Developing smart word-of-mouth marketing

When customers share their consumer experiences through word-of-mouth it's storytelling -- plain and simple. Word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM) is harnessing this inherent behavior by infusing it with intention, measuring it, and using it to empower your brand. And in today's social environment, doing so strategically is more important than ever.

WOMM messages must be trustworthy, credible, transparent, and valuable to influence consumer behavior. But before this can happen, brands have to get some major things right. Word-of-mouth is based on the foundation of your existing brand, customer service philosophy, and culture. Thoughtful, proactive planning is essential to avoid reactionary strategies.

Here are some must-haves for WOMM success:

A trained culture that generates a spectacular customer experience

You have to be exceptional to generate WOMM (and beware of exceptionally bad, which can generate just as quickly). To create positive WOMM, you need to make customers feel so valued and cared for that they can't help but share your messages with others. Remember, they won't feel like sharing when you don't live up to your brand's promises or their expectations for quality. Not only does customer experience excellence help drive WOMM, but it also enormously benefits the whole business.

Developing a smart word-of-mouth marketing strategy

A social community and presence that engages, respects, provides value, and can scale

Customers expect you to be online. They want real-time responses and they are counting the minutes it takes you to respond to an inquiry or comment. You need a social team that is trained to represent the brand and empowered to deliver high-quality interactions before you can leverage a WOMM campaign. Importantly, you need enlisted customers to help you create trusted social content and help get the word out.

A strategy for engaging super fans

What matters to brand influentials (or super fans) on social networks is visibility, being an early adopter through beta testing, and rewards. A social strategy that rewards achievements through discounts/perks for referrals, badges for levels of sharing, etc., allows these people -- who value their own influence -- to strive for higher levels of it on their own. When you provide it, they deliver huge value to your WOMM efforts by creating sharable content.

You also want to remember to engage super fans voluntarily to ward off the appearance of buying them off -- a hint of that will shatter trust instantly. A focus on intrinsic rewards -- autonomy, mastery, relatedness, and purpose --works better than a focus on extrinsic rewards. Take the time to figure out which rewards matter to influential super fans, and create avenues for them to attain those rewards.

High value, helpful content

It's not enough just to announce a sale and expect everyone to shout it from the rooftops. Social community members want trusted, high value, and helpful content. Remember they're seeking out those rare places that they can find and trust these days, and your social community needs to be one of them. This means you do your homework and learn by asking what matters most to your customers. The features, benefits, and rewards that you think should matter might not. Social communities are known for their ability to innovate and drive product development, so tap into your members for their insight, and then provide them with content that they will cherish.

As you develop content for WOMM, remember that the full standard of consumer behavior still applies. People love a good bargain, talking about features and benefits, and they react to content that sparks strong emotion. People want to feel good, and your messaging can contribute to that. Strong content adds value to their daily lives, dreams, aspirations, and overall faith in humanity, and at the same time, increases loyalty and sharing.

Use the lure of virtual items to spark WOMM

With gamification, you can create virtual items that keep people engaged, playing, and interacting with your brand messages. We've all seen the popularity of games like Candy Crush. If it were owned and driven by a brand, can you imagine the market exposure this game would have? Gamification can use virtual messaging to drive sharing and rewards, which social community members crave.

These are just a few of the essentials for a smart WOMM strategy. As with any strategy, there are also pitfalls to avoid.

Keep it above board

Brands need to be mindful that in WOMM there is no room for gimmicks or the slightest hint of manipulation. Social communities expect brands to be honest and genuine in every representation and communication. Regulated industries, such as financial services and healthcare, are under legal obligation to keep things visibly above board.

Transparency is key

Be clear, open, and honest. If you engage with bloggers, for instance, make sure that you obviously disclose any relationship that blogger has with your brand. People know that a brand's ultimate intention is to sell products and services. But they will not tolerate being tricked, lied to, or misled. They're suspicious and constantly looking for ways to decrease their vulnerability, so transparency is extremely important for maintaining trust. Consumers expect to be treated with respect, to be heard, and to engage with real humans, so it doesn't feel as if they're engaging with a corporate entity, or worse yet, a technology.

As social communities transform how brands do business, engaging and driving measurable WOMM is becoming an inherent part of how social communities work. Word-of-mouth is happening all the time -- your job is to get in the game.

Bonnie Thomas is director of content at Lithium.

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