Eight Ways to Generate Word-of-Mouth Marketing and Referrals

As a parent, you can bark at your kids all day and they won't hear a word.

But somehow they can recite every inane word uttered by their close friends.

Kids have selective hearing, but so do grownups like us.

When was the last time any of us actually sat through a commercial? Can you recall the brand?

Any online banner ads captivate you today? Probably not.

Promises brands make through advertising and content go in one ear and out the other. Consumers might pick up on a point or two if it's pertinent, but it still doesn’t mean they’ll rush out to buy.

But if a trusted colleague or close friend mentions the brand positively, then we're all ears.

  • 55% of U.S. consumers express loyalty by recommending the brands and companies they love to family friends (Accenture)
  • 26% of millennials said they prefer brands their friends use (NewsCred)
  • 32% of executives believe referrals and recommendations from existing customers is the most important benefit of customer retention (Forbes/Sailthru)

It doesn't even have to be someone we know. Studies show people trust online reviews from complete strangers almost as much.

  • 88% Of Consumers Trust Online Reviews As Much As Personal Recommendations (BrightLocal)

Oh, and those customers who leave reviews? They’re more likely to come back again.

  • Post-purchase, 47% of consumers will use the retailer’s site or social networks to write a review. Of these shoppers, 68% will purchase from the same brand again within 3 months (Crowdtap)
  • 61% of consumers would tell friends and family about their experiences, while 27% reported that they would sign up to the company's loyalty scheme (Verint)
  • 42% of U.S. consumers are loyal to brands that their family and friends do business with (Accenture)

Word of mouth marketing is the best, most reliable way to grow a brand. It's also the hardest to earn.

Like customer loyalty, there isn't a formula to follow to earn more word of mouth referrals. You can't rig the system or throw money at it.

No, word of mouth and referrals are earned.

There are things you can do to put your company in position to earn more referrals from customers. They range from outright asking to incentivizing (not bribing!) as well as creating an amazing experience. They're all underlined by solid customer engagement principles, however.

Try these seven tactics to increase your referrals and word-of-mouth marketing buzz:

New call-to-action

  • Ask for Reviews and Referrals

Sounds obvious, but how often do companies actually ask for referrals and reviews? Sometimes you’ll find a “Review us on Yelp” sign in a restaurant, but it isn’t discussed or pushed.

We can’t emphasize the importance of capturing customer emails during a purchase. One of the major things you want to do with that email is ask for a referral or review.

Preferably after a few days of earning their trust - here’s an infographic to walk you through that process.

Post-purchase, 47% of consumers will use the retailer’s site or social networks to write a review. Of these shoppers, 68% will purchase from the same brand again within 3 months (Crowdtap)

  • Involve Your Customers in the Business

Customers have strong opinions on your business, and you should be listening.

Take it a step further, and involve them in some of the day-to-day efforts your of your business. Use their feedback to improve processes and products.

Then, let them know you did the thing they said you should do. Give them a piece of shareable content like a blog post, and watch them take it back to their networks and show it to all their friends.

44% of U.S. consumers are loyal to brands that actively engage them to help design or co-create products or services (Accenture)

New call-to-action

  • Incentivize the Action

If possible, offer a reward for sharing your brand with friends. The most common example of this are membership services that offer a free month for every friend referred, or contests that offer extra entries to those who share content on social networks.

The key is offering an incentive, and not just bribing people to submit positive reviews and referrals. Some online review sites will punish brands suspected of paying for reviews.

67% of global loyalty program members say points or rewards for referrals is appealing (Nielson)

  • Do Something Unique

gift.jpgAt the risk of getting a bit esoteric, businesses need to have a unique angle to generate buzz.

There’s a restaurant at the Disney World resort known for humiliating people who ask for ketchup. An ice cream joint in San Francisco that serves a sundae in a kitchen sink. The Texas steakhouse with the 72oz ribeye challenge.

Restaurant examples are easy, but what about auto dealerships with children’s entertainment while the grownups go through the grueling car buying process? We’ve written several times about the online body supplement shop that sent out a thank you package to one of our employees. A B2B marketing company sends out new client packages as well, which generated this LinkedIn referral from a new customer.

Unique experiences, even the ones not directly related to your core business, work on several different levels. They stir positive emotions in people, which they’re more likely to remember. They also generate pride, making people run online to show their friends and family what they got to experience.

89% of consumers say a great customer experience is key to driving brand loyalty (EConsultancy)


  • Create a Consistent Experience

Creating something unique not quite your speed? Then dedicated, absolute consistency is the way to go. It’s one of the hallmarks of some of the biggest brands in the world, like Walmart and McDonalds. People know exactly what they’re going to get, and it very rarely changes.

This approach will still require you to ask for a referral, most likely, and it takes people a while to come around to your consistency, but it’s a great practice for any company.

(Disclaimer: this is dependent upon a good consistent experience, obviously. Don’t be consistently average.)

40% of consumers chose “satisfaction” to describe their experience with brands to which they are loyal (InMoment)

  • Respond and Repair

As odd as it sounds, angry customers are often your best opportunities, so long as you respond. If someone is passionate enough to rant about your failure, then they’re likely to sing your praises after you fix their situation.

Follow these guidelines for responding to your haters.

Also, be sure to thank any customer that provides a positive review. The more personal, the better.

Customers who receive responses on Twitter from a business are 30% more likely to recommend the brand to others, and 44% more likely to share their experience online and off (Twitter)

  • Dial in on Key Customers

Building your operation around your ideal customers is never a bad idea. Yes, it’ll turn off some of those who don’t fit, but that’s okay.

The key is narrowing down your niche as much as possible.

Farmers are a big target.

Okra farmers is better.

Okra farmers from the Midwest with farms of 500 acres or more? Perfect!

Prove yourself to these specific individuals, who likely belong to peer groups with others in their same situations, and you’ll put yourself in much better position to earn referrals. This is why so many people say there’s riches in the niches.

37% of U.S. consumers show loyalty to brands that actively support shared causes (Accenture)

New call-to-action

  • Go Online

The core value of social media is shareability. How many brands have you been exposed to because they have a great Instagram or Facebook presence? You create the content and people pass it around because it’s cool, or fun, or valuable.

Which of those last three is up to you. For most of us who aren’t restaurants or retailers, our best bet is sharing expertise. Create content that helps people get better at something related to your business, and they’ll pass it around. Your brand (and online presence) will grow as a result.

It’s not quite a review, but it is an endorsement of sorts.

62% of Millennials feel online content drives brand loyalty (NewsCred)

Why the Focus on Reviews?

You probably noticed much of these are designed to lead people to create reviews and testimonials. These are good areas to focus on for a couple reasons.

First, asking for a specific referral, with a name and phone number or email address, is asking a customer to make judgments about their network. They might also feel pressure to turn over contact info for someone who may not be ready to talk.

websurfin.gifSecond, reviews are public declarations that can live on for years and influence hundreds of people, if not thousands. It’s like telling a friend, except times 1000.

When there’s an opportunity to make a one-to-one referral, be delicate. Don’t assume you’re in like flint just because you have a personal referral. Use the referral as an introduction and example, then find if there’s a fit just like you would with anyone else.

Get too pushy or cocky and you may jeopardize a personal relationship, costing you two customers.

The Holy Grail of Engagement

A personal referral is the ultimate expression of loyalty. It’s someone declaring, “I trust your business so much I'm willing to put my reputation on the line with my friends and family.”

It’s valuable. And really tough to earn.

You can do all these tips we've offered and it still may not motivate people to refer you to their networks. That’s what makes word of mouth marketing so valuable: it can’t be forced or forged.

But if you do right by customers, provide great value and a great experience, with the right follow-ups, there’s a very good chance they’ll start talking about you.

New call-to-action

Topics: Customer Engagement

Written by: Brandon Carter

Brandon is a former writer and marketer for Access Development. He's a frequent blogger on customer and employee engagement & loyalty, consumer trends, and branding. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter at @bscarter

Share your Comment.