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Limited Budget? Try building a word of mouth programme instead, says expert

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With evolving consumer preferences and media habits, consumers are spending an ever increasing time on their smartphones and on internet. So gaining their attention and building brand propositions and equity has become only tougher for marketers. It’s a given therefore that the inclusion and integration of new mediums in marketing plans can’t be ignored.
However, merely having a spend plan that integrates all new mediums to reach out your core message to prospective customers isn’t enough; especially when there is a need to differentiate and gain consumer traction rapidly. To supplement conventional communication efforts in building a positive association for the brand, it becomes imperative for brands to also invest in building word of mouth.
This is especially important for businesses and brands that seek to challenge the status quo or wish to influence deeply ingrained consumer habits; though it’s proven to be as useful for brands that simply seek to up their shares in highly competitive contexts.
Building word of mouth is not as easy or as simple as having a great product or service that your consumers like and then spontaneously talk about.
In an increasingly cluttered & noisy world, it requires a dedicated, structured programme with multiple interventions, initiatives and a sound understanding of the cascading network effects that each can achieve. Research indicates that consumers, especially millennials, are in active ad avoidance mode. They switch channels on TV & radio, block ads on the internet and on their smartphones or get into similar ad avoidance behaviour across other mediums.
Most see ads as an unwanted disruption that they can live without. Their preference is moving increasingly to content that they can download and consume at their convenience. Conventional ad heavy media options are increasingly out of sync with this changing reality. On the other hand, there is growing evidence of the staggering growth of personalised feedback and recommendations shared by friends, family, colleagues, especially on social media platforms.
Whether you intend to try a new restaurant, or buy a new washing machine or a food brand to lose weight, a word from a friend or acquaintance makes a huge difference. At the core of this is the broad understanding that as social creatures we love to share, boast, display, project, etc.
What is undeniable is that we trust and believe the personalised feedback and comments so shared by a group as an objective, non-partisan and without the associated commercial trappings of paid advertising.  It is in this context that service businesses (retail, hospitality, etc) & new product businesses can benefit immensely by operating programmes that systematically channel the writer, photographer and critic that social media has made us all.
Knowledge so shared tickles us more than any form of paid advertising. Additionally, there is implicit trust in the information so shared.
The crux of a word of mouth programme therefore rests on credible content generated by consumers like us. The guiding principle behind building a word of mouth or advocacy programme is to use your consumers as influencers by channeling their individual energy and interest in your brand and providing platforms for them to share the same with other like-minded consumers. As the owner of the programme, your business or brand needs to continuously provide relevant insights and, in general, the fuel to inspire, educate, excite and intrigue customers in equal measure. Customers imbibe what your brand shares and layer this with their own experiences. They generate it as their own content and share it with their extended families on social platforms as well as in one-on-one interactions.
The role of your brand is to manage and facilitate this process. How to create positive word of mouth
• Identify target segments that are most likely to share experiences and generate content. Let’s say, your brand targets a chosen demographic of (say) urban women, 25-50 years old belonging to upper socio-economic segments. From this – basis your brand needs – you could identify specific psychographic segments that are more likely to benefit and share your brand with others. For instance, you could chose women who are in their mid 30s, are highly health & fitness conscious, and lead an active lifestyle as well as those who are in their mid 40s but more affluent and prefer brands that showcase their status.
• Put a structure in place. Avoid making your content and programme appear as ad-hoc or inconsistent. Put in place a structure to generate continuous content that’s relevant to your target customers. This should encompass:

  1. Activities and events that are staged offline in the real world. This diverse blend of activities can include performances, lectures, talks, demonstrations, one-on-one with celebrities, celebrity appearances, wine & cheese evenings, fun events for kids or whatever that’s relevant to the brand and the business.
  2. A list of influencers that can include domain experts (fitness experts, chefs, journalists, doctors, fashionistas, tech experts, R&D guys, etc), social media experts (bloggers, journalists, home chefs, or people relevant to your category) and fans of the brand with a large following on social media, and maybe a few celebrities that you can work with.Experts must ideally be seen as objective, trustworthy and as thought leaders by customers; not those who are seen to be making recommendations due to monetary considerations. So film and sports celebrities must be used judiciously and sporadically. Also, they should be from the fields that are relevant to customers and to your business. You must be able to work with them over time and understand their area of expertise as much as you expect them to understand your business.
    A diverse set of influencers, say, a mix of celebrities, social media experts, and domain experts can be a potent combination to build a strong network effect.
  3. A consistent tonality and defined zone for content. As brand owners, define the broad contours for content to operate in and make efforts to keep it relevant and unique. Brands willing to walk this path must look at themselves as thought leaders and be honest in their tonality and in ensuring the authenticity of content being shared.

• Grow your fans and social media community over time with consistent and relatable content. Don’t be in a hurry to accumulate fans or followers overnight. Cultivate them over time. To get your fans talking via social platforms, just having a presence on these networks isn’t enough. The trick is consistency in dishing out relevant content, being friendly (not preachy) in your tonality, and humanising the brand to make it more relatable.
The most critical aspect of the programme is the right content. A brand must identify the right content themes for itself that are not just relevant to its TG but, importantly, help build long term value as well as topicality. For instance, an appliance maker struggling to establish itself as a serious brand can choose to talk about technology, what went into it and how much effort the brand takes to ensure customer needs are met or exceeded. Frivolous content may help virality but not in building a serious preference for the brand.
Also different content pieces should not start looking disjointed, making customers wonder what the brand stands for. While you are engaged in growing your base of followers, be wary of acquiring customers through excessive paid promotions.
My own experience is that for the sharply positioned brands, paid acquisitions end up targeting and acquiring sets of customers who don’t necessarily relate to the brand and thus serve no real purpose in influencing others. However, it’s a great option for brands that target the large mass of consumers.
• VARM your customers, fans and followers

  1. Value your customers and their contribution by acknowledging and viraling good content generated by them.
  2. Acknowledge their achievements as much as you would like them to acknowledge your achievements and milestones. Go beyond wishing them on their birthdays and anniversaries. Integrate with their lives. Build stronger one-toone relationships with them; and the buzz will follow naturally.
  3. Responsive platforms are appreciated by customers. Nothing irks customers more than delayed responses. A well-handled complaint, irrespective of the issue, is more likely to keep customers happy and engaged and talking positively about your brand or service.
  4. Make them feel privileged. Invite a select few to preview your new content before it becomes public or invite them to your events and programmes or get them to try your new products or services before they are out in the public domain. The feeling of being part of an exclusive set and being recognised gets their creative juices flowing and gets them to generate positive content and share it happily on their walls online and with their friends offline. Word of mouth marketing can be highly effective and relatively inexpensive if it’s part of a larger integrated content strategy.

• Create and maximise network effect To be able to maximise the impact, you could plan a mix of offline events and social media activities running sequentially and sometimes concurrently. The target is to have different sets of your target consumers and fans talk about your brand and help build its equity distinctly. For instance, for say, an apparel retail business or for a cosmetic retail store or an upmarket furniture or gourmet retail business, you need to have the following:

  1. Content themes – Have your regular social media content themes centred around your specific product lines, new launches, your sourcing approach or the refined nature of your products or about how to choose fine products from the rest, etc, etc.. Choose topics that give potential customers a clear reason to prefer your brand over others. Run contests regularly to keep customers interested and your brand on top of their mind.
  2. Experts – You can intersperse this social platform activity by getting domain experts (say every month) to conduct live demos at your stores and one-on-one with customers. These demos need not be drab. These could be made exciting so that keen customers can learn a trick or two. The big idea lies in milking every event – before, during and post the event both offline (through leaflets, newspaper listings, etc) as well as online.
  3. Events / Evenings – In some months you may wish to either skip these demos or just add onto them, say, a wine and cheese evening for your social media stars and keen customers or a super celeb to visit your stores or endorse a product line or two.
  4. Surprise Events – Keep the interest alive by surprise events and news of sightings of stars (from films, sports, TV world, etc) at your stores.
  5. Needless to say, whatever you do offline, take the pain to viral the same online.
  6. Changes in your policies and promotions must be actively disseminated on your platforms to allow customers to both know about it as well as discuss it if need be.

A consistent, transparent and exciting approach to building word of mouth helps create multiple ripples across diverse consumer segments and generates for the brand a wave of ongoing support, sooner than later.

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