“Like it or not, people are talking about your business all the time.” – Jerry Wilson

I just finished a book my friend Rich Schefren recommended: Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking by Andy Sernovitz. And what I learned from this book can help you tackle the fastest-growing type of marketing.

Now I did not fall in love with this book. It has some flaws. But I applaud how it shows why customer service and marketing must go hand and hand. And how it explains that deceptive marketing is a very bad policy and that listening and talking to your customers are the best practices you can follow.

We have all heard of B-to-C (business-to-consumer) marketing. And we have all heard of B-to-B (business-to-business) marketing. We have even (more recently) heard of C-to-C (consumer-to-consumer) marketing. But what Word of Mouth Marketing explores is the new world of B-to-C-to-C marketing – business-to-consumer-to-consumer! It’s all about the second hop, the third hop, the fourth hop, and so on.

You may be thinking, “Word of mouth isn’t a new concept. It’s been going on forever. So what’s the big deal?”

What’s new is that word of mouth has evolved from anecdotal to actionable, from something that “just happens” to something you can influence. In fact, because we now have the tools and knowledge to work with it, word of mouth marketing has become the fastest-growing form of marketing.

Word of mouth is about authentic consumer conversation. That means marketers join in a conversation with their customers, participating in it but never manipulating, faking, or degrading its fundamental honesty in any way.

Mr. Sernovitz simplistically explains that there are five T’s to word of mouth marketing:

1. Talkers: Finding people who will talk about you

Talkers are any group of people who have enthusiasm and the connections to relay your message. Talkers are regular people, your best customers.

Recently, I attended a seminar in Atlanta – along with about 2,500 other people. Jim, the very first person I met, asked me what I did. When I told him I run an affiliate company for Agora, he said, “Oh, I know them. The only publication I read is Early to Rise.” We spoke at length about how ETR has helped him grow his business, how he has told friends and industry colleagues about ETR, and how many of those folks are now ETR fans.

Jim is a great example of a talker for ETR.

You just don’t find talkers… you cultivate them. People talk about you for two reasons: They either had a very good experience with your company or they had a very bad experience. Either way, by responding to their comments you can turn them into big marketers for your company. Here’s how to do it:

  • Acknowledge your mistakes. Charlie Byrne recently wrote about a major screw-up we made last year and how we did not try to sweep it under the rug. Instead, we not only apologized to the 144 customers it affected, we corrected the problem and thanked them for staying with us. Since then, we have heard from several of those people. They not only thanked us for correcting our mistake, they told us that they have since recommended ETR to several people they know.
  • Acknowledge compliments. Many people think that if someone pays you a compliment, a response is not necessary. This could not be further from the truth. That person took the first step by making a comment. Now you need to seize the opportunity to turn her into a talker. You do this by replying to your customers’ letters, e-mails, and forum postings.
  • Acknowledge your fans. Sometimes you can turn a person into a talker just by talking to them first. Look for signs of extreme enthusiasm. Look for customers who frequently attend the events you sponsor or know the names of your employees or wear your logo.

For example, while visiting my husband’s family in Long Island last summer, I saw a man on the beach with an Early to Rise hat on. I was so excited, I went over to him and introduced myself. Noticing the confusion on his face, I said, “I run ETR… as in the hat you have on.” Well, he told me it was his buddy’s hat, and he just liked the color.

I apologized for bothering him, and went back to building sandcastles with my kid. An hour later, a different man came up to me and told me it was his hat… and that he has been reading ETR for years.

“Steve” and I talked for a while about his Internet business. And when I got back to the office, I asked Sharika Kellogg (ETR’s Customer Service Manager) to look up his address – and I sent him a personal note and a new hat. I’m pretty sure Steve is now a talker.

2. Topics: Giving people a reason to talk

All word of mouth starts with creating a message that spreads. In other words, with a good, clear idea that’s easy to repeat.

Whenever we hire a new team member, we stress Michael Masterson’s Ready, Fire, Aim philosophy. We write about Ready, Fire, Aim in ETR and speak about it at the events we sponsor, so all of our customers can benefit from it. And, in fact, last April, when we were reviewing videos of the attendees who were coming to Michael Masterson’s business-building retreat, video after video showed them repeating this mantra.

The reason Ready, Fire, Aim works is because it is short and sweet. It was developed around a single idea that is easy to repeat. And it’s a concept that not only resonates with entrepreneurs but has been proven to work time after time.

Good topics are organic. They are based on the exceptional qualities that make your products stand out. They flow naturally from the products’ attributes, without needing to be pushed by marketing.

3. Tools: Helping the message spread faster and further

Non info-publishing, info-marketing companies have been doing this for years. Dining establishments spread the word by handing out 2 for 1 coupons. Cosmetics companies give away free samples. Apartment complexes offer one month’s free rent. Phone companies give you a $50 credit for referring a friend. And so on.

But with the Internet, it has never been faster, easier, or cheaper. Just think about it. How many times have you read something online and forwarded it to not just one or two friends, colleagues, or relatives but five or 10? And that’s without any marketing push. If you have a “Forward to a Friend” or “Tell a Friend” button at the bottom of your e-mailed publication, you’re adding exponential marketing power to it.

At Early to Rise , we are big fans of forums and message boards. We have the Speak Out forum for all of our subscribers. And immediately after an ETR event (like our fall Bootcamp or our July Internet marketing conference), we post an attendees-only password-protected forum. This encourages likeminded people to share ideas, problems, and solutions. Plus, it allows us to “listen in on” and participate in their conversations.

We love to find out what our customers are saying, because it helps us better understand their needs. If you ask me, any company that believes in their products and employees will have forums. Forums not only facilitate communication, they increase accountability.

ETR gets an “A” for forum usage. But, right now, we get a “C” for “Forward to a Friend.”

I’d been asking our corporate Web guys for a “Forward to a Friend” tool for months. Like everything else, it’s had to go on a long list of things we want. But I finally got so fed up with waiting, I asked some internal team members to test the “Forward to a Friend” option (without our corporate Web guys) on our sister publication, Total Health Breakthroughs. As a result, you can expect to see this feature in ETR soon.

4. Taking Part: Joining the conversation

Once you have reached out to real people and encouraged them to talk, there is no turning back. You must join the conversation. You must reply to e-mails, accept comments on your blog, participate in the discussion board, answer the phone.

Joining the conversation is even more powerful when it is public. For years, we have been publishing readers’ comments and questions in ETR. We understand that if one of our readers is struggling and takes the time to ask for help, we need to (1) acknowledge that and (2) share our advice with others who may be in the same situation.

Again, if your customers are complimenting you, thank them. If customers are saying negative things, find out why and fix the problem.

There is no better focus group than your customers. Yes, you will get crazies every once in a while – and you may need to hire outside resources to communicate with them on your company’s behalf. But, at the same time, you are earning the respect and recommendations of your customers and building long-term lasting relationships with them… as long as you are helpful, truthful, thankful, and nice.

5. Tracking: Measuring and understanding what people are saying

Because of the popularity of blogs and online communities, people are writing down nearly every thought they have about your company. And because these B-to-C-to-C conversations are written down, they are easy to find and easy to track. You can find every comment about you and your company moments after it is written. And monitoring that online communication allows you to understand what your customers really think about you, your marketing, and your products.

There are wonderful online tools – such as Google Alert and Technorati – that can help you monitor your word of mouth. They are at your fingertips, and they are instant and free.

Start right now. Don’t make any marketing decisions without considering the potential for word of mouth. Ad agencies, media executives, and reporters no longer control the message. Real consumers with real communication power have added their voices to the mix. And their voices are drowning out traditional media. A single consumer voice, in the end, has a huge impact on your company’s future.

Word of mouth will become more and more important to our business at ETR as the Internet continues to expand. But I am still a firm believer in the importance of direct-response marketing. The best thing you can do for your company is to successfully incorporate multiple methods into your overall marketing strategy. You’ll maximize your efforts, build your customer base, and reap the profits.

[Ed. Note: You can meet all your marketing objectives – and achieve all your personal, social, financial, and business goals – with the help of ETR’s Total Success Achievement Program.]

Mary Ellen Tribby

MaryEllen Tribby is a business consultant and coach to entrepreneurs in the information publishing and digital marketing arena. She led Early to Rise from May 2006 to January 2010 as Publisher & CEO. She has also served as President of Weiss Research, managing divisions of Forbes, Globe Communications, Times Mirror Magazines and Crain’s New York Business. She currently heads up The CEO's Edge and WorkingMomsOnly.com.