by Don F Perkins

I talk to owners of small and medium size businesses nearly all day about online marketing. A large percentage tell me how they get a lot of their business via word of mouth. So I began analyzing this important means of obtaining new customers. Here’s what I found out: Like anything else, it has it’s pros and cons and should never be considered a replacement for online marketing. Here’s why:

Word of Mouth Can Murder Your Message

Thank my friend Frank down in the great republic of Texas for this amusing story: He was chatting with his neighbor out in the yard between chores, sharing wisdom and one-liners about growing old and trying to stay healthy. A neighborhood kid overheard them and offered his two cents: “An apple a day keeps the dog awake.” Evidently he had heard his Dad offer this health advice before, and thought he would beat him to the punch. Unfortunately, he misheard the age old maxim: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” They all had a hearty laugh, but it goes to show people don’t always hear what you are saying, at least not with the accuracy we always hope for. It’s like that game we played as kids where someone whispers a message into some else’s ear, and then they do the same to a third, and they to a fourth. By the time you get to the seventh or eighth person, you all get a good laugh at what they heard and no one can remember what the original message was. Word of mouth is great for building trust, but sometimes your message can get kind of jumbled.

Word of Mouth Can Make Your Message Vague

Last summer I made a sale that broke records for revenue. It was my largest sale with that company to date. On signing the contract, the client said to me: “I’m glad we’re doing this. I don’t know what you said, but it made perfect sense to me.” Unfortunately, I was riding high on the crest of the signed contract wave and I couldn’t remember either. To this day, he’s one of our biggest fans and contributes lots of word of mouth marketing, but he’s a craftsman, not a marketer. He really likes what we do, but he doesn’t know how to describe the benefits or value in a way that differentiates us from any other content marketing company. I was new with the company at the time and evidently didn’t make sure that our message was easy to remember. Word of mouth can result in a vague, impotent version of your message.

Word Of Mouth Can Be Biased

I had a client tell me the other day that the part of online marketing she can’t stand is online video. She would much rather read a page of text about a product or service than watch a video. I told her what I tell many of my clients: when it comes to content, you should try and think like your customers and not like yourself. For her, reading to herself off a page is more meaningful than it would be to the vast majority of us who are either visual or kinesthetic learners. Visual and kinesthetic learners get a lot more from pictures or having some sort of hand’s on experience than reading plain text. Statistically, only around 20% are auditory learners like her. Word of mouth marketers tend to tell your story emphasizing why they like something, which may not or may not be what will appeal to the majority of consumers out there.

Word of Mouth Can Be, Well, Wordy

I used to work for a rugged mobile computer company. On a sales call with a client on the docks in Rhode Island, my sales colleague was going on and on about the technical specs for ruggedness and durability of the device we sold: MIL-SPEC this and IP54 that. Meanwhile I could tell by the look on the client’s face that he was skeptical of the durability of the device. So I grabbed the mobile computer out of my colleagues hand and tossed it in a nearby bucket of water. We fished it out and turned it on and completed the demo. The client didn’t need specs. He needed to see that if this thing gets wet, it’s still going to work. Sometimes word of mouth doesn’t do you any favors. Depending on the word of mouth marketer, they may give your prospect way too much information, over-complicating what should be a really simple value statement with short, sharp teeth.

Four Keys Takeaways for Online Marketing

Make your message simple enough that an eight year old can tell you what it means.
Make your message accurate with enough detail that it doesn’t get misunderstood.
Make your message targeted so that you reach the correct audience and resonate with them.
Make your message memorable so that even after some time has passed, the message sticks.

Word of Mouth Marketing VS. Online Marketing

With word of mouth it’s difficult to control what people will understand, remember, and say about your product or service. It’s worth noting that among my clients who do use online marketing, they say that between 10% to 30% of their business is word of mouth, while 70% to 90% is a result of their online marketing. They also tell me that somewhere between 10% and 30% of their customer base goes away each year. Clients move, they die, they retire, and unless they are replaced with new customers, the business eventually becomes nothing more than a sweet memory. Your industry, region, market, demographics, etc. all come into play of course, but one thing is clear, relying on word of mouth marketing, as great as it may seem, is not going to generate enough buzz for the majority of businesses out there trying to grow more profitable and gain new customers.