Strategies for Leveraging Word of Mouth Among Small Businesses

Last week I attended the Warrillow Summit, THE conference about selling to small businesses. This is the second of my posts about the material presented at that conference.

The entire theme of the conference was “word of mouth” — and specifically about how companies that sell to small businesses can trigger positive word of mouth.

John Warrillow, the CEO of Warrillow & Co., gave the opening keynote presentation . He started out with a quote from A. G. Lafley, CEO of Proctor & Gamble: “Mass marketing is dead.” Anytime you have a quote from the CEO of a company of the stature of Proctor & Gamble, it makes you sit up and listen.

The point of the quote and the rest of the keynote was that in today’s world it takes more than standard advertising and traditional one-to-many marketing vehicles. Instead, you need to get customers talking about your company, i.e., word of mouth.

Word of mouth can take place either online or offline.

New forms of online communications vehicles are lubricants that help word of mouth spread online. These include email, blogs, discussion boards, newsgroups, instant messaging, social networking sites and wikis — among others.

Offline word of mouth is about getting customers to literally talk about your company in some venue, for instance to other small business owners in the form of referrals or to the public in the form of letters to the Editor.

The thing about word of mouth is that it is not necessarily fast to generate. By their very nature word-of-mouth communications tend to be individualized efforts. Most don’t have the same kind of mass communications potential of a national ad campaign. What’s more, YOU as the company selling are not necessarily in control when it comes to word of mouth, your customer is. But today — in our world of overused advertising where people have a tendency to tune out advertisements — these smaller one-on-one communications can have a bigger, longer-lasting impact.

Word of mouth can be a nebulous concept that is hard to grasp onto. John Warrillow suggested that a framework for analyzing and applying word of mouth is Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point. To leverage word of mouth, what you really need to look for are influencers who will spread the good word about your company. The Tipping Point identifies three types of influencers: mavens (information specialists), salespeople (those who are adept at influencing others), and connectors (networkers who know anyone and everyone).

Where do you find them? There are no easy methods.

  • To find mavens: check your own call centers. They know which people are into the details of your products and understand the ins and outs. Find those people, says John Warrillow. If you sell in any vertical market, go to the professional groups serving that market and otherwise try to find those who are considered experts in that market. Find who is active in professional groups, serves on Boards, and so on.
  • As to the group known as connectors, research shows that the average small business owner meets with an average of 4 business owners a month. The connector meets with 10 entrepreneurs on average a month. Try to find connectors thru their jobs — for instance, indivudals working at Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) may in essence be professional connectors. If you can find these connectors, your you have the potential to connect with even more small business owners.
  • As for the group designated as salespeople, find the media platforms they use. Fiftey-seven percent (57%) of small business people tend to read a blog from time to time. Bloggers are becoming the salespeople within the small business market. Talk radio is another vehicle — 93% make radio part of their daily game. The same personality traits that cause someone to write to the Editor are the same ones that cause them to be salespeople. Go through back issues of Inc magazine and see who wrote in. Small business “salespeople” often identify themselves fully and even their business, so you CAN find them.

Word of mouth is one of the most important methods to reach small business. To use word of mouth effectively, you must increase your percentage of natural promoters. Understand what motivates them — and you will get clues how to replicate positive word of mouth and help it to spread.


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

6 Reactions
  1. Nice article Anita. I wish I’d been there.

  2. Word of mouth is the easiest form of marketing to create. It all revolves around the experience the customer has with your business(regardless of who your customer is) and the realtionships that comes from those experiences.

    Too many people under estimate the value of the truly “genuine realtionship” as it is hard to train people to create and hard to track an ROI. However the power of the realtionship is so great that I would encourage everyone to focus on that one thing if you are going to focus on anything.

    Ben Midgley

  3. Word of mouth is a tough thing to “see” even when you have it. One of the good things about some of the ratings sites and the blog activity is that local businesses get to see the tone of some of the word of mouth activity.

    We have found the members of our community at are excited about seeing this and engaging with local consumers on the good and the bad word of mouth..30% of our merchants are blogging which is something I never expected.

  4. This is a great post on a very important book! (Just finished reading it myself…)

    I hadn’t made the connection between the “salesperson” types and bloggers, but I think it’s an important one.

  5. great blog post! maven recognition is hard but so beneficial, esp. when you need them to help with damage control. I always suggest to leave comments and just be honest and show a lot of respect to gain a maven’s love. people love respect.