Word of mouth, social media and viral advertising

Word of mouth remains the most powerful method of human communication

What is word of mouth advertising?

Word of mouth advertising (WOM) is the unpaid spread of a positive marketing message from person to person. It can take place directly using the human voice, or can be transmitted via any communicative means such as through the internet or via text message. WOM is a powerful promotional tool and should be considered as part of almost every business marketing strategy.

The least powerful WOM message is neutral – these tend not to travel very far and are not strong influencing factors.

“Did you know there is a new restaurant in town?”

Positive WOM usually results for a good brand experience and is spread by ‘brand ambassadors’.

“Did you know there’s a new restaurant in town? The food and service are great!”

Negative messages are spread by ‘saboteurs’ or ‘detractors’.

“Don’t go to that new restaurant – I got food poisoning and had to take two days off work.

Word of mouth

Word of mouth advertising

Word of mouth is difficult to control and measure but can spread quickly and be highly influential in purchase decisions, Think about the last film you went to see, the last car you bought or the area you live in. Chances are you arrived at those choices due to a personal recommendation from a friend or trusted acquaintance

Types of worth of mouth advertising media

The major methods of human to human communication can be summarised as follows:


Personal communication is conversation based. It is difficult to ignore and a powerful influencing tool.

Face to face personal conversations


Face to face communications remain the most powerful way of transmitting a message from one person to another. Human conversations involve much more than simply words – cues such as voice tone and body language also convey information such as enthusiasm, sadness, emotion and truthfulness.

Voice only conversations


Voice only conversations are a close second. Live voice-based communication holds the attention of the listener and allows for the transmission of important tonal cues.


Digital communication can involve conversations or one way electronic communication. Although less powerful than personal communications, they allow a message to travel quickly over long distances.

Multimedia based digital messages and conversations



Image and audio based messages come third in terms of message strength. If text-based digital conversation can be supported by images and audio it adds power to the message. Examples include Facebook, Email, MMS and YouTube.

Text based digital messages and conversations


Text only messages are the least powerful, but the easiest to transmit via digital means. There are countless methods of transmitting a text based messages from one person to another, including SMS messages, Twitter, text only emails, RSS feeds and instant messaging services

Viral advertising

Viral advertising is a method of advertising which relies on digital transmission, but doesn’t necessarily require any first hand brand experience for it to be passed on. The reason viral advertising is important is because of the potentially massive exposure a successful viral can provide. Viral ads generally take the form of some impressive video footage or something ‘chat-worthy’ which is designed to be passed through the population via email or a similar tool. Many people tend to send viral ads to a large group of friends which is why virals can spread quickly and effectively across the world

The influencing strength of the message versus transmission speed and distance is summarised in the diagram below.


How do people influence how a message spreads?

The transmission of a word of mouth message through the population is a fairly complex process to model. If everyone passes a message to just two people via a conversation, you get exponential growth as shown below.


However, humans aren’t that predictable which has lead us to develop two different models which explain how a message spreads…

‘Limited communication’ model.

Unfortunately, not everyone who has a good experience or hears good things about a brand will pass on the message. Some people will be pleased with a product or service or read an interesting recommendation from a friend, but may just keep it to themselves or forget about the whole experience all together – this can leave a WOM message dead in its tracks.

Certain individuals, however, are much more likely to post customer reviews and chat to people over dinner about a product, so maybe it’s more important to try and influence these special people…

‘Certain people are more influential than others’ model.

According to the social researcher Malcolm Gladwell there are two types of special individuals which help spread WOM. Tap into these individuals and your message can spread much more quickly than via the general population.


Most people know a connector – these people get a real buzz out of meeting people and are genuinely interested in them. Their motivation is the joy of being social and talking about interesting conversation points. They aren’t as persuasive as a ‘Maven’ (below), but have a large social group.

Recommenders or ‘Mavens’

These people are motivated by the joy of giving good advice. They are not as sociable as the Connectors, but they get a kick out of giving advice and enjoy finding the best deal on everything. They are persuasive talkers and can be influential when it comes to a customer’s product decision.

How does word of mouth spread through a population?

  1. A positive (or negative) personal experience makes an impression at the individual level.
  2. The individual decides to pass on the message and spread the word to others (the message is seeded).
  3. The message is sent or discussed using the available communications methods.
  4. Some people will be influenced to experience the source of the story for themselves, others will simply pass the message on. The conversion rate depends on the power of the message, the method of communication and the personalities involved (see next section).
  5. The message is re-seeded and the cycle continues.

What makes a message spread successfully?

Word of mouth messages can be positive, neutral or negative and the degree and speed of transmission depends on:

The strength of the message

For a marketing message to spread successfully through the population, the message needs to be strong enough that it warrants passing on, whereas a weak message can be forgotten about if not deemed ‘chat-worthy’. Strong positive conversational WOM almost always results from a good customer experience or convincing message.

The method of communication used

The method of communication greatly influences the speed of spread, the ‘transmission reach’ and also contributes to the strength of the message. A carefully constructed viral YouTube video can spread through a population at epidemic speeds, but face to face communications spread much more slowly. The latter is much more likely to influence purchase intent on an individual level but is not as useful for raising awareness.

The personalities involved.

People’s personalities affect the spread of a message depending on how persuasive, social and internet savvy they are. It’s difficult to predict how well a message will spread, some people simply ignore viral advertising emails, while others will talk to anyone and everyone about the surprisingly good meal they had the new restaurant in town.

The quality of the viral

if you’re intentionally creating a viral message, it stands a greater chance of success if it uses the following criteria among others. Making sure you have a great creative team behind you will help!

  • Entertainment / awe-inspiring
  • Cringe worthiness
  • Extreme / shock value
  • Terrible / embarrassing

Using WOM to promote your business

So, how can you harness the power of word of mouth marketing to promote your business? There is an active and a passive approach.

Active WOM – encouraging and influencing the message

If you intend WOM to form a major part of your promotional investment, you can’t just sit back and hope that it will happen. Use the tools at your disposal to encourage word positive of mouth. Determine your objectives and ensure your message, the means of communication and the people you target work together in order to promote your business.

Provide access to the communications tools

Develop both message based and conversational methods of communication whether this is a Twitter account, a social bookmarking tool or a chat room, and encourage your customers to use this tool to discuss your brand. Consider the communication medium and which is most relevant to your target audience, don’t just open a Twitter account because everyone else is doing it.

Determine your message and seed it at the community level

Target specific communities which could include a particular interest group, location or demographic and seed your message using honest means. A great way to seed a message in a community to provide people with an excellent customer experience.

Recruit brand ambassadors

Actively encourage certain key individuals to generate stories for you and actively engage with your customers.

Use PR to generate a story

Use the press as a catalyst to start a discussion. The more news worthy your story the better.

Make the message memorable and exciting and ‘sticky’.

Ensure the message is worth passing on – motivate people to discuss your brand and spread the word.

Create viral ads

These should be interesting, useful, funny, shocking, exciting, emotional, dramatic, awe-inspiring or controversial. Most of all they need to be ‘chat-worthy’ and easy to pass on.

Be honest

If you lie about anything, people will find out and now they’ll have the perfect medium to show you up.

Get lucky

Only a few WOM ideas go ‘epidemic’ but even without a wildfire approach, personal communication can lead to tangible marketing results.

Use opinion formers and influencers

If possible, find and enthuse the opinion formers, blog owners, and social media connectors. According to Keller, author of ‘The Influential’ these people also tend to adopt new products and technology earlier.

Passive WOM – doing a great job

Use the marketing mix to create a customer focus

Ensure all elements of your business are ticking over like a well oiled machine. From the people you use to the way you sell and deliver your product.

Satisfy and exceed customer expectations

Add excitement, value, or great customer service to your brand. Never let a customer go without engaging and enthusing them.

Use ‘surprise and delight’

Add little unexpected touches which are there simply to give the customer ‘a little extra’. Sometimes these aspects of a brand, however insignificant can generate a large amount of WOM advertising.

Manage unhappy customers well

Avoiding negative WOM can be as valuable as generating positive. In addition, a well handled complaint can sometimes create a brand ambassador.

Remember WOM can be bad as well as good

There’s no quicker way to destroy a brand than by negative word of mouth advertising. Dissatisfied customers are much more likely to post public warnings about a bad product on their blog than a satisfied customer is to recommend it to a friend. Upset people at your peril!

When people talk about word of mouth advertising this is the model that is normally quoted and leads to huge volumes of noise in a very short period of time. This model is great in practice, but as usual the real world isn’t quite as simple as this.