The golden ticket in marketing isn’t a billboard in Times Square. It isn’t premium placement in your local newspaper or a really great event sponsorship that offers you a table in the lobby. The best marketing happens organically, seamlessly and seemingly effortlessly, straight from the lips of others.

Word-of-mouth marketing is the oldest form of advertising and happens when one person is so blown away by your product, service, or both, that they tell one, a few, or even many other people about it. This is an authentic expression of appreciation, an opinion delivered from a trusted source, like a stamp of approval, and this authority is powerfully persuasive. When a friend tells you she had the most delicious coffee recently, you ask where. When your neighbour recommends a tree cutting service, you copy down the number. We rely on the opinions of others because it saves us time and cuts back on uncertainty, and because we are always seeking the best, the cheapest, and the most pleasurable experience. We value good work, and know from experience it can be hard to find.

You can’t buy word-of-mouth marketing. You can’t add it to your marketing plan and hire an agency to go and get it for you. But, luckily, you can put into practice a collection of ten principles, which combined will give you the opportunity to build a tribe of brand ambassadors, all singing your praises. The effect is viral, catching and easily authentic.

Here are 10 ways you can nurture word-of-mouth marketing:

1. Listen intently

The most underrated and most useful skill in business has nothing to do with what you write or say: listening is your true superpower. Define your ideal customer and then go into their spaces – whether virtually or in real life – and listen to what they have to say. How do they define the problem they are having? What qualities are they looking for in the solution? An amazing experience is really only one that adequately and impressively met our needs. Listen to the need, find the best and most effective way at filling it and you will be well on your way. Use surveys, digital listening and one-on-one interviews to dig deep into how you can show up as useful in business.

Never stop listening – research is not for development only. Put your product or service out there, see how it lands, listen, adjust. Repeat.

2. Define realistic expectations

This principle can be simply put: under-promise and over-deliver. A common marketing pitfall is the giant promise – the one so big it can never really be fulfilled. The over-promise is the high bar set by telling people your product will absolutely change their world, change their life, make everything better. It won’t. Let’s face it! It is far better to be precise about the specific and limited ways in which your product or service will be impactful. It may change a person’s perspective, but let that be a funny byproduct experienced by the lucky few, and consistent delivery of a reasoned solution – ah, let that be the triumph.

3. Invest in customer service

We all know investing in points of contact with your customer is smart, and yet good customer service today is hard to find.

People connect with people. Business is predicated on human relationships, not brand attachment. If you are not the only person in your company interacting with your customers, then be aware that your customers will come to like, love or hate you based on their relationship with your front line. Create feel-good experiences for your customers and go out of your way to provide nuanced responses that feel personal and authentic.

Be thoughtful, prompt, realistic and above all else keep their problems and your superior solution in mind.

Hire people who are invested in carrying forward your core values. Hire within your core values; your employees should be natural members of your tribe because they share your vision.

4. Respond promptly to feedback

Crisis management comes down to timely and appropriate responses. In the event that someone is less than happy with your product or service, be inquisitive and not defensive. Go in armed with a curiosity and an openness and quickly offer a solution that affirms your beliefs and values. Use keyword search tools to monitor your brand online and be active on social media. Take concerns offline whenever possible, while acknowledging to your community your willingness to address customer service issues.

5. Get active on social media

It is hard to avoid having a social presence in business these days. Your customers are on social media, and this is a forum for sharing advice, tips and recommendations. Monitor the conversations in your industry and avoid being taken by surprise by news, a negative share or an advantage your competition might have over you.

Many people assume social media is about talking about how amazing your business is - sharing news and stories that brand a business as positive, fun and in-demand. Done right, it is actually less advertising and more listening to existing conversations, adding your voice, building trust and authority with your helpfulness and generating new discussions. Stop talking, use social media to listen.

6. Live your core values, authentically

What promise do you make to your customer? Your brand is built on that promise and it needs to be in tune with your passion and your purpose - the why that drives your business.

Know who you are, what your business stands for and create policy, product and opportunities for sales and interaction from that knowledge. Look for customers that match your core promise, because these are the people who will get what you are offering, and want more of it. If you sell tie-dyed shirts, you need to find the people who value the vibrancy of colour, and your authenticity comes from the reason why you sell such visually stunning clothing pieces. Don’t try to be something to the people who seek grey toned clothing. Unless they are ready to live outside their comfort zone and find a new way, they won’t love what you offer. It’s easier to find the advocates, than to convert those on the fence.

7. Play up what makes you exceptional

Part of knowing yourself - you as a business owner and as a brand - comes from knowing what makes you different from other businesses in your product or service category. By virtue of being you, you are distinct from your competition. Find this edge of uniqueness and play with it. Express it clearly and consistently in your brand messaging and seek customers who value that particular difference. Too often business owners are afraid to get niche; they instead believe success lies in being everything to everyone. Mass doesn’t work for anyone but the big brands, who have wide appeal. Small businesses thrive when they find, claim and own a corner of a market, small, distinct and specific.

8. Be human: Facilitate human interactions

When you are feeling stuck in a sales cycle, the very best way to generate business and to get unstuck is to get out of the office (or figuratively reach through the computer and touch another human being). Don’t think about the interaction as a sales opportunity. Put aside the oppression of expectation and simply reach out to someone. Call an old customer. Don’t sell them a new product but rather ask how they are, what challenges they are currently facing. Find a way to be useful - answer a question in a forum, join a Facebook group and offer to help people. Join a networking group or attend an event. Don’t talk about yourself! Talk about solutions, ideas, connections. Be useful.

9. Involve others in decision-making

Small business ownership is often incredibly lonely. As an owner, you are suddenly (unless blessed with a partner or two) in charge of just about everything. Making decisions can get exhausting and you can be quite limited in your perspective as you get bogged down digging through your day to day. The best way to make decisions as a small business owner is through the support of other people in your life. Create an advisory committee for your business, even if members include your neighbour, best friend and your mother. Find other people who have unique experiences and perspectives to share, who understand the problem and solution your business is built on (maybe who actually share this concern) and ask them for their ideas. This is not to say you have to take it! But it helps you build a tribe of support around you.

10. Reward brand ambassadors

Find a way to express genuine thanks to those who do share news about your business. A “thank you” goes a long way, and so do special bonuses for referrals. Don’t make referral or positive reviews a requirement (never make it a contest!) but for those who go above and beyond to sing your praises, find a genuine and heartfelt way to acknowledge their support and to say thank you.

Build a tribe around you and you will reap the rewards of positive word-of-mouth for your business. The key is genuine, authentic connection with others. This takes time, care and daily tending. Think of your tribe as a plant that needs to be watered daily. Don’t rush it. Take your time. And value human connection as the true engine of your business, above all else.


Karen Bannister

Karen works full time as a marketing specialist in destination management. She is formerly the owner of Entrepreneur Mom Now, a business networking group for women, where she first fell in love with the idea of tribe building. Karen also writes business and health articles for clients and publications and offers marketing strategy consultations. She lives with her family on Vancouver Island.