Exactly what Really Drives Word of Mouth

The particular element of “surprise” is an often disregarded success element in word of mouth marketing. A positive customer experience is not always enough. Recovery from a bad experience is not usually enough. As in war, with person to person, what may be required is the element of surprise.

My family and I experienced this particular firsthand when we returned from a long vacation trip only to find that our Lexus parked in airport long-term parking wouldn’t move when placed in “drive. ” Not good–especially with 3 tired young kids in the back seat uninterested in dad’s exhortation: “don’t be concerned. ” I dutifully called Lexus customer care — fully expecting they would send a tow truck and obtain me a rental car. Surprise–instead, the service rep walked me through a 5-step process which solved the problem immediately and we drove away both amazed and delighted. I’ve told this particular story to many, many people.

There are several fascinating points here.

This positive person to person example started out as a negative consumer experience. Redesigning your customer experience around problem recovery can generate positive word of mouth–sometimes since or more effectively than a positively expected experience. No business is perfect. In order to err is human.
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We can all go after 6-Sigma quality levels in products and processes but things will still go wrong. The key is to understand which problems are important and then design options that surprise customers: “I expected a tow truck but was in a position to drive home instead. ”

The second interesting point to this story is that most (this posting excepted) from the positive word of mouth it generated has been face to face, not on-line. In fact , analysis continues to show that for almost almost all categories, most word of mouth, positive or even negative, still happens off-line. Whilst there is no doubt that web based social media are becoming increasingly fast and strongly connected, it’s still true that most word of mouth happens in day to day off line conversations. I didn’t hurry out and post something online about this experience–it happened over a season ago, but this posting had been preceded by multiple in-person storytelling episodes.

The last point here is that the most valuable word of mouth talk tends to gather around needs-based themes. People avoid just talk about random surprises connected with brands. They talk about things they will care about. Word of mouth tends not to become about your brand positioning or value proposition–otherwise, there would be no surprise. These themes can be researched. Before building any word of mouth program, we need to try and understand: “what are people currently talking about and why? ” and importantly, how do we link these themes back to our brand placing and value proposition? This seems counterintuitive, but the key is to link word of mouth conversation back to your value proposition in a way that builds the equity of your brand.

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