You can read a thousand articles — from content-lite bullet points to detailed, long reads — about advertising in this always-on, socially intense, tech-enabled world we shamble through. Yet the target of all advertising is people, and I believe we need to think about the “people” part of this equation more. As stooped and screen-faced as many folks are today, we’re still nowhere near becoming one with the machine (sorry, Ray Kurzweil).
Of course, we need to be aware of new advertising channels. Certainly, we need to use the ones that reach our target audience and present us in engaging ways. Obviously, those channels have changed dramatically in the last 15 years. Print isn’t dead, but it only serves a very specific splinter of the population. All of the old-school advertising tactics — from broadcast media to ads in school programs or calendars — aren’t what they once were. Online and social media advertising can be a huge boon, but it can also be the proverbial pig with lipstick. (No matter how “modern” an advertising concept is, if it doesn’t reach your target — or costs too much per customer acquired — it’s a waste.)
Here’s another point to consider: In general, people hate advertising. The more obvious or intrusive the ad, the more they hate it. I just saw an ad (ironically) touting a way to “make your mobile ad blossom into a fullscreen video.” Guys, I would not just hate you and your product, I’d actively tell people how much I hate you. Hijacking a person’s feed is not endearing.
So instead of applying that lipstick, let’s look back at what has often been called “the best advertising,” and even better, doesn’t seem like advertising: word of mouth.
If that seems old-fashioned, don’t be fooled. It’s a thing, even in our social media age, and if anything, it’s more powerful, immediate and pervasive than ever before. There’s even a Word of Mouth Marketing Association. If you want to dive deep, there are resources, but we’ll cover some basics here.
We all know the “organic” version of this: people will talk. Whether they talk about a great deal they got, a good (or bad) shopping experience, or just mention where they were and what they were doing, they communicate with, and often influence, their peers. Whether it’s mom talking at the pool, people on a lunch break or friends at a party, word gets around. This is still one of the most powerful endorsements for your business. Satisfied customers offering uncompensated kudos are far more believable than any ad, and you get the bonus benefit that they usually share these opinions with their demographically similar friends. Targeted advertising, in the most natural way.
Today, people still talk, but they also post. Blogs, videos, chats, Facebook posts, texts … it seems like an endless spiral of information. So how do we tap into that stream with the authenticity of organic word of mouth and avoid the appearance of advertising?
It seems deceptively simple: The first step is to ask an obviously satisfied customer to share their opinion. Suggest that they do whatever is natural for them. They can tell their friends, post a review on Yelp or other sites, or like/follow the store on Facebook. Some will gladly do so. Others may not — everyone isn’t comfortable overtly endorsing a business. But I guarantee you’ll get more than if you didn’t ask.
Once you’re in the habit of doing this, you may find that one of these happy customers is a blogger, a constant Instagram poster, or someone who likes to be influential on Yelp or other review sites. You may be able to engage them more deeply and recruit them to try out products, mention your promotions or attend events at your store. This is word of mouth on the next level, where the business is actively helping to curate the discussion through more influential tastemakers.
It’s important to stress, though, that this next level should be built on an enthusiastic relationship with a customer. Compensated bloggers can sometimes cheapen your message because they don’t understand it at the level a fully engaged consumer does. Sure, there are compensated posters, and huge companies can afford to hire them for their reach. Realistically though, you’re not going to get access to the Kardashian feed, so strive for authenticity over number of followers. For what we do, it’s a better fit anyway.
Without these additional voices spreading your message, you exist in a bubble. I know that there is a set of customers that trust me, and a subset that will respond to my message and mobilize. But I could talk to a hundred additional people and not move a single one. My reach only goes so far.
But if some of the people that respond to me are influencers themselves, the reach grows dramatically. Depending on the type of message, that influencer could be a teacher, younger staff member, a parent, a local professional musician or a member of a city council (among others). But each influencer has a circle they can mobilize, and likely some of that circle can influence others still … and it grows exponentially.
Sure, some of these connections will be responding to a tweet, post or chat rather than face to face. But the call to action is driven by personal connection. We’re more likely to react to something a friend (as in, someone we actually know, not a digital friend) posts because we truly know them and consider them authentic. This is even more crucial in light of the high level of suspicion now applied to unfamiliar sources. Posts from friends of friends or sponsored posts are easily dismissed as feed clutter. Sure, some gullible souls might believe anything they read. Is that really your target customer?
The first tier is up to you. Talk to your customers, staff, faculty and local business peers. Your staff and faculty are your best influencers, because they understand the store. They should already be posting on their — not just the store’s — social media. But while there’s certainly a benefit to their social media support, remind them that the people they can make eye contact with are the cream of the crop when it comes to influence. We’re still human, and we respond best to humans in the real world. Try it. For some, it will be almost nostalgic; for others, a revelation.