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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Can you manage or harness Word of Mouth marketing?

This ad is from the home page of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, which publishes a blog, The Womma Word. I first learned about this association from the late Sonny Lykos.

Undoubtedly the most effective -- or damaging - market force affecting your business is word of mouth. What people say about your business behind your back, including current and former clients, employees, suppliers, and in some cases complete strangers, will determine your marketing success or failure. The slickest, most expensive, and best executed advertising strategy will (with few exceptions) go to waste if your community sees your business in a less-than-positive light; conversely, if you are well regarded, your phone will ring or email will ping, and you'll have plenty of business to keep you going.

The answer to the question "Can you manage or harness Word of Mouth marketing?" is two pronged.

If you have a great reputation -- your word of mouth is truly positive -- you can, indeed, capture and use it in your marketing to boost your effectiveness and results. This is great news for many excellent contractors, who in good times, didn't need to look for business -- it came to them without any effort -- but now are facing some challenges as the phone has stopped ringing on its own.

If you have a not-so-great reputation, you need to fix the underlying problems before you begin assertive marketing. The best solution to this issue, I've found from hard experience, is deeply engaging yourself with your business and your clients. You need to clear away the muck of desperate employees, and find first-hand what is wrong and then fix things before you begin worrying about your external marketing.

Finally, of course, if you are new or a start-up, you need to set habits and business practices to create the positive word of mouth setting, and build it from there.

These may be obvious truths, but here is an example of what I mean in practice. Yesterday morning, I received a call from a Chicago-area roofer. He wanted to know what I could do for him. "Do you have blast faxes, or mass email services?" he asked.

"Well, no," I replied. "In the U.S. advertising faxing will land you in trouble with the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and I'm not really into spam."

I made it clear that in fact, I have nothing at all to sell to him -- we don't have a publication serving his market, and even our regional websites are in most areas still hidden under a generic cover page. But as you may notice from the blog's sidebar, I've gone out on a limb and offered free suggestions and advice for marketing, so proceeded to help him as much as I could.
Without an axe to grind (or any benefit in mind for my own business), I asked him if he has a good business reputation. He said, "Yes, our customers really appreciate our service and honesty." Since I am not in Chicago, I have no way of knowing this for sure, but I found this one clue about his business, Wayne's Roofing, at phone number 800-300-5910. ("Great phone number," I told him.)

In his listing on you'll notice this positive comment, posted on March 17:
Great Value; Very honest guys with quick work turnaround. Great pricing, quality materials. I was very pleased with the job they did. I would definitely recommend!
Cool -- as far as I can tell, even with one example, Wayne's Roofing is getting it right.

Now I'm not rushing to suggest that this company spend more (or anything, at all, for that matter) on Yellow Pages listings, and certainly the business owner shouldn't spend money on blast faxes or spam! But I'll take him at his word, he delivers "Great Value".

I asked Wayne some additional questions. He said he is looking for commercial rather than residential work. This led me to suggest:
  1. He work on getting a proper website set up; nothing fancy, just good enough to be an introduction to his business;
  2. He plan some targeted Google Adwords advertising in his market, and take advantage of the free Google Local service; and
  3. He find out which trade associations and groups his most satisfied clients belong to, join these organizations, and then go to association meetings one-on-one with his satisfied clients.
I think Options 1. and 2. went over his head -- he isn't really interested in the Internet, technology, blogging and things like that, and there is no way it makes sense to run a business against its grain. But he liked and thought he could implement Option 3. easily enough. "I enjoy being with my clients," he said. Clearly, if he attends meetings and events with satisfied clients, he will pump the prime for word-of-mouth recommendations.

For example, he could invite a client to attend BOMA (Building Owners and Managers Association) Chicago chapter meetings. He sits at the lunch table next to one of his most satisfied clients, a local property manager. Just imagine the dynamics of the table, the spontaneous observations, and the behind-the-scenes information he can share/receive in this environment. He is setting the stage for referral and recommendation business, and insights into upcoming work and opportunities. He'll also learn through the grapevine about who to avoid -- the slime balls and dishonest businesses or those who can't pay their bills. This only works, of course, if his clients are truly enthusiastic about his service and value.

You may find other clues about 'harnessing word of mouth' in this example. Some companies have found setting up feedback forums and services and publicly encouraging client comments (negative as well as positive) facilitates the expanding impact of Web-based word of mouth advertising. The Apple ads with the bloated (and nerdy) Microsoft Vista user are effective because (alas for Microsoft) they reflect truth -- and what is happening in the word of mouth community; certainly the community I inhabit.

Finally, a word of warning. You may be tempted to fake your word of mouth reputation. If you want to play these games, (which I don't recommend) proceed with caution. Sure, you can seed Internet forums and public listing services with positive comments from your friends and employees, but if these comments don't reflect what is really happening, the backlash will haunt you. You can also pay for artificial and phony surveys to obtain the result you are seeking. But wouldn't it be more helpful for you to know what your clients really think about your business -- and then do something about the underlying problems.

In conclusion, I don't think you can manage or harness your word of mouth marketing. But you can solve the underlying issues to create an environment where positive word of mouth is earned and deserved -- and you can certainly foster and encourage this good-will through your marketing strategies.

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