Marketing

Let word-of-mouth ignite your marketing fire

Fi Bendall /

For small businesses, competing with the million-dollar budgets some of their big competitors might throw into advertising and marketing might seem close to impossible. An in many ways, it is.

If you’re up against a company that can spend big on campaigns and has the resources to employ an army of consultants and strategists, it becomes vitally important you make the most of your advantages.

One of those advantages could well be that you have very loyal customers. Traditionally, smaller businesses have tended to provide better and more personalised services than big companies. This is no guarantee of enduring business success, but it can give small businesses the kind of customer loyalty and engagement big businesses envy.

It’s here where small businesses should look to nurture and grow one of the most powerful marketing tools you can have in your repertoire: authentic word-of-mouth and advocacy.

Monitor your social media

Unfortunately, too many businesses have been hooked into thinking either social media no longer works or that you need an ‘influencer’ to sell your business to customers.

Yes, social media has become a harder nut to crack because more businesses than ever use it, and more businesses use it well. Competition is stiff, and Facebook’s algorithm can be cruel!

However, you’re not going to ditch your Facebook page tomorrow, are you? You’ve worked too hard to throw away all those followers, and while your organic reach might have plateaued, you’re still getting inquiries and even orders from your FB page. You’re not going to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water!

Moreover, you don’t need an ‘influencer’. In my opinion, the ‘influencer’ concept is flawed, not only because there’s little transparency about its results, but also because it is an essentially old marketing trick that has been transplanted into the digital age. It’s a reworking of the ‘celebrity’ endorsement model that was used in the golden age of broadcast media. It relies on a ‘name’ with lots of apparent followers to communicate a mass message to many people.

Digital media is a different game entirely. Digital is about nodes, networks, and niches; it’s about talking to people, not spruiking at them through a megaphone. It’s about trust and engagement.

Don’t go looking for an ‘influencer’. Look for the customers you have the deepest relationship with, and who are engaging and participating the most with what you do, online and in the real world. These are the people who will spread the word about your fantastic business. This is where organic word of mouth begins.

Find your advocates and treat them well

Nielsen’s 2015 Global Trust in Advertising report found we place more trust in the recommendations of those we know than any other source, with 83% of 30,000 people surveyed saying they completely or somewhat trust recommendations from family and friends.

All good businesses will have some customers who are loyal advocates, ready to vouch for the business and share their approval via word-of-mouth and other means. Identify these advocates and keep them happy.  Make them feel special. Take the time to build a relationship with them, take them for coffee if you can, understand them. Go as far as to organise meet-ups with a group of such customers, maybe something like an invite to a special in-store event, workshop or seminar.

Once you have established a strong rapport, you can then directly ask your advocates to help get the word out about your business. It might seem forward, but say to them: ‘I want to grow the business by 10% this year, and I’m looking at people recommending me in my local community, would you help me do that?’ A true advocate will jump at the opportunity to help a business they love. Not for loyalty points or some minor financial reward, but because people enjoy being recognised as unique and they crave relationships that bolster that feeling.

Don’t be afraid to ask people to become your advocates. If you know you’re doing great work, there’s nothing wrong with having customers validate that.

Marshal your recommendation army

If you’re a small business, it’s unlikely you will have thousands of true advocates. Probably not even hundreds. However, you only really need a handful to kindle your word-of-mouth marketing fire. In fact, it’s only about 5% who would be real advocates, and that 5% will be the driving force behind your recommendation army. They will be the ones who tell friends and family about how great your business is and share your posts on social media.

What drives the majority of purchasing decisions is when someone turns to you and says ‘x’ is excellent, you should pick up the phone and call them. That one-to-one engagement is more powerful than any advertisement. Because it is authentic and comes from a place of trust. You need to earn that trust in the first place. You need to keep backing it up too. Word-of-mouth is a powerful tool that cuts both ways.

Small businesses can’t outgun big business marketing budgets. They have to be smart and savvy about what they do. That means tapping into some of your greatest assets, your customers.

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Fi Bendall

Fi Bendall is chief executive of The Female Social Network and a Westpac/AFR 2015 100 Women of Influence, who was described by CEO Magazine as 'The CEO's Secret Weapon'. An expert and pioneer in digital strategy, she has over 23 years’ experience in the digital and tech sectors.

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