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Why Word of Mouth Doesn’t Happen

This post is a special Make a Referral Week guest post featuring education on the subject of referrals and word of mouth marketing and making 1000 referrals to 1000 small businesses – check it out at Make a Referral Week 2010

Sometimes, what you do is done as well as it can be done. It’s a service that people truly love, or a product they can’t live without. You’re doing everything right, but it’s not remarkable, at least not in the sense of “worth making a remark about.”

What’s up with that?

Here’s a smörgåsbord of reasons:

  1. It’s embarrassing to talk about. That’s why VD screening, no matter how well done, rarely turns into a viral [ahem] success.
  2. There’s no easy way to bring it up. This is similar to number 1, but involves opportunity. It’s easy to bring up, “hey, where’d you get that ring tone?” because the ring tone just interrupted everyone. It’s a lot harder to bring up the fact that you just got a massage.
  3. It might not feel cutting edge enough for your crowd. So, it’s not the thing that’s embarrassing, it’s the fact they you just found out about it. Don’t bring up your brand new Tivo with your friends from MIT. They’ll sneer at you.
  4. On a related front, it might feel too popular to profitably sneeze about. Sometimes bloggers hesitate to post on a popular source or topic because they worry they’ll seem lazy.
  5. You might like the exclusivity. If you have no trouble getting into a great restaurant or a wonderful club, perhaps you won’t tell the masses because you’re selfish…
  6. You might want to keep worlds from colliding. Some kids, for example, like the idea of being the only kid from their school at the summer camp they go to. They get to have two personalities, be two people, keep things separate.
  7. You might feel manipulated. Plenty of hip kids were happy to talk about Converse, but once big, bad Nike got involved, it felt different. Almost like they were being used.
  8. You might worry about your taste. Recommending a wine really strongly takes guts, because maybe, just maybe, your friends will hate the wine and think you tasteless.
  9. There are probably ten other big reasons, but they all lead to the same conclusions:

First, understand that people talk about you (or not talk about you) because of how it makes them feel, not how it makes you feel.

Second, if you’re going to build a business around word of mouth, better not have these things working against you.

Third, if you do, it may be a smart strategy to work directly to overcome them. That probably means changing the fundamental DNA of your experience and the story you tell to your users. “If you like us, tell your friends,” might feel like a fine start, but it’s certainly not going to get you there.

What will change the game is actually changing the game. Changing the experience of talking about you so fundamentally that people will choose to do it.

Seth Godin is author of ten books that have been bestsellers around the world. His most recent titles include The Dip and Linchpin. His books have been bestsellers around the world and changed the way people think about marketing, change and work.

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  • http://www.DarrenMonroe.com/ Darren Scott Monroe

    Seth John guys I am glad to see you two working together on this! as always great article Seth!

  • jennyjenjen

    Kudos on using the correct letters for smörgåsbord ;)

    I am very lucky to be working with a small business in San Diego that has thrived on word-of-mouth. Now we're enhancing both their customers' experience and their own business experience with social media.

    Good article!