The Dark Art of Word-of-Mouth

What if Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had never met?

It’s hard to imagine a world without the two billion Apple mobile devices, and hundreds of millions of Macs sold so far, had never been made.

And it’s perhaps even harder to imagine the world before fonts and Graphical User Interfaces – back when using a computer meant tapping long commands into a bland computer screen.

But the most famous and influential partnership in recent tech history happened thanks to an introduction.

According to Steve Wozniak: 

“It was 1971 when a friend said, you should meet Steve Jobs, because he likes electronics and he also plays pranks. So he introduced us.”

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about that interaction.

What if you were cast back in time, and had to re-engineer an introduction between two characters – like Marty McFly did with his parents in Back To The Future. How would you engineer an interaction like this?

The irony of being a marketing expert is that I have a laundry list of strategies people could be (and, in many cases, should be) using to attract new leads. 

But when I ask clients where they’re getting the bulk of their new customers from – most point to the most non-marketing strategy-less marketing strategy of all: word-of-mouth!

Not from search engines.

Not from paid advertising.

Not from clever positioning.

Word. Of. Mouth.

(This is “business speak” for “customer introductions”.)

According to research by Small Business Trends and Verizon, word-of-mouth referrals are the number one source of leads for small businesses.

It’s a highly effective channel too – with Americans (for example) valuing word-of-mouth introductions 41% more than social media recommendations.

And it’s a metric that is a reflection of so many other aspects of your business’s operations – which is why it’s the one question asked in the Net Promoter Score survey:

“How likely is it that you would recommend our company/product/service to a friend or colleague?”

But the biggest criticism of this question is that its premise seems to be built on a foundation of utter bullshit.

I mean, how often do you think of telling your friends “You should use XYZ Brand Toothpaste!”

I mean – when does that conversation ever come up? And what kind of a weirdo even MAKES that kind of recommendation?

And does word-of-mouth even count as a marketing strategy? Can something even be  a strategy if you’re not actively involved in it?

And that’s the problem with word-of-mouth.

The way we “use” it, it’s an added cherry on top. 

It’s something that happens as a bonus.

It can’t really count as a STRATEGY. Because “strategy” suggests you have some kind of coherent plan of action designed to achieve some outcome.

And word-of-mouth is kinda like the opposite of that: not clear and coherent in scope, lacking in any ability to plan or predict, seemingly unable to be engineered towards a specific result or action, and inconsistent in its ability to achieve an outcome.

Let’s go back to the Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs story.

The reason why the pair were introduced was because there was an obvious alignment between the two. Their friend Bill Fernandez knew them both – and noted that they were both pranksters and tech geeks.

Then, there would have been a trigger – a certain interaction or situation that linked the ideas of two people, and led Fernandez to think of introducing the pair.  (I choose to imagine this trigger was a prank Wozniak played on Fernandez, which was met with the words “Oh Woz you scoundrel!”, shortly after Jobs had played a similar prank.)

And finally, the action – the actual introduction happened: “You should meet Steve Jobs, because he likes electronics and he also plays pranks.”

If referrals and word-of-mouth are a large part of your marketing plan:

  • How do you communicate with clients your ALIGNMENT: the types of clients you wish to work with, and that you can help best?
  • What are the TRIGGERS your clients should be listening for? What words or phrases or typical client problems can you implant in your clients’ minds as trigger points?
  • And what should the referral ACTION be? Introductions are more powerful than instructions (since you get the referral’s contact details).

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