Word of Mouth in a Digital World

Word of Mouth in a Digital World

(The main ideas behind this post are from Jonah Berger’s course, ‘Viral Marketing and How to Craft Contagious Content.)

We live in a digital world where many conversations happen across digital channels. Many companies now sell their products online and commit a good part of the marketing and advertising budget to digital marketing.

Marketers everywhere understand the importance of content marketing and PPC advertising, among others. However, in a world of increased marketing and advertising, we must not forget the importance of word of mouth.

One of the factors that make word of mouth powerful is trust. The average person does not trust advertisers.

However, we trust our friends and families. An average consumer will buy a product on the recommendation of a family member than a random product he sees on his Facebook feed. Word of Mouth drives decision making more than advertising.

Also, the marketer needs to understand that customers acquired through word of mouth have a 20% higher lifetime value. Word of mouth is very targeted as the person who shares the information is sharing with people who have similar needs.

Only 7% of word of mouth referrals take place online.

Therefore, while a business invests in marketing and advertising, it must understand the factors that make customers share information about a product or service.

So what are these factors?

word of mouth

The Importance of Social Currency

Everyone loves to feel special. We also like to feel good about ourselves. One way we do this is by sharing information that other people do not have – information, the possession of which makes us feel special and ‘in the know.’

We are more disposed to share information that will make us look good. The better it will make us look, the more we are prone to share it.

A product or service has social currency when it makes those who purchase it feel smart, special, and ‘in the know.’

This social currency can arise because the product is surprising, novel, interesting, or scarce.

The people who purchase these products feel special, and they are more eager to talk about it and share the information with others.

For marketers that want to benefit from the value of word-of-mouth referrals, you must find your product’s inner remarkability – what is it about your product that makes people feel like insiders (smart, special, and ‘in the know’).

The more you can make people feel like they belong to an exclusive, select group by buying your product, the more they will talk about it.

An example of a company exploring social currency is Coca-Cola with the “share a coke with XXX” campaign. Other examples include One Plus, the 11K club, and Please Don’t Tell.

word of mouth

Using Triggers

The concept of trigger builds upon the famous idea – top of mind is tip of tongue.

We talk about the things that are in our thoughts. If we are not thinking about it, we will not talk about it.

This means that the first call for companies that want people to talk about their product is to get people to think about the product.

The idea is to get people to think about your product or service even when they are not using it.

What marketers need to achieve this goal is a trigger. A trigger is something that when people hear or see, they remember your product or service.

For something to work as a trigger, it must be popular – something people already know and love. What you are doing is tapping into the goodwill of that thing as a trigger for your product.

For example, peanut butter and jelly, colas and snacks, milk and cookies are triggers for one another. When you see or hear about one, you think about the other. A company like Home Depot uses the orange color associated with Halloween in October as a trigger for its products.

Marketers must find something that will serve as the peanut butter, snack, or cookies for their products. It might be another product, a location (cinemas and popcorns), an event, or a person. Top of mind is tip of tongue.

Getting People to Care

We talk about the things about which we care, and we care about the things that appeal to our emotions. If your customers do not care about your product or service, they are less likely to talk about it. This ties into the importance of evoking the right emotion in your customers, primarily through your adverts.

Some emotions are physiologically arousing, while some are physiologically deactivating. Positive emotions like joy and happiness and negative emotions like anxiety and anger are physiologically arousing – they call us to take actions. However, emotions like sadness are physiologically deactivating – they make us numb.

Marketers must design and create ads to arouse emotions. As Jonah Berger puts it, “we must move from content to activation.”

Companies must also learn to transform negative emotions into positive emotions by taking control of online conversations about their products.

We learned this from Dell’s episode with Jeff Jarvis, an angry customer, in 2005.  The incident led them to pay more attention to customers’ emotions and seek to transform negative emotions into positive ones.

It is not enough to produce content and ads. Marketers must focus on generating physiologically arousing emotions and transforming negative emotions into positive ones.


The Importance of Practical Value

We also like sharing information with people that will benefit them. When we come across information that will make others better off, we want to share it with them. Examples are black Friday deals and promo offers.

Companies must also focus on the practical value of their products. If a product solves a big problem for a customer, he will be more disposed to share the product with people in similar situations.

An example is the “Will It Blend” campaign by Blendtec. To show the practical value of their blender, they decided to blend an iPhone with it. The message they were trying to communicate is, “our blender is so good it will blend an iPhone.”

By helping customers discover the practical value of a product, we make it easier for them to share information about that product.

This is where promotional offers also come in. People are more eager to share information about exciting promo offers. Marketers must also design strategic promo offers that communicate huge value to the customer and encourage sharing.

Jonah Berger advises that when the discount on a product is less than $100, you should use a percentage to define the offer (25% off). Alternatively, when the discount is greater than $100, use the absolute value ($200 off).

Stories, Stories, and More Stories

Stories are powerful weapons in the marketer’s arsenal. We love stories. They do not just entertain us; they are memorable. Stories are a great way to make ideas concrete in the minds of consumers. This is why marketers must employ stories in their advertising campaigns.

When you tell an exciting and emotional story around your product or service, you increase the possibility of sharing. Many of us still remember some of the best advertising campaigns we saw years back because of the compelling stories they tell. Remember, top of the mind is tip of the tongue. When we can get customers to remember, they will share information about the product.

Stories are the currency of conversation. People are tired of endless ads, but they do not mind an emotional story even though the end game is the same. This is why some people refer to stories as Trojan horses. When your stories stick, customers will remember them; when they remember them, they will share.



Nothing beats word of mouth in marketing. Not even the popularity of digital media and channels will undermine the importance of word of mouth.

Businesses who want to succeed in today’s competitive environment must create ideas and products that people will talk about in their spheres of influence.

To achieve this, such ideas or products must have social currency, use a trigger to make them top of mind, appeal to the emotion, show not tell, and have practical value.

If you want your ideas to go viral, you need to find a creative way to combine these elements.

So which of these elements do you think will transform your brand message? Which do you plan to implement first?


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