best practices for mitigating them below.
  4. It Can Backfire. Authenticity giveth and taketh. For the most part, consumers are smart enough to tell when brands aren’t on the level. If it becomes clear that your organization’s word of mouth marketing partners aren’t being transparent about the source of their messaging, you can expect many of your prospects to turn on you – and your partners. Significant and lasting damage to your reputation could result as well.

Common Word of Mouth Marketing Channels

We’ve gone over the basics of word of mouth marketing. Now, let’s take a closer look at five common word of mouth marketing channels:

  • Social Media Conversations
  • Online Reviews
  • Niche Blogs and Sponsorships
  • Brand Ambassadorship and Guerilla Marketing
  • Social Deals

Each channel is distinct from the others, but all hew to the basic parameters, advantages, and disadvantages outlined above. I’ll walk through each channel’s basic outlines, a successful example from the recent past, and some potential cautions and caveats. If you can think of any caveats I’ve missed, feel free to let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

1. Social Media Conversations

Social media barely existed 15 years ago. Now, it drives many of the world’s most successful word of mouth marketing campaigns. When a campaign goes “viral,” social media is inevitably involved.

How It Works
Social media and word of mouth fit hand in glove. After all, social media is fundamentally about conversations. It’s only natural for some of those conversations to touch on the products, services, and brands that the interlocutors use. Simple social media word of mouth marketing campaigns typically combine:

  • Hashtags: Choose a memorable, original hashtag. It could be as simple as the name of your brand or a particular product, a clever mashup that relates to your organization, or something more abstract. Some brands latch on to already-trending hashtags if they’re not worried about getting lost amid the clutter.
  • Handles: Ideally, your customers should mention your official social handle in their conversations. Every mention is an opportunity to acquire new followers, not to mention a visibility bump.
  • User-Generated Content: Every social campaign is built on user-generated content, whether it’s completely organic and original or informed by influencer-driven organizational messaging.
  • Nudge: Most successful social campaigns drive engagement with nudges – promises of rewards, like a freebie, discount, or special prize. More on that below.

I say “typically” because, of these four components, only user-generated content is absolutely essential. Some social platforms don’t allow hashtags, for instance.

It’s entirely possible to run a social media word of mouth marketing campaign from your organization’s official handle, especially if you have a large, active follower base. Seeded or engineered campaigns involving influencers and targeted messaging have greater impact, though they’re invariably costlier and more complex. They’re often combined with other tactics mentioned below, such as social deals.

A Recent Example
In the decade’s most serendipitous social media campaign, Wendy’s threw down the gauntlet to Carter Wilkerson, a young fan from Nevada. Wilkerson asked a simple question of the fast food giant’s official Twitter handle: How many retweets do I need to get to win free chicken nuggets for a year? Wendy’s responded: 18 million.

The Verge describes what happened next. Over the following month or so, Wilkerson created his own hashtag (#NuggsforCarter), recruited blue-chip companies and name-brand celebrities to his cause, and even landed a prime slot on “The Ellen Show,” whose host previously held the retweet title. Wilkerson blew through the benchmark, winning his year of free nuggets – and, in a PR coup for Wendy’s, securing a $100,000 donation to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. For months of wall-to-wall publicity, the cost to Wendy’s was a $100,000 contribution (likely tax deductible) and a 12-month personal supply of chicken nuggets.

Pro Tip: Check out our guide to using social media marketing to increase sales. It’s packed with great tips to improve your social outreach efforts without breaking the bank.

Cautions and Best Practices

  • Understand Social Media Etiquette. The social media landscape resembles a virtual minefield. It’s littered with pitfalls and traps that, without proper care, can seriously damage your organization’s reputation. Avoid unnecessary damage by following our top social media etiquette tips and best practices.
  • Make Your Nudge Realistic. Talk about herding cats. Getting rank-and-file social users to share your messaging can be a huge challenge. One way to increase engagement is to make your nudge more reasonable and realistic. Wendy’s was genuinely surprised that someone won its retweet challenge because the ask was so enormous. If A-list celebrities don’t get 18 million retweets, how could a random kid from Nevada? Avoid disappointment, and a potential backfire, by setting your sights – and your customers’ – a little lower.

Social Media Conversations

2. Online Reviews

Anonymous online user reviews aren’t the most reliable sources of information about products, services, and organizations. However, many reputable review clearinghouses take their responsibility to provide factual, unbiased information seriously. Influential bloggers and writers stake their reputations on aboveboard reviews. And user-driven sites, such as Yelp, go to ever-greater lengths to verify reviewers’ identities and user status.

How It Works
Sometimes it seems like the Internet is comprised primarily of user-generated reviews. For simplicity’s sake, let’s focus on five main review buckets:

  • Business Directories: Yelp is the quintessential B2C business directory. A great-looking Yelp profile can do wonders for your organization. A Yelp profile littered with one- and two-star reviews is a ticking time bomb. Use point-of-sale nudges to encourage customers to leave positive feedback – for instance, a note on every receipt or a handwritten reminder in each direct-shipped order.
  • Consumer Awareness Publications: Blue-chip consumer awareness publications like “Consumer Reports” have been around forever and are basically impossible to game. Your organization, or at least one of its products, needs to be well established before it’s reasonable to expect coverage from such outfits. The good news is that there are plenty of imitators, many of which have generous submission policies. If you’re trying to build buzz off favorable reviews, and you’re confident in the quality of your product, set your sights low and work your way up.
  • E-Commerce Portals: E-commerce portals like Amazon are havens for user-generated reviews. If you sell on Amazon, include a box inset encouraging positive reviews, or send a follow-up email to customers who’ve just received their orders.
  • Review Aggregators (User-Generated): User-generated review aggregators like Trustpilot position themselves as impartial arbiters of consumer opinion. They tend to have more cachet than directories like Yelp or portals like Amazon. If you sell higher-value products or services and rely on person-to-person recommendations to keep business coming in the door, this bucket should be a priority.
  • Review Aggregators (Third Party): Third-party review aggregators like TopTenReviews follow the consumer awareness publication blueprint without the same exacting standards. Most are receptive to product submissions and PR outreach, so they’re great places to start building review portfolios.

A Recent Example
A few years back, Verizon came up with a novel approach to customer reviews: incorporate them directly into new products and services. The Verizon Idea Exchange sourced thousands of ideas – some great, some not so much – from real Verizon customers. Many arose out of complaints with existing services or delivery methods. Several dozen were incorporated in some fashion into Verizon-led initiatives, or used to improve existing initiatives.

Many companies incorporate customer feedback into their R&D and product development efforts. By creating a stand-alone channel where customers could share their insights, Verizon took this a step further – burnishing its reputation for transparency, flexibility, and receptiveness to feedback in the process. Call it a sixth review bucket.

Alas, Verizon eventually discontinued the Idea Exchange, hinting at the limits of truly open-source feedback mechanisms. If your company has the resources to create a platform for customers to share insights and feedback, why not try to improve on the Idea Exchange model?

Cautions and Best Practices

  • Don’t Pay for Reviews. Paying for favorable user reviews on sites like Yelp and Amazon is an ethically dubious, legally ambiguous endeavor. The probable payoff is too low, and the risk of getting caught by the platform’s counterintelligence team too high, to make the practice worthwhile. Some web publications charge for favorable or soft-touch reviews written by seemingly impartial authors, but it’s often all too easy for prospects to see through the charade. Take my advice and do reviews the right way – even if it’s harder.
  • Closely Curate User Reviews. Keep a watchful eye wherever your product, service, or organization is up for review by end users and those who purport to be end users. Check new reviews for accuracy and consistency. Flag inappropriate or obviously fake reviews. Respond to lukewarm or negative reviews with offers to make things right. Be willing to take the conversation offline if necessary. Even if they don’t say anything, you can be sure that current and prospective customers will take notice. A deft response to a lone negative review can do more to burnish your company’s image – and, by extension, the tenor of its word of mouth buzz – than the twentieth positive review in a row.
  • Check Influencer Reviews for Accuracy. Professional review sites and consumer guides generally maintain strict editorial independence. They don’t allow brands to dictate what they say about – or how harshly they grade – the subject of the review. But that doesn’t mean you can’t contest an inaccurate review. Once your product or service review goes live, pore over it carefully and raise concerns directly with the editor or administrator responsible. Submit evidence or documentation that bolsters your case – simply saying “that’s not fair” won’t cut it.

3. Blogs and Niche Websites

Under the right circumstances, blogs and niche websites remain effective word of mouth generators. The trick is finding the right bloggers and site administrators to broadcast your message.

How It Works
Blogs and niche websites have a lot in common with online review platforms. Both broadcast user-generated or third-party content about your products, services, or company – for better or worse. In fact, many bloggers will happily post editorially independent (but, in many cases, friendly) reviews of whatever you want – for a fee, of course.

Hubspot has a great primer on working with influential bloggers and website admins. Two approaches stand out:

  • Gifts and Giveaways: Sending free stuff to influential bloggers is sort of like playing the lottery, only with better odds. Some recipients will ignore you entirely; others will promise coverage and never deliver. But some will follow through and create nugget after glowing nugget of content about your organization. The right influencer patron can single-handedly break you through your niche’s noise.
  • Sponsored Posts: Sponsored content is created by the influencer, in his or her own words and style, for partner brands. Depending on the influencer’s profile and site metrics, they can be quite expensive – hundreds or thousands of dollars for a single promoted blog post. But, if the influencer’s audience aligns with yours, the resultant buzz can pay for itself and then some. Note that FTC guidelines require site administrators to attach unobtrusive disclosures to sponsored content indicating that they were compensated for the work.

A Recent Example
Hubspot’s influencer primer cites the happy story of TomTom, a veteran gadget-maker looking to break into the competitive fitness tracker niche. According to Influencer Marketing Agency (the outfit that spearheaded TomTom’s campaign), the company gifted its prototype tracker to 45 high-profile European fitness influencers. Nearly half shared photo content of their own accord, producing 85 earned posts in all. The campaign generated an eye-popping ROI of 292%.

Cautions and Best Practices

  • Encourage or Require Partners to Follow Applicable Disclosure Practices. FTC guidelines require bloggers and website admins to disclose certain types of brand relationships. In practice, these regulations are difficult to enforce, but the rules are the rules. Besides, many marketing vets believe that transparency and forthrightness outweigh any perception of inauthenticity. In other words, if the sponsored content is good enough, your partners’ audiences won’t care that it’s paid for – and they’ll talk about it in favorable terms anyway.
  • Build Affiliate Payments Into Your Business Model. If you use affiliate marketing to drive traffic to your product listings, build their commissions into your business model. Since affiliates take a cut of every sale for which they’re responsible, affiliate relationships often aren’t suitable for low-margin businesses. You’ll have to weigh this consideration against the indirect benefits of tapping good-fit influencers as affiliates.
  • Choose Your Partners Carefully. Tread cautiously with potential partners. Before you agree to promote your products on a new blog or niche website, conduct exhaustive due diligence on the property. If you see any controversial content, positions, or themes that don’t align with your brand or seem likely to alienate your audience, steer clear. Be wary of bombast too – a potential partner who seems impulsive, volatile, or overly gregarious is more likely to court controversy in the future, potentially tarnishing your brand by association.
  • Check for Accuracy. Like professional reviewers, bloggers and content partners are fallible. If you’re not given the opportunity to review content for accuracy before it goes live, check the published version at your earliest convenience and bring any issues to your partner’s attention.

Blogs Niche Websites

4. Brand Ambassadorship and Guerilla Marketing

Brand ambassadors are individuals and organizations that proudly fly your flag, in some cases literally. Guerilla marketers are employees or contractors who take your brand directly to your customers. Though potentially costly, both can be remarkably effective at building buzz.

How It Works
This model shares a lot in common with the blog-and-niche-website model. Both rely on influencers, or at least well-organized individuals, to build awareness and disseminate positive messaging. Both commission influencers to act as brand representatives in exchange for freebies, cash payments, or other compensation.

One fundamental difference is that brand ambassadors and guerilla marketers operate in the real world, not online. They rely on person-to-person engagement, not authoritative online content, to build word of mouth buzz.

Because they operate in the real world, brand ambassadors and guerilla marketers are more closely associated with the brands they represent than online publishing partners and marketing affiliates. Depending on the nature of their work, they may even be classified as traditional employees, with all the responsibilities that entails from both parties.

Common tactics used by brand ambassadors and guerilla marketers include:

  • Theme Parties: Theme parties are a great way to build buzz around new products. It’s a popular strategy for beauty product companies, such as Avon, that don’t advertise through traditional media. Organizers, who usually have a financial incentive to sell the products, invite friends and friends-of-friends to house parties to promote their wares.
  • Seminars: Like theme parties, seminars are organized by influential or veteran people within an organizational hierarchy – affiliates or actual employees, depending on the organization and circumstances. This is a common strategy for organizations that sell higher-value products and services, such as timeshares and second vacation homes. It has plenty of detractors – many believe it’s on the wrong side of the line between awareness-building and high-pressure sales, and companies like Herbalife have courted controversy (and invited legal challenges) accordingly.
  • Leafletting: Leafletting is the practice of handing out coupons or freebies on the street. It’s most effective in high-traffic areas – if you’ve ever walked down Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood or through Times Square in New York City, you’ve surely been approached by people handing out free tickets to performances or tapings. Although those examples are best for short-term marketing, leafletting can be used to build awareness over longer time frames as well.
  • Sampling: Like leafletting, sampling involves handing out freebies. It’s ideal for promoting consumable products, such as food or beverages. Samplers are regulars at most grocery stores and outside in high-traffic commercial areas.

A Recent Example
Marketing Profs describes how Coconut Bliss, a small-time dairy-free dessert maker, leveraged at-home tasting parties to build a multimillion-unit business. The first parties happened in and around the company’s Oregon hometown. At each event, brand ambassadors would encourage attendees – most of whom were impressed by the company’s surprisingly tasty creations – to ask their favorite supermarkets to add Coconut Bliss products.

The campaign worked better than anyone expected. Today, Coconut Bliss is a national brand – not quite Haagen-Dazs, but definitely a recognizable dessert entrant.

Cautions and Best Practices

  • Choose Ambassadors Carefully. In a previous life, I worked as a guerilla marketer for a popular quick-serve restaurant chain. I spent part of each morning playing the streets, politely offering samples to would-be customers. The majority of the prospects I encountered were friendly. Most were grateful to get a free bite to eat before lunchtime, and several called the restaurant each day to place actual orders. But I’d occasionally encounter suspicion, resistance, and outright hostility. Some of the businesses in our trade area strictly prohibited soliciting, for example. I invariably handled these unpleasant interactions with grace, but it’s easy to imagine others getting their backs up. Remember that your brand ambassadors are representatives of your brand, even if they’re not technically employed by your organization. Recruit accordingly.
  • Establish Clear Lines for Ambassadors and Marketers. Your brand’s representatives need to know exactly what’s expected of them – no ifs, ands, or buts. Set clear policies and procedures that they’re expected to follow: what to wear, what to say, where to go, who and what to avoid. Get as detailed as you want, but be careful not to create structures that leave you vulnerable to FLSA complaints.

5. Social Deals

Social deals, or social coupons, are limited-quantity discount opportunities designed to attract new customers, build awareness, and generate buzz. Though potentially costly, they can have a tremendous impact when deployed properly.

How It Works
Groupon dominates the social deal space, leaving only scraps to competitors like Living Social.

The archetypal social deal involves a deep discount on a particular product, service, or package. The idea is to entice consumers who either don’t know about your business at all, or wouldn’t be inclined to patronize it without some incentive, to walk through your door (digital or physical) and buy something from you. Hopefully, they’ll share news of the deal opportunity through social media and real-world networks, or simply sing your company’s praises after a satisfying initial experience.

Use cases for social deals are as varied as the businesses that utilize them. However, they’re particularly useful for early-stage organizations looking to build awareness among their target audiences. New brick-and-mortar businesses often time social deals around their grand opening celebrations, for instance. Since Groupon tailors social deals by geography (sometimes down to the neighborhood level), they’re also useful for brick-and-mortar businesses operating in competitive environments – for instance, independent eateries.

A Recent Example
Starbucks isn’t a startup and certainly doesn’t need much help in the word of mouth department, but that doesn’t stop it from running one Groupon deal after another. These invite-only $10-for-$5 gift card deals cater to the coffee giant’s most loyal customers – and create an attainable ideal for less frequent visitors to aspire to. It’s safe to say that Starbucks’s Groupon investment has paid for itself many times over. If you needed any proof that brands of any size can benefit from word of mouth marketing, here it is.

Cautions and Best Practices

  • Understand the Costs. Well-done social deals are amazing brand amplifiers, but they come at a hefty price. A half-price offer on a product, service, or package means a 50% cut to the revenue you earn on that item. For most businesses, that’s more than enough to precipitate a loss on every sale. The more social deals you sell, the more you lose. The (hopeful) upshot is that some new customers attracted by your deal become regular, full-price-paying customers, or spread the word about your company’s generosity and entice new customers to see what the buzz is about. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out like that; many social deal campaigns never pay off.
  • Mind the Fine Print. Use buttoned-up fine print to reduce the direct cost of your social deal campaigns. The goal here is to keep your deal’s applicability as narrow as possible without destroying its value. Scan Groupon’s website or app and you’ll see plenty of quantity-limited deals, say, “Four for the price of two, limit four,” or, “Limit one per customer.” You can also restrict coupon use to nonpeak times – for instance, weekdays for hospitality companies. And it’s common sense to ban deal-on-deal combinations – for instance, no coupons allowed at happy hour.
  • Be Ready for Increased Business. Talk about a good problem to have. If the public embraces your social deal, you’re likely to see a noticeable uptick in sales volume. If your social deal generates serious word of mouth buzz, that trickle could turn into a flood. Make sure you’re prepared for whatever comes your way by staffing up whenever the deal is in force, making sure you have plenty of product in stock, and training staff to handle coupon-bearing customers (including those who don’t necessarily understand how social deals work).

Social Deals Coupons

Case Studies: Tips & Tricks for Word of Mouth Marketers

Tinder: Invest in Quality

It sounds trite, but effective word of mouth marketing really does start with quality products or services. If your quality isn’t up to snuff, all the marketing jujitsu in the world won’t save you. Create a product that you and your team can be proud of, and your customers will reward you with their loyalty – and drop a few plugs around town for good measure.

One of the digital age’s most remarkable word of mouth successes is Tinder, the mobile dating app popular with tech-savvy millennials. Tinder went from zilch to more than 50 million users in under two years thanks to a super-simple interface: The phrase “swipe left” is now an indispensable fixture in the romantic lexicon.

The secret sauce was a tried-and-true word of mouth marketing formula anchored by campus brand ambassadors. According to HuffPost, “These brand advocates were tasked with planning parties and other events at which guests were required to download or engage with the app in order to participate. After that, the brand let these new users do the talking.”

But that wouldn’t have been possible had Tinder not been a quality product that drastically reduced the friction inherent to the online dating game. Tinder’s value proposition was clear to anyone who’d had a bad online dating experience in the past. It’s simple, elegant marketing campaign was just the icing on the cake.

Zappos: Treat Customers and Clients Well

This is another obvious, cliché bit of advice that independent professionals and small businesses fail to follow with remarkable (and depressing) frequency. In some B2C industries, such as retail and food service, you really do have to follow the old saw, “The customer is always right,” even when it’s humiliating or just plain feels wrong.

In less commodified industries, you have more freedom to draw the line with difficult clients or customers, up to and including dropping those that monopolize your resources or otherwise threaten your business. Still, that doesn’t mean you have carte blanche to abuse your clients or intentionally give them anything less than your very best. They’ll tell their friends, generating negative word of mouth that counteracts whatever positive buzz you’re able to build among your more satisfied customers.

Zappos is Exhibit A for the centrality of great customer service. From the very beginning, the online shoe retailer built above-and-beyond service (and a super-generous return policy) into its DNA. Founder Tony Hsieh set aside vast resources for customer-contact staff and sent every management employee on an intense six-week slog through the bowels of its customer service department. Though it crimped Zappos’s margins in the short term, this strategy encouraged explosive growth, and Amazon snapped the company up for nearly $1 billion back in 2009. Today, most successful online clothing and accessory retailers follow suit with outrageously helpful customer service and generous return policies.

Money Crashers: Be as Transparent as Possible

Customers will be more forgiving of your word of mouth marketing efforts if you’re transparent about their intent.

Ask your partners and sponsors to post the requisite disclosure notices, including those about freebies or monetary compensation in exchange for reviews or featured content. Clearly delineate between partners, including affiliates, and regular consumers. Instruct brand ambassadors and guerilla marketers to clearly identify themselves when they engage with members of the public. And, however much you might wish them to, don’t allow partner blogs, websites, and other media outlets to compromise their editorial standards for your benefit.

You don’t have to leave this site to find an example of authentic marketing in action. Here at Money Crashers, we have mutually beneficial partnerships with credit card companies, banks, and other vendors. Check out roundups like our list of the best cash back credit cards or top bank account promotions. You’ll see careful disclosures outlining these relationships, along with assurances about our editorial integrity. Expect nothing less from your partners.

Remember, nothing turns people off faster than the sense that the fix is in. So, let them know it’s not.

Utepils Brewing: Start Early

As they say about children: Start ’em early. Word of mouth marketing is a great way to build buzz for a new business or product line before it’s available to the general public. Existing companies commonly do this by giving influencers advance access for free and asking them to spread the word about their experiences after the fact. New organizations can go one step further and use social media to recruit armies of budding brand advocates.

I saw the latter strategy’s power firsthand. After going public with their plans, the owners of Utepils Brewing, an in-development brewery in my hometown, scoured their extensive social and professional networks (most were craft beer industry vets) for support.

They created a snazzy logo, then plastered it all over T-shirts, memorabilia, and glassware. They invited friends, family, and former colleagues to post pictures of their swag on social media (hashtag: #asthebuzzbuilds), with prizes for the most exotic locales. (I think the winner came from New Zealand.) And they launched an innovative VIP membership program (one-time fee: $1,000) with benefits like free swag, first-come access to ticketed events sponsored by the brewery, and a limited amount of free beer for life.

The brewery struggled mightily before the beer started flowing, and for a while, it seemed like it wouldn’t open at all. Trademark lawsuits, permitting and licensing challenges, and other problems lengthened the development phase and probably added untold cost. Through it all, #asthebuzzbuilds kept people talking (buzzing, you might say). Once the place finally began pouring, more than a year after its initial projected opening date, it was at capacity for weeks.

Final Word

Word of mouth is a crucial component of countless organizations’ marketing strategies. However, word of mouth marketing alone probably isn’t sufficient to support your company’s ambitions. Depending on your industry and business model, you’ll likely need to pair it with some combination of paid social media advertising, email marketing, local sponsorships, and traditional media advertising. There’s no right or wrong marketing mix.

On the other hand, word of mouth marketing is a cost-effective strategy that’s easy to deploy. If you’re serious about giving your small business or professional operation every chance to succeed, it’s hard to see why you wouldn’t want to explore its possibilities. Give it a try and see how it goes.

Do you use word of mouth marketing to promote your small business or independent professional services? What have your results been?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci writes about frugal living, entrepreneurship, and innovative ideas. When he’s not interviewing small business owners or investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, he’s probably out exploring a new trail or sampling a novel cuisine. Find him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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