all_saints_day-thumbSo, today being All Saints Day, I couldn’t help but think of intercessory prayer and the idea of intercession in general. Thoughts which somehow made their way over to marketing, and word of mouth advertising in particular.

For those unfamiliar with the terms intercede and intercession, to intercede for someone is to act as both a go-between and advocate for them to some other person or authority. If a friend of yours has ever been friends with a girl (or boy) you wanted to date, and you asked your friend for an introduction and endorsement, then you probably already intuitively understand the concept.

Now, most businesses make the mistake of thinking that WOM is a form of intercession; they think that the customer endorsed the company out of a desire to help out the company. Generally speaking, that’s simply not the case. Unless your business is a charity or the customer in question is a personal friend or relative, most WOM recommendations are not motivated by the customer’s desire to help you, the business.

In fact, most Word of Mouth is meant to benefit the customer who provides it.  I’m not being cynical nor am I referring to direct kickbacks, affiliate links, and loyalty rewards; I’m simply pointing out that the benefits of WOM are typically every bit as social in nature as the act itself.  Here’s how it works:

  1. The customer benefits from what her knowledge, discernment, and association with the business says about her, and
  2. The customer benefits by the built up goodwill that the recommendation gains her

If I recommend a really cool place to eat or a particularly fabulous product, or even way-above-average carpet cleaner, then – assuming the recommendation pans out – I end up looking just a bit more in-the-know or with-it or relatable.  And this same dynamic extends to more professional or corporate realms as well; having the know-how to recommend a great Word Press theme, relevant blogger/author, or graphic designer augments your professional status.

Much the same can be said of the goodwill that develops if I save you from a crisis by recommending just the right service provider or product.  You’ll remember the recommendation as a favor or help – again, assuming that my recommendation pans out.

So why don’t more people spread the word via WOM?

Because of the “assuming it pans out” caveat.  Theres’s a risk to WOM recommendations as well as a reward. If I recommend you and the advice proves ill-founded, it reflects back on me.

So how can you minimize the risk and maximize the reward?

  • Give them something they can bank on – I can’t bank on service because service is variable with the server; you might not get the same consultant, waiter, or technical support staff member that I did.  But I can bank on hand-tossed pizza and an exposed wood fired oven, or a service guarantee, or certain gratuitous services that are always offered.  So whatever you want customers to talk about, make sure they can be confident that your WOM-worthy element will be there for the person they send your way. Make sure they can be confident that their recommendation will pan out.
  • Give them something they can talk about Roy Williams breaks WOM-worthy business elements down into three categories: Architectural, Kinetic, and Generous.  So the exposed wood-fired stove would be an architectural WOM trigger, the hand-tossing of the pizza dough would be a kinetic trigger, and the free house-wine offered with every large pizza would be a generous trigger.  Notice how these elements also meet the “bankable” criteria.
  • Make what you stand for easily shared through stories –  If you have a great “how I got into this business” story, or strong core values that are proven through actual business-practices, then you should make sure your clients and customers know those stories.  You should make sure the public knows those stories.  That way a recommendation for your business helps to associate the referring customer with values she shares and admires while also giving that customer a neat story to share.
  • Give referred customers a great deal and go easy on benefits for the referring client – Let your client feel that she wasn’t just passing along a great recommendation, but helping their friends and acquaintances get a deal they couldn’t otherwise get. Don’t make your clients feel guilty or conflicted by giving them a too-big reward for recommending you. Remember, outside of well-defined affiliate marketing campaigns, clients recommend you largely for social benefit/reasons, and providing a large commercial benefit kills the social nature of the recommendation.

And those are my thoughts on this All Saints Day.  But I’d love to hear yours…

What have been your experiences with WOM marketing and recommendations?  Are you one of the exceptions where customers really were pulling for you and interceding on your behalf rather than just talking you up as an act of social grooming?  Let me know.

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