November is the month of the year when we see a profusion of men growing moustaches, proudly sharing their pictures and enthusiastically encouraging their friends to join the movement. This “Movember” craze is organized every year to raise awareness and funds for men’s health, essentially cancer-related diseases.

What started as a pretext among friends in a pub in Australia to bring back the 70s moustache, soon became an international campaign aimed at “changing the face of men’s health.” Yet the credit does not go to a multimillion-dollar campaign, but to the most traditional, cost-efficient, and simplest form of communication: word of mouth.

How many times have we acted upon a piece of information from friends or family, whether in trying a new restaurant, buying a new cell phone, choosing a movie to watch, or even deciding on a university to apply to? Truth is, we live in a global community where recommendations made from trusted sources and opinion leaders speak louder than million-dollar ad campaigns, often swaying and helping us make our minds.

Yet word of mouth is a double-edged sword, whereby it can make or break a brand, shape the perception customers may have of a company, and increase or reduce sales and profits, which begs the question: what makes word of mouth so efficient? Is the success of word of mouth due to social/psychological reasons or communication efforts? What is the role of social media? And how can companies and brands influence word of mouth so that it plays a positive role in reinforcing their brand, improving its reputation, and raising its equity?

“Yesterday’s talk with a friend is today’s conversation with millions”

Oral communication, beginning with storytelling, has passed down from one generation to another. This form of communication can be found everywhere from salon gossip to business meetings and is at the center of how humans receive information. However, beyond the societal dimension of word of mouth, companies and communicators have come to realize the importance of this medium in influencing the purchasing behavior of consumers and shaping opinions about a brand, with “word of mouth being 10 times more effective than traditional advertising,” as per Jonah Berger, a rising expert on word-of-mouth and viral marketing.

Consequently, word of mouth marketing is graining significant traction, whereby companies and brand alike are leveraging the traditional word of mouth to promote their products and services, increase their earnings and draw in customers.

One question that these marketers are constantly trying to answer is: what sparks word of mouth? There are many ways to trigger a conversation, and the most common way is via consumers who are willing to share their personal experience, especially given that “92% of consumers trust recommendations from friends and family above all forms of advertising”( Nielsen Report, “Global Trust in Advertising and Brand Messages”, 2012). Word of mouth can also be triggered by communication and marketing campaigns or celebrity endorsements and ambassadors programs, encouraging consumers to react to the brand messages they are exposed to, relay them, and ultimately launch the snowball effect sought-after.

Abercrombie & Fitch is often seen as a pioneer on that level, whereby the company understood the power of word of mouth and brand ambassadors by recruiting popular high school students to work in its stores, expecting them to wear its clothes and promote them, all while projecting the image of a young, cool and trendy brand. The formula was simple and successful.

Today, the fundamentals of how information is shared have not changed, what have evolved are the channels through which it is conveyed. In fact, the rise of social media has given voice to millions of people looking to express themselves, share their opinions and hold companies and people alike accountable.

Customers are more and more seeking reviews and advice on such matters as where to have lunch or which doctor to consult, something that has become more accessible with the profusion of dedicated websites and blogs, such as Expedia, Yelp, Tripadvisor and Goodreads. These online platforms provide the adequate environment to spread a message and leverage word of mouth referrals, effectively turning social media into the new word of mouth.

The essentials of effective word-of-mouth marketing

Word-of-mouth marketing may seem to some as the result of pure luck or providence, and an easy way to create buzz about a brand. However, for word of mouth to become an effective marketing tool, companies need to proactively and strategically manage it.

  • Having a Strategy in Place: Creating positive buzz requires having a strategy in place that would help determine the right audience, develop the right messages, as well as set the environment in which these will be conveyed, all while making sure that a crisis communication contingency plan is on hand in case of any noted discrepancies from the goals set.
  • Focusing on Content: Companies need to make sure that the right messages are being conveyed in a way that resonates with target audiences, all while being meaningful, relevant and aspirational. Most importantly, it is about expressing customers’ satisfaction, loyalty and trust of the brand.
  • Selecting the Right Influencers: Driving the brand conversation also requires selecting the right ambassadors, those who will talk about the brand, praise it without overdoing it, and encourage people to adopt it. This is why they need to have a certain credibility and project honesty without seeming to have an ulterior motive.
  • Being Active: Being talked about also requires companies to be active and dynamic, as it is not only about having fans and ambassadors, it is also about connecting with them, empowering them, and triggering conversations that would lead to positive buzz of the brand.
  • Remembering the Offline:Finally, companies need to remember that word of mouth is both an online and offline medium. In fact, while social media has increased the reach and potential of people to be heard, most advocacy and promotion still takes place offline, be it over lunch, during meetings and social gatherings, etc.

The proactiveness and reactiveness of word of mouth

When it comes to Lebanon, many of our decisions, trivial or not, are influenced by word of mouth.

In a country where people make socializing a priority, love to share their experiences, and constantly seek to remain up-to-date, all while looking to impress, word of mouth remains a strong tool for companies to leverage.

In fact, for local SMEs and startups, who may or may not have an allocated communication budget, word of mouth is music to their ears: relying on bloggers, Facebook, as well as friends and family has become one of the most effective and efficient ways to disseminate positive product and service reviews, build loyal customers, win a new clientele, and ultimately expand.

That said, most of this is done reactively, whereby companies and brands are not addressing word of mouth in a strategic way that would allow them to have control over it. What makes the difference between one pub or restaurant in Mar Mikhael and another? Why do some need reservations weeks ahead and others seem always empty? While some can argue that all such places offer quasi-similar products and services to an extent, it is safe to say that the way word of mouth was handled is each case has been the determining and most important success factor.

Movember proved to be a successful word of mouth marketing initiative, with a strong message, a humorous and funny twist on a health issue, spread through one-on-one conversation thanks to the right advocates. While Lebanon provides the perfect environment for word of mouth marketing, it remains that communicators and companies have yet to think strategically and emulate the success of Movember, which has the potential to rally audiences behind their brands. For now, let’s embrace Decembeard and grow or promote beards to fight bowel cancer!

Line Tabet, Zeina Loutfi and Ramsay G. Najjar