Word of mouth drives all buying actions.

That’s kind of a crazy, and likely seen as, old-fashioned view. I mean, we have all these methods of getting in front of people we certainly aren’t limited by word of mouth. However, I believe we are…

We believe marketing = tools and tactics

We usually think of marketing as a set of tools, tactics, techniques, and actions designed to create awareness, desire, match needs to a market, and ultimately to get people to buy. And all of those are treated as a measurable and mostly A to B process: we create an ad and people buy. (That doesn’t mean attribution is easily measured.) We end up with a perception of a ‘causal’ relationship; the ad triggered an action to buy. Psychology plays a role, of course. And multiple ads or other exposure to the product or brand are key to bringing someone to the point of action. At the end of the day, we believe that our tactics and tools caused the buying action to take place.

I suggest that the tools and tactics, and all the other marketing stuff we do, actually are only an intermediary step to creating a word of mouth activity that causes the buying action. The more effective an ad is at getting people to talk about it to each other, the more it’s driving word of mouth and, in turn, buying actions.

Well, perhaps you’re thinking that given a need for something – a problem that’s ready to be solved – putting an ad or some other marketing tactic in front of the potential buyer is going to trigger an action. The equation seems satisfied: problem + solution + availability of solution = purchase. That’s the commonly accepted understanding of the reason for most ads: to precipitate a purchase in a timeframe that benefits the business and is within the time window of need of the customer. Why would word of mouth be at all important in this equation? In fact, most of the time it’s considered extraneous or not even considered at all. Or, labels like ‘social proof’ are attached, implying that is sufficient for pushing someone over the edge.

Trust is missing when we take a tactical approach

The missing component that’s difficult for the average business person to see is trust. Essentially, the ad viewer is going to ask themselves (even subconsciously) if the advertiser is trustworthy or a scammer? Will they deliver if I send money? Or not? Will the product do what they say? Would my money be well spent? The advertiser forgets the underlying question of trust (unless they’re a scammer) because they themselves believe they will deliver what they’re offering. That they are trustworthy. The thought rarely occurs to them that they aren’t – there’s a bit of fundamental human psychology here that, for the most part, we trust ourselves and our intentions.

Referring trust

And while reviews or likes or comments (also known as social proof) help to build trust, the most powerful component comes from someone associated with the prospective buyer referring trust. Facebook recognized this with the piece of information about which of your friends likes a page, so that you could see that people you know trust that business. That little addition has made all the difference in the effectiveness of Facebook advertising: a digital version of word of mouth. ‘So-and-so of your friends like’s this page’ is almost as good as the person saying ‘Yeah, these people are ok.’ Yelp put this in place by having reviewers friend others, so that a review has a greater potential of referring trust if you know the reviewer. Anonymous reviewers or people who rarely do reviews aren’t as trusted.

How is this ‘word of mouth’? Unless an account gets hacked, those reviews or the page likes are words that came from a person you know. And that’s the baseline for referring trust.

Additional motivators help to get people to buy, like a need to belong or fear of missing out, or more. But, those motivators are all on top of trust. Coca Cola depends on building affinity: the consistent message across decades of their advertising is that you drink Coke because you’re part of an important group of people doing something cool. The cool factor changes over time, but the affinity, belonging part doesn’t. However, if you don’t trust that Coca Cola is going to actually put coke in the cans or bottles and that it’s not going to be poisoned or the containers aren’t going to be only half-full, then their cool belonging advertising won’t cut it. And how do people find out that they fill their containers and that no one is dying from the stuff in them? Word of mouth. How do people first find out that Coca Cola is a worthwhile company to buy from? One of their friends invites them over when they’re a teen and offers them a coke. They trust their friend, try the coke, and then associate the experience with the product and that the product was what it said it was. Boom. Word of mouth.

Viral = word of mouth

Last note on word of mouth for now. What’s the big goal for digital ads? Having it go viral. What is the most important component of creating a viral piece of content? Making it worth sharing. As in, your friends share it because they think it’s fun/cool/touching/worthy and they’re willing to risk their reputation on sending it to their friends. That share carries referred trust. And likely if you are on the receiving end, you’ll share it too.

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