When you ask the owners of most small businesses where they get their customers, the answer is usually "through word of mouth." But when you ask them how that happens, nobody really knows.
As it turns out, great word of mouth isn't an accident—it's the result of a well-executed strategy of giving people a reason to talk and making it easier for those conversations to take place.
The good news is that your small business can have fantastic word of mouth without big budgets, a huge staff, or an elaborate campaign. To do it, you just need to follow the "5 Ts" framework I outline in my book, Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking.
Using this framework, you can create a fantastic word-of-mouth program. Here's how to get started:
1. Find your talkers
Who will tell their friends about you? The people who do are your talkers—and every great word-of-mouth program is built on finding and taking care of them.
Talkers are everyday people like us. They're not necessarily your customers—they're the people that talk to your customers. Think PTA members, plumbers, bus drivers, barbers. Every business has talkers—and everyone is a talker for a particular business.
Your action step: Run a blog search for mentions of your company and specific industry keywords. Make a plan to follow these blogs, as well as take note of people who frequently comment on them.
2. Give them a topic
All word of mouth starts with a topic of conversation. Every company and every product has at least one great topic. Find it and people will start talking about you.
Your topics shouldn't be complicated. The best ones are simple ideas that people can easily spread. It's not your brand statement—it's the free ice cream you give to people waiting in line, the special discounts you give to members of your fan club, or the funky music you play in your store.
Your action step: Brainstorm 50 topics you could do tomorrow without spending any money. Have a sale, celebrate a goofy holiday, host an educational seminar, sell an unrelated product, or create a secret menu item. Pick your favorite two or three, put them in an email, and see how many get shared. Repeat.
3. Choose your tools
Tools are what help spread your message faster and further. The right word-of-mouth tool will add speed and portability to your message.
They're online stuff like blogs, social networks, and tell-a-friend buttons on your Web site. But it's not all online (in fact, 80 percent of word-of-mouth conversations happen offline)—so think about real-world tools like coupons, postcards, and free samples.
Your action step: If the majority of your talkers are online, set up a simple fan page on Facebook or start a Twitter account to share news and special promotions with them. Offline, give out extra samples in your store, send extra catalogs and coupons with orders, and host an event that brings all of your fans together.
4. Take part in the conversation
The idea of reaching out and engaging with the people talking about your brand online can be intimidating. But every day, people are talking about you and stuff that relates to what you're selling. And they'll be thrilled when someone with your expertise or insider knowledge joins in.
The more you participate, the more people will talk about you. Just remember these basic rules: Never sell, follow the rules of the community, and say who you are.
Your action step: Identify a few key talkers and introduce yourself, always disclosing who you are and who you work for. Don't just push your products: Share ideas, relevant information, and helpful tips.
5. Track and measure your word of mouth
Your job is to listen to the word-of-mouth conversations about you and learn from them. Tracking these conversations will help you identify who your talkers are, learn which topics are working, discover which tools are having the most impact, and make it easier for you to find and join conversations.
Because so many people are now using social networks, it's easier than ever to track, monitor, and follow up on your word of mouth. Using free tools like Tweetdeck, blog searches, and simple Google Alerts, you'll be able to quickly identify who's saying what and how influential they are.
Your action step: Create Google Alerts for your company name and for industry keywords. The more specific your alerts, the better success you'll have at tracking important conversations instead of getting an inbox full of irrelevant mentions.
Andy Sernovitz is CEO at WordofMouth.org and SocialMedia.org. He is a coauthor of the book Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking.