What direct marketers can learn
from Word of Mouth Marketing

It’s official. Word of Mouth Marketing is the current celeb-of-the-month in the world of marketing. You’ll find WOM mentioned in every forward-looking marketer’s plan. It’s on people’s lips and on their websites. And there’s nothing like flapping lips to spread the word that marketers want to have spread.

Just recently Sir Richard Branson, a savvy marketer as well as the money and mouth behind Virgin Airlines, spread the word that he was offering a cool $25 million to anyone who discovers a way to remove a billion tons of carbon dioxide a year from the atmosphere. Hmmm ... I wonder how long it will take for that offer to make its way around the water coolers of the scientific community?

Although WOM has been around forever (think cavemen confabs), today’s digital marketers are making the most of WOM. First and foremost, marketers know that now they can get the word out at incredible speeds. They’re also well aware that consumers’ distrust of advertising hype keeps heading north. So what better way to spread the marketing gospel than by product evangelists -- people like you and me who happen to love what a company has to sell. If marketers can get consumers to write heartfelt love notes that travel at the speed of light, at virtually no cost, they’re in marketing nirvana.

What’s the definition of Word of Mouth Marketing?

According to WOMMA, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association,, the following are some of the terms that fall under the general WOM umbrella:

Buzz Marketing uses entertainment or news to get people to talk about your brand or product.

Guerilla Marketing uses unconventional ways to pursue conventional marketing goals.

Viral Marketing employs strategies that encourage individuals to pass on a marketing message that creates the potential for exponential growth.

Grassroots Marketing uses volunteers to promote outreach.

Brand Blogging creates blogs, user-generated reviews, and social networking sites to get the word out.

What can traditional direct marketers learn from successful WOM programs?

Here are a few suggestions...

Leverage your buyer’s passion. Toyota does it for their hybrid cars with a dedicated microsite where buyers sing the praises of their cars and share stories with other satisfied customers. It’s a site where Toyota can send prospects to experience the siren song of this special hybrid. The site is simple, sincere, and compelling. It’s an ideal way to get prospects to cross over from being tire kickers to customers. I guess you could call it using testimonials to the nth degree – a technique that’s second nature to savvy direct marketers.

Initiate a get-a-friend program. This old warhorse of so many traditional DM programs uses coupons, discounts, free merchandise, and other incentives in the hope a customer will bring a friend onboard. Why not borrow a page from viral marketing and use it in conjunction with a get-a-friend program? You might begin by creating a story, situation, or offer so unique and compelling, people will want to pass it along to others. Then make sure you include a way for prospects to respond so you can capture the order. Using online sites for just branding your product is great. But DMers know nothing is better than closing the sale.

Use “fast 50” offers with a twist. Customers are up to their ears with clock radios and calculators—premiums that are frequently used to drive a quick response to a direct mail offer. So instead of the traditional rewards, you might offer the first few responders “15 minutes of fame.” Give them a platform to relate their experiences with your product or service. Create an online video, an editorial, or a commercial with a “winner’s story.” Think Volvo’s current TV commercial featuring regular folk who drive Volvos because they want all the protection they can get for that special someone in their lives. It’s reality advertising coupled with a plug for your product.

Create a website with a real point of view. Start with information so valuable, you make yourself indispensable to customers and prospects alike. The goal is to make visitors want to continually revisit your site and pass the word along as well. Frequent travelers for example, always want to know which airlines have the best safely records. Which airline to avoid. Where they can find the best deals. The rules and customs of certain countries they need to be aware of.

Think about the information your customers can’t live without – and what they’d love to share with friends. Be sure to keep your information current. Keep it personal. Include benefits. And last but never least, always show prospects an onramp to the order.

Promote involvement using “street teams.” When Hachette Filipacchi launched Shock, a photography magazine, they knew many of their readers were young, wannabe photo journalists. With this in mind, they launched a three-pronged campaign using the reader’s desire to participate in the photography process to get the results they wanted. Hachette’s aim was to boost awareness, increase circulation, as well as create reader-generated content for their magazine and website.

Their game plan went something like this: Using online networking, flyers, posters and events, Hachette deployed street teams to spread the word that Shock was looking for great content. A special website was established where students could compete for weekly prizes of $250 for best photo. A $10,000 prize and a spot in the magazine were awarded to the overall winner.

The results: The website was flooded with pictures from almost 16,000 uploads, surpassing Hachette’s estimates by 60%! Subscribers loved having their photographs showcased in the magazine. Shock added a college section to its magazine print version. And the publication was squarely thrust into the lives of its target audience. Not a bad outcome from some judicious word of mouth coupled with an offer that leveraged the prospects’ desire for involvement.

So what’s the takeaway for DMers? Think about new ways of using satisfied consumers to play a roll in telling your story as well as selling your product. Offer compelling information about your product as well as related topics that are worthy of being passed on. Keep your communications personal. Make it easy for customers to communicate with each other… and with you.

Ruth Sheldon is an award-winning independent freelance copywriter and consultant with more than 25 years of experience in direct marketing. She can be reached at