The value of word of mouth over traditional advertising has been obvious for a while, so Jonah Berger explained to the Shop.org 2013 crowd what isn't so obvious: just how to generate that buzz around your brand, even when what you're selling isn't inherently sexy.
"Most word of mouth we think is on things like Facebook and Twitter," he said. As it turns out, only 7 percent of word of mouth is generated from online sources. "Rather than thinking about the technology, we need to think about the psychology. Why do people talk and share in the first place?"
Some research shows that word of mouth is as much as 10 times more effective than traditional advertising, while referred customers have 13 percent more lifetime value than other customers, all for one simple reason: We trust our friends.
So how do you go about harnessing the power of that referral? For Berger, it comes down to several factors, including social currency, the trigger that makes people think of your brand, public visibility and the story you tell.
Social currency is an old trick—the better you make the customer look, the more likely they'll be to talk about your product. But despite how long it's been around it's still notoriously difficult to master because it goes against every instinct marketers have to be highly visible and highly accessible.
As Berger pointed out, you need only look to the McRib as evidence of social currency's effectiveness. The sandwich made of questionable meat was unremarkable when it was first launched, but once it was pulled back to be available only at certain times in certain regions it became a phenomenon.
Similarly, you don't have to have the most exciting product around to find a useful trigger that can bring your brand to mind. An unlikely brand that has done just that is Honey Nut Cheerios, which doesn't boast the most scintillating product on Earth but gets a spike in word of mouth every morning.
"Cheerios may be really mundane, but people eat breakfast once a day, 365 days a year," Berger pointed out. "What's in the environment that's going to remind people of you even when you're not advertising?"
Public visibility can also be a key factor in generating chatter around your business. We live in a shallow world, and customers are more likely to throw in behind your brand if it looks like others are as well. One easy way to harness that visibility is to take something like website visits and display them.
"Make the private public," Berger suggested. "Take otherwise unobservable interactions and make them public."
Finally, having a compelling and engaging story to tell about your product is a huge help. But what many companies overlook is that it's not just about being funny or catching people's attention. Those customers also need to know it's you, or your work has been in vain.
"It's not just about doing something crazy. It's about getting people's attention, holding their attention, and getting them to realize it's your brand," Berger said.