Word of mouth has been with us forever. But word of mouth marketing is a new marketing specialty that is as actionable, trackable, and plannable as any other form of marketing.

Word of mouth marketing (WOM) is an umbrella term for dozens of techniques that can be used to engage and energize customers. WOM includes viral marketing, blogs, communities, loyalty programs, and other techniques that get customers talking about your products.

In many cases, WOM isn't actually "marketing" at all. It's great customer service that earns customer respect. And it's fantastic products that get customers talking about you.

Just as important, WOM is never about deception. Stealth marketing, shilling, or anything that hides the marketer's involvement is strictly forbidden by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) Code of Ethics. Honest word of mouth marketers live by earning the respect of their customers, and anything that breaks that trust will backfire.

With that said, there are five basic steps that all word of mouth marketing campaigns share—the Five Ts of word of mouth marketing: Talkers, Topics, Tools, Taking Part, and Tracking. Learn to identify these, and you'll be able to implement WOM in all of your marketing programs.

The Five Steps
in Word of Mouth Marketing

Step Easy Advanced
1. Talkers Volunteers, customers, bloggers Influencer, agent, evangelism programs
2. Topic Special offer, great service, new product Viral campaign, buzz stunt, new feature
3. Tools Tell-A-Friend form, forwardable email, coupon Message board, online communities, blogs
4. Take Part Join blog & message board conversation Outreach teams, campaigns by PR and customer service
5. Track Blogpulse, Feedster, Technorati, Google Advanced metrics program, trend analysis

1. Talkers: People who are more likely to relay your word of mouth message

Talkers are often referred to as "influentials," but they can be any group of people who have the enthusiasm and connections to relay your message to target audience. They may be part of a formal evangelism program, or they can be bloggers who happen to cover your topic. Sometimes they are new customers bubbling with enthusiasm; sometimes they are rabid fans willing to spread your message.

The challenge: To learn to identify the right core group and give them a topic that they are willing to talk about.

2. Topics: Portable concepts for people to talk about, simple ideas that are word-of-mouth friendly

All word of mouth centers on creating the message that you want to spread. Good topics are portable: simple ideas that one person can relay to another. They can be sophisticated brand-building concepts, something as simple as a special discount coupon, or a tangential idea like "JetBlue has TVs."

The specifics of the message don't matter, but you need to give people something a clear, simple idea that can be relayed successfully.

The challenge: Find a topic that is interesting enough to motivate your talkers, and then give them tools to help facility that conversation.

3. Tools: Techniques and technology that make it easier for word of mouth conversations to take place

Word of mouth marketers make their biggest impact when they provide the infrastructure to help messages spread. The recent growth of word of mouth as a marketing technique is largely due to the growth of the tools that we have to support WOM conversations. A special friends-and-family discount may be worth talking about, but it has exponential marketing power when you pack it into an easy-to-forward email. A blog is a tool that enables a company to talk directly with fans, giving them a story to share. Online communities create a home and focus for otherwise disparate conversations. Formal evangelism programs provide the support and encouragement that keeps fans them talking.

The challenge: Keep that conversation going by taking part in it.

4. Taking part: Participating in the word of mouth conversation and engaging in a genuine two-way dialog

This is the hardest part for most marketers to work with. When you open the door to real people, and encourage them to start talking about your brand, they expect you to participate in that conversation. You need to respond to their messages, you need to accept comments on your blog, you need to participate in the discussion board, you need to answer the phone.

Once you open the door to word of mouth conversations with your talkers, there is no way to shut it again. You'll get negative feedback, you'll get crackpots, and you'll need to assign staff to listen and learn from the conversation. At the same time, however, you'll be earning the respect and recommendation of your customers and building powerful long-term relationships.

The challenge: Track the conversation and build it into your marketing plan.

5. Tracking: Measuring the online conversation

Amazing tools have been developed in the past year that enable us to understand how word of mouth conversations travel and how we can follow what consumers are saying about companies. The rapid growth of blogs and online communities have put much of the verbal consumer-to-consumer conversations in writing, and when it's written down it's much easier to measure. From there, we can take that online conversation and project it into the offline world.

This represents a major knowledge boom for marketers. It lets you understand what consumers really think about your brand, your marketing, and your products. It provides a level of genuine understanding that is more authentic that the data squeezed out of focus groups.

The challenge: Learn to value this raw consumer feedback and to use it to build better companies.

* * *

In the end, word of mouth marketing isn't very complicated: Give real people interesting things to talk about, and make it easier for that conversation to take place.

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image of Andy Sernovitz

Andy Sernovitz is the CEO of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (www.womma.org), a non-profit organization that represents 240 companies.