What Really Drives Word of Mouth

The particular element of “surprise” is an often overlooked success element in word of mouth marketing. A positive consumer experience is not always enough. Recovery from a bad experience is not always enough. As in war, with word of mouth marketing, what may be required is the element of surprise.

My family and I experienced this firsthand when we returned from a long vacation trip only to find that our Lexus parked in airport long-term parking wouldn’t move when placed in “drive. ” Not good–especially with 3 tired young kids in the back seat uninterested in dad’s exhortation: “don’t worry. ” I dutifully called Lexus customer care — fully expecting they would send a tow truck and obtain me a rental car. Surprise–instead, the assistance rep walked me through a 5-step process which solved the problem immediately and we drove away both amazed and delighted. I’ve told this particular story to many, many people.

There are several interesting points here.

This positive word of mouth example started out as a negative client experience. Redesigning your customer encounter around problem recovery can generate positive word of mouth–sometimes as or more effectively than a positively expected experience. No business is perfect. In order to err is human. We can all pursue 6-Sigma quality levels in companies processes but things will nevertheless go wrong. The key is to understand which problems are important and then design solutions that surprise customers: “I anticipated a tow truck but was capable of drive home instead. ”

The second interesting point to this story is that most (this posting excepted) from the positive word of mouth it generated has been face to face, not on-line. In fact , analysis continues to show that for almost most categories, most word of mouth, positive or even negative, still happens off-line. Whilst there is no doubt that web based social networking are becoming increasingly fast and powerfully connected, it’s still true that many word of mouth happens in day to day off line conversations. I didn’t rush out and post something on line about this experience–it happened over a season ago, but this posting had been preceded by multiple in-person storytelling episodes.

The last point here is how the most valuable word of mouth talk tends to congregate around needs-based themes.
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People don’t just talk about random surprises related to brands. They talk about things they will care about. Word of mouth tends not to become about your brand positioning or value proposition–otherwise, there would be no surprise. These types of themes can be researched. Before creating any word of mouth program, we need to try and understand: “what are people currently talking about and why? ” and importantly, how do we link these themes back to our brand setting and value proposition? This seems counterintuitive, but the key is to hyperlink word of mouth conversation back to your worth proposition in a way that builds the collateral of your brand.