Pass it on

There’s no empirical proof that it works, and marketers are split over how and whether it works, but among small businesses, word-of-mouth advertising is one of the most sought-after competitive advantages.

“I think when people talk about word of mouth advertising, they’re really talking about discussion,” says Stan Madden, chairman of the board at the American Marketing Association in Chicago. “It’s not like thought control, where you begin this process, one, two, three, and then you get word of mouth. You can’t control what people say, and sometimes they say nothing.”

“I believe that most people think [generating word of mouth advertising] is not possible,” counters Godfrey Harris, president of Harris/Ragan Management Group in Los Angeles, and author of “Don’t Take Our Word for It” (Americas Group; book or cassette). “I think that is totally naïve.”

One thing Harris and Madden agree on, the author says: “All our ideas are to get the conversation started.”

Getting the buzz started about your business is something every entrepreneur desires. Whether you believe that buzz comes from word of mouth doesn’t matter as long as it has the desired effect–more sales. Here are some tips for the believers and the merely curious.

“It won’t automatically happen; you have to make it happen,” says Audrey Duskey, professor of marketing at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Word of mouth is active-tense, not passive. “What you need to have is something so wonderful, so unique, so outstanding that people are bound to talk about it.” Personalized service, “extra-mile” attention, celebrity endorsement and special events are some of the more common ways to start the masses murmuring.

Make the customer special. Harris recalls a client who made awnings and covered cushions at his boatyard. After a job was done and he’d assured the customer was satisfied, he’d send a note that read, It’s our policy to share any savings we get on materials: Here’s your share. Enclosed would be a check for 20 or so dollars. That got them talking, Harris says.

Make customers curious. Guskey remembers a local restaurant that offered everyone in the place a free dinner–but only on the first Monday of randomly chosen months. “They packed the place.” Another restaurant let customers pay according to how satisfied they were with the meal and the experience.

Members get privileges. As an example, Harris suggests setting up an on-hold phone recording that rewards inconvenienced customers. One company’s recording told the customer to say the word “sunob” (bonus, spelled backward) next time they came to the cash register for a limited-time 15 percent discount on a purchase. The idea is to let some people in and make others want to get in.