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How To Use Surprise To Generate Word Of Mouth

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

Your customers live their life in a routine. I mean, we all do. We wake up at the same time; start our day off completing the same rituals; and then take the same route to work, switching on autopilot as soon as we get there. We’re creatures of habit. Our job as marketers is to both use and break these habits, replacing bad ones (not being our customer) with good ones (being our customer). But to do that, we first have to get their attention. We have to find a way to wake our customers from their zombie slumber and make them see us. We have to disrupt their routine.

And that’s where surprise marketing comes in.

Surprise breeds word of mouth by attacking the “been there, done that” mentality of customers and shattering it with something designed to cause a reaction. Because, the only thing to give the person who has everything is something they’ve never seen or thought of before.

How Surprise Breeds Worth Of Mouth

It’s said a lot that if you want people to talk about your business that you need to give them something to talk about. Well, that’s pretty much what surprise marketing does. It breaks up your customer’s every day and it gives them something new – tangible or not – to remember and hold on to. It ties you to an experience. As a small business owner, surprise marketing is perfectly suited for your business because it requires that you really know the people that you’re targeting. No one knows their audience as well as someone who lives in it every day. And once you know what they’re expecting, it’s your job to give them what they’re not.

Oprah utilized surprise marketing when she gave away 276 Pontiac G6s and offered Pontiac “immediate recognition as the feel-good automaker”. But in the real world (as opposed to Oprah-vision), surprise marketing doesn’t have to mean big dollars. It means creativity.

Surprise marketing works by giving someone something they needed at a time they weren’t expecting it. It’s chilled milk and cookies after a long day at Disney. It’s a person hiding in the Coke machine to hand deliver you and your friends a soda. It’s the bottle of water you’re handed by the hotel when you come back from a run.

It’s about creating experiences that people are going to want to share with their friends.

How To Surprise Your Customers

You surprise customers when you create something that is both personal and valuable to them. Decide what feeling you’re trying to inspire (awe, joy, excitement, disbelief, horror, etc) and then get creative about how you can deliver that. And when you’re doing it, think small. Don’t go for the elaborate plan. Go as small as you can with it, because it’s the little things done better than someone would ever expect that create the biggest buzz. That’s how you get people talking about you and inspire someone to make that referral – you tie an emotional response to what you’re doing.

How can a small business owner incorporate surprise marketing to inspire referrals from customers?

Show Up Where They Don’t Expert: When you drove to work today, there were certain things you expected to encounter– traffic, the usual landmarks, your same parking spot. You weren’t expecting to see, say, a 27-foot-long hot dog parked outside your building. And if you did, it would take a pack of wild dogs to stop you from talking about it. . And that’s exactly why Oscar Mayer created the Wienermobile and why they park it in random cities across the country. Because while you may have heard about it, you’d never expect it to show up in your hometown. And when it does, you talk about it.

Go Further Than You Have To: Go that extra step to create a WOW moment. Zappos does this by offering surprise overnight shipping so that customers unexpectedly receive their order just hours after they placed it. It creates an experience of “awe” when exactly what they wanted shows up when they weren’t expected it. Virgin America created its own WOW moment, rescuing 15 Chihuahuas from California. They did more than was required or expected and people talked.

Give Them Something Different: Lots of businesses offer free gifts along with a purchase. It’s the coupon slipped into the bag at the register, the free makeup brush someone gets with their purchase, a trial of a new scent, etc. What about giving them something they wouldn’t expect you to? Like chocolate-covered grasshoppers, perhaps. You don’t have to get pricey to surprise someone, you just have to deliver something they weren’t expecting.

Listen When They Think You’re Not: A young woman was sitting in a P.F. Chang twittering about how much she loves P.F.Chang’s chicken lettuce wraps – a pretty normal occurrence in today’s social media-heavy world, right? What she didn’t know was that an employee in the P.F. Chang’s Corporate Office saw the tweet, figured out what restaurant the customer was at and tracked her down to her specific table with the help of onsite staff. P.F. Chang’s then purchased the woman’s dinner for her and bought her dessert to say “thanks for visiting”. The Twitterer was shocked that the restaurant was listening so closely to customers and the story is now legend. Pretty cool, and not that difficult to pull off.

Make The Little Things, Big Things: Disneyworld left milk and cookies in Scott Stratten’s hotel room when he was there with his son so they could have a snack to enjoy together. The Westin Long Beach hands out water bottles to guests who walk into the hotel after a run. By getting those tiny, personal gestures correct you set up those moments that your customers will take home and want to brag about later. You create an experience and a memory by making the little things big things in your organization.

Obviously there are many other ways to surprise and capture the attention of your audience, but those will help get you started. Perhaps it’s the child in me, but I love using surprise marketing as a way to spread word of mouth and bring in referrals. It challenges you to look inward to change the course of someone’s day in a way that they’ll remember and positively associate with your brand. Not every profession is in the habit of creating memories. It’s the power of the unexpected and it doesn’t get much better than that.

Lisa Barone is Co-Founder and Chief Branding Officer at Outspoken Media, Inc., an Internet marketing company that specializes in providing clients with online reputation management, social media services and other Internet services. When she’s not blogging daily over at the Outspoken Media blog, you can find her guestposting on popular blogs like Search Engine Land, BlogWorldExpo, Sugarrae and a host of others.

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  • lindamiles

    I loved this article! As well as you mention, I think there are opportunities when small things can make people happy, at least for that moment and that will make that person remember you and your business. It's just about being there and caring about your customers, looking for the chance to surprise them, give something away or just show how grateful you are for their visit!

  • Angie Glotzbach

    So true! I did business with an electrician because he left me a small/cute chocolate in a box with his estimate (which was a tad higher than his competitors). It's an excellent reminder that it's the little things that really do make a huge difference and should be front of mind always. People are starved for excellent customer service and appreciate the “little extras,” especially in this online-driven world.

  • shaneketterman

    Awesome Post Lisa. I have been saying for awhile now that “surprise marketing” is about engagement with your customers…a lost art that is hopefully making a huge return thanks to social media.

  • http://fastforwardacademy.com/index-page-irs-enrolled-agent-exam-course.htm enrolled agent course

    The element of surprise is something that customers would love. A small gesture or simplest thought could mean more business opportunities if done right.

  • http://fastforwardacademy.com/index-page-irs-enrolled-agent-exam-course.htm enrolled agent study guide

    Great article. There were some interesting and useful points, and I really enjoyed it– if not just for the ten minutes of daydreaming about Oprah giving me a car that it inspired. :o)

  • http://www.tidytightwads.com/ Cindy

    Great article! It is so true that it's the little things that make a difference. I have a professional organizing and cleaning business and am just in the process of giving all my regular clients a “little something extra.” It's something that I promote and it's also something that they ask me about on a regular basis. It's small, but will make a huge impact on daily life after a while…………..thanks for the post.

  • http://scottgould.me/ Scott Gould

    It's all expectation management! Exceeding expectations creates surprise. Meeting expectations creates satisfaction. Failing expectations is sacrifice.