I’ll bump into business owners at networking functions who insist they have no need to advertise or market, because their business will grow completely by “word of mouth.” At that moment, I know their businesses won’t be around for long.

I’ll admit it: there are those outliers that became hugely successful just by existing. That’s not going to happen to the overwhelming majority of businesses. Succumbing to the word of mouth is usually deadly.

What do I mean by the word-of-mouth myth? There’s a misconception that a company’s customers will promote the business so enthusiastically that the owner only needs to sit back and wait for the money to come rolling in. And the best part? It’s free. You don’t have to spend a single penny to promote the business through advertising unlike those suckers who just don’t know better.

Word of mouth is real. Frankly, it can be a particularly powerful growth generator. When a new customer places an order because friends or colleagues have sung your praises, they’re pre-sold and already convinced they will be satisfied.

But that doesn’t make it a magic spell that happens automatically. If it were, you wouldn’t be reading an article from a business newsletter right now. You’d be enroute to an exotic locale in your Gulfstream V.

Why doesn’t the magic work? Because we have busy marketplaces. Even when they try to brush off competitors as inferior imitations, most companies have more competitors than they like — and they know those competitors are aggressively pursuing the same prospects, not to mention your own valued customers.

The marketplaces constantly get noisier. Your customers and prospects swim in a vast sea of thousands of marketing messages every way, with new marketing channels emerging from everywhere. As the volume increases, it drowns out the folks who sit there quietly, whispering, “Please notice me.” Those enthusiastic referrals from current customers? They have to swim upstream against the torrent of competing messages.

You can make word of mouth a powerful tool for your business, but only if you’re not naïve enough to regard it as magical and miraculous. You simply need to create and encourage word of mouth support. How? Through some concepts called marketing, advertising, promotion, public relations, and customer service.

And no, they’re not the old-fashioned way. They’ve long been the seeds and fertilizer that spawn healthy word of mouth in the marketplace.

Running one ad isn’t like lighting a fuse that will create a huge explosion of business. But a well-thought-out, well-coordinated program will raise your profile and reputation in the marketplace. Prospects will take a closer look at you and choose to try what you offer. If they like what they find, they’ll start to tell others, and you’ll start to see that word of mouth represents a growing share of your business.

Maintaining word of mouth takes a sustained effort to keep your profile and reputation in front of your current customers. That will keep them coming back to your door despite the competitors who try to lure them in other directions.

Not magic. Not easy or cheap. But unlike the word-of-mouth myth, it’s actually effective.

You don’t have to give up your dream that customers will come flocking to your doors. You just have to give up the fantasy that it will happen magically.

Scott Flood creates effective copy for companies and other organizations. His guide to evaluating freelance creative talent, The Smarter Strategy for Selecting Suppliers, can be downloaded at http://sfwriting.com.

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