60 Seconds On: Controlling Digital Word Of Mouth

60 Seconds On: Controlling Digital Word Of Mouth

Word of mouth is when people talk about your brand among themselves and it is by far the most valuable form of marketing.

As noted in this Forbes article, according to Nielsen, 92% of consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all forms of advertising. However only 6% of marketers say they have mastered it.

Crazy right? So what are we doing wrong, and how do we get it right?

Here’s a 60 second look at controlling word of mouth marketing in the digital world:

Topics covered in this post:

  1. When does word of mouth happen? 
  2. What companies usually do: Target influencials
  3. What companies should do: Target hubs
  4. How to control word of mouth

When does word of mouth happen?

Word of mouth is a natural occurrence – even if all the businesses in the world stop advertising and performing any kind of marketing activity, people will still talk about them (well, about some of them at least).

Although we don’t necessarily intend to “sell” brands to our friends and family when we talk to them, brands tend to come up quite often in day to day online and offline conversations.

Why? Because sharing brand experiences (name of the restaurant we went to last night, where we bought our shoes, the name of this great coffee shop right around the corner, the inspiring book we read recently, etc.) is a fundamental part of how we communicate today, of how we define to others and to ourselves who we are.

[Tomorrow, when you go to work, take note of how many brand names naturally come up in the small-talk you have with your co-workers and try to think what your colleagues wanted to express about themselves or you when mentioning those specific brands.]

Because word of mouth is so valuable to businesses (it is THE engine for exponential growth), naturally, we, marketers, try to influence it so that word about our brand spreads. However, as mentioned above, we haven’t really ‘mastered‘ it yet and here’s why:

What companies usually do: Target influencials

Most companies who want to control word of mouth and get their marketing messages to spread develop community outreach programs that target the most influencial individuals in a given space.

The thinking goes that in every community there are these special few that have more power than the rest – they are the ones others look to for advice, information and support. Every business wants to get them its fold because when they become ambassadors of your product/service, many others will follow.

Businesses buy lists of influencials or look for them manually, focusing on those with many Twitter or Instagram followers, high Klout scores, many likes on their Facebook fan pages, etc. Then they offer these individuals money or products and in return get an endorsement from the influenical, with the hopes that this endorsement will then influence the influencer’s social network to adopt the brand and buy its products.

The above is an effective strategy but it is incomplete and way too simplistic.

It is incomplete because it only takes into account one side of the word of mouth communication exchange (the influencer), what about the followers? There are much more of them than their are influencers in any community, isn’t there a way to leverage that? (there is, we’ll get to it)

It is also simplistic because it assumes that once you control the source of the information about your brand your control the spread of ‘word of mouth’ about your brand and that’s not true. We’ll take a deeper look into this in the next section:

What companies should do: Target hubs

Hubs are people with many social ties. They’re not necessarily the most regarded people in a community, the ones others look to for guidance. No, they just know a lot of people.

Some hubs are the leaders in a group, independent thinkers that influence the rest (AKA ‘Innovator hubs’), but more often than not – they are just highly connected, actively social, followers (AKA ‘Follower hubs’).

In the previous section we discussed what companies do – they try to target leaders, early adopters that could influence the diffusion of word of mouth about their brand to many others. In the context of hubs, companies are focusing all their efforts on reaching (or trying to reach) innovator hubs, completely ignoring the power of follower hubs in the information diffusion process.

According to the findings of Goldenberg, Han, Lehmann, Hong in their paper published in 2009 in the Journal of marketing (pdf version), both hub types are crucial for word of mouth:

Innovator hubs are important for the speed of diffusion, they tend to adopt early and thanks to their “leader” reputation, easily get others to follow suite.

Follower hubs have a different role. Because of the sheer amount of connections they have, follower hubs influence mainly the market size – how far the word of mouth will flow through the network.

A company that wants as much control of its WOM as possible, needs to start looking at the people targeted in their outreach programs and identifying whether they’d help with the speed or size of diffusion and communicate differently with each.


  • Break down your list of influencials to early adopters with many connections and followers with many connections.
  • Paying influencials (or innovator hubs) to initiate the WOM cascades
  • After diffusion starts, target the follower hubs in that same community (either directly paying them as well, or advertising to their closest friends) so that the WOM messaging could reach the maximum amount of people in that community.

Controlling word of mouth

The truth is you can’t completely control word of mouth – it can start organically but it can also start through marketing initiatives. It can evolve naturally or you can give it a push by spreading it to relevant hubs in a network. WOM for a business can either work in its favor (gain more customers from positive reviews) or it can hurt it dearly (lose potential new customer as well as existing when negative). You can never control all the possibilities.

To control WOM as much as possible you need 4 things:

  • A great product – something that actually brings value and solves a pain for a certain community
  • Even greater Customer service – we humans judge the quality of a product on an a emotionally-biased scale. The more a company puts effort into making us feel loved and important, the more likely it is we’ll become remain customers
  • Incentives to share – make it easy for customers to share their experience with your brand (social sharing options, newsletter they can easily forward to others, offline material etc.)
  • Fast response – because word of mouth can develop and spread organically, you might not be the one controlling the initial message, but you can certainly “hijack” the conversation and lead it in a positive direction for your brand if you catch it quickly enough.
    A wonderful example of this is the ‘Damn Danial’ viral video from about 2 months ago.

Vans shoes got some great, unsolicited attention in the video, but instead of simply enjoying the ride and likely growth in sales, they collaborated with the star of the viral video, providing Daniel with a lifetime supply of Vans shoes that he then donated to a hospital. Now that’s some amazingly positive word of mouth!


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