A-to-Z WOM, part 1: A Brief History of Word of Mouth Marketing

About The “A-to-Z WOM” Series: In the A-to-Z WOM series, we’ll focus on word of mouth (WOM) as it pertains to marketing – offering the history of WOM, success stories, and tips to you help harness the voice of consumers in service of your brand. For the first installment, we’ll take a look at how WOM marketing (WOMM) has evolved over time and dissect what makes WOM such a powerful consumer motivator. In subsequent posts, we’ll review how social media has made WOM exponentially more powerful, examine some of the most successful social WOM campaigns to date, and offer some proven tactics to contribute to your brand’s success with WOMM in 2013.


Vica voce – commonly known as word of mouth – is the oral or written transfer of information between people and groups. It’s helped us pass on tradition, recount the history of our world, share the things we love with friends, and crowd-source the very formal definition above (thank you, Wikipedia). While WOM has existed since the beginning of time, the mass adoption of the Internet and adjacent technologies has supercharged the scale at which we’re able to share and interact. Today, consumers have unprecedented access to information and one another, and brands that understand the underlying dynamics of WOM (i.e. why we share) are creating armies of advocates – and mountains of revenue, in the process. 

The History of WOM: Then and Now 

A psychologist named George Silverman is most commonly attributed as the pioneer in the field of WOMM, creating what he called “teleconferenced peer influence groups” in the early 1970s. The groups were designed to engage physicians in dialogue about new pharmaceutical products, but Silverman noticed an interesting phenomenon where skeptics’ opinions on a drug were swayed with the positive endorsement from one or two of their peers. The phenomenon was so powerful that even ex-prescribers – who had negative experiences with a drug – were noted to change their minds following a positive review of the same drug from their peers. WOM in action, my friends. 

Whether Apple’s products can be considered “drugs” or not is in the eye of the beholder, but one thing’s for certain – Apple understands the WOM machine and they’re able to manipulate it better than anyone else. Take the iPad, for example. Originally released in 2010, we were introduced to a product that most of us never even knew we “needed.” Three years later, it’s estimated that we’ll buy 102 million units of the tablet in the coming year. What accounts for these astronomical sales and the buzz that surrounds every new generation of iWidget? If you guessed WOM, you’re right. Through a series of calculated pre-announcements, “leaks,” and even controversy, Apple consistently creates a tidal wave of speculation and hype around impending releases. By letting their legions of fans spread the news and build anticipation around a product, they’re able generate interest organically.

Why WOM Works 

Simply put, word of mouth is personal. Compared to advertising, WOM is organic which means that when someone promotes a brand, product, service, or event, they’re doing so because they’re genuinely passionate about whatever they’re endorsing. Due to the intimate nature of communication between individuals, research has consistently shown WOM to be viewed by consumers as more trustworthy than traditional promotion methods. When consumers have faith that they’re getting the whole, unbiased story from a friend or influencer not affiliated with a brand, they’re much more inclined to make a purchase. It’s virtually impossible for a brand to duplicate this level of credibility because, as consumers, we’re conditioned to be skeptical of advertising. It’s ingrained in our psyche that a business will always be most concerned with one thing – selling more. Savvy marketers understand this mindset and, rather than awkwardly force their message on skeptical consumers, take steps to encourage positive sentiment. 

So how can you generate WOM around your brand? As you might imagine, positive buzz starts with quality products, services, and customer experiences that create conversation organically. That said, WOM often doesn’t happen by accident, and there are a number of steps a marketer can proactively take to stoke the WOM fire:

Develop the right message. Go beyond what makes your products/services different from the competition and determine how you’d ideally want your consumers to be talking about them. “Better, faster, stronger” is one route, but a marriage of arts and technology is key to developing a message that travels. Are you more inclined to share something that’s just “better” than the alternative, or in a league of its own because it’s “funky?” Figure out the unique attributes of your proposition, reinforce through organic and paid mediums, and the people will follow.

Be wherever your customers are. Go beyond simply understanding the who portion of the target market equation and figure out where they’re spending their time. It won’t come as a surprise that, online, your customers (and future customers) are on Facebook. Conveniently, social networks are where the majority of thoughts, feelings, and ideas around brands are shared. They’re also where you’re best equipped to add (not “ad”) to the conversation. Do so by providing engaging content (new products, deals, etc.), service to those who need support, and experiences (contests, games, etc.) that your audience will value. They’ll appreciate you going the extra mile and return the favor in shares.

Empower your advocates. As you’re well aware, your customers are going to talk about your brand whether you like it or not. Encourage positive sentiment by identifying your biggest advocates and thanking them for their support. The simple act of acknowledgement can go a long way to create a brand experience worthy of sharing. To amplify your advocacy program, create an influencer “group” with access to first looks, exclusive deals, referral offers, and feedback programs. By connecting with your top advocates, they’ll feel more connected to your brand, continue to spread the good word and, in many cases, become a customer for life.

Hopefully this first installment provided you with a basic understanding of where WOM has been, why it’s so powerful, and some introductory thoughts on how to lay the foundation for a successful WOMM campaign. In the next installment, we’ll take a more granular look at where WOMM is heading with the proliferation of social media adoption. We’ll also offer some tactical tips on how to best engage consumers with social on the road to creating an advocate army of your own!




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