How Twitter Makes "Word of Mouth" Manageable

Every business wants to benefit from positive word of mouth. But until Twitter came along, word of mouth was more wish than science.

Back in my early twenties, I got a job selling advertising for a small, weekly newspaper. I only stayed there three months (it was a miserable job), but learned a lot about how unrealistic some business owners are in their approach to marketing.

The most common brush off I heard was "We are going to rely on word of mouth advertising." I soon noticed that these words were a sure sign the business would be closing its doors very soon. I could literally mark my calendar when I heard someone say the words, "word of mouth advertising," and know they would be out of business within a month or two.

And yet, we have all seen word of mouth lift a business out of the doldrums and into high profitability:
  • A small restaurant is suddenly "discovered" by the community and it is packed to the walls every evening.
  • A dentist builds a well-deserved reputation and soon her waiting room is standing room only.
  • A budget movie, without support of a big studio marketing budget, takes off and rakes in a bigger box office than big budget projects.

More often than not, word of mouth success just happens. For every beneficiary, we can all point to a dozen other businesses that were just as deserving (often more so) of such a reputation.

Until Twitter, with the ability to track keywords, brand names and retweets, word of mouth was almost entirely random in the way it bestowed its blessings. Sure the business had to be good, but a lot of good businesses close their doors in obscurity every day.

What has changed with the advent of Twitter is that we can actually see word of mouth happening in real time. Anyone on Twitter can watch every retweet, mention of a brand name, a company name, or a topic as they leap from person to person, state to state and even country to country.

But Twitter is much more than a word of mouth tracking tool, it actually helps word of mouth happen at faster speeds and with greater reach than it could occur in the non-Twitter world.

Here's a very common scenerio: @Mary tells @Tom about the great service she got from Al's Tire Shop. In the past, only Tom heard about Mary's experience, and so word of mouth could either be passed along by Tom or dropped entirely.

Mary might tell her other friends about Al's, but these were all one-on-one conversations that could either be transmitted or cease with each person she talked to.

On Twitter, these conversations are no longer one-on-one (well, except for direct messages, but I'm mainly talking about conversations that take place on the Twitter feed). Sure Mary and Tom are having a conversation, but all of their combined followers are also privy to what they said. Tom may not tell someone about Al's, but six other people who saw the conversation might.

And any of these witnesses can also carry the ball, even if @Tom drops it.

But it goes far beyond the direct followers of these two individuals. What if a few of Mary's followers "retweet" or pass along her comments? Depending on how many people these people have, this could now spread the conversation to thousands of other people who were not direct followers of either Mary or Tom.

And that is only one level of retweeting. If you have been on Twitter very long, you have no doubt seen messages that have become extremely popular and have been retweeted by two or three additional people.

This is truly a viral effect that spreads word of mouth beyond anything ever seen in conversations before this technology existed.

But word of mouth can spread in other ways besides retweeting.

Let's say there are people who are searching for the keywords "flat tire" or "Tire repair shop" on Twitter. Now people can see @Mary's remarks about Al's shop who do not follow her or any of her followers. Some of these people will have search columns set up on their Tweetdeck or HootSuite accounts so they can be notified whenever these keywords are mentioned by anyone on Twitter.

By this means, Al's reputation for honesty and quality service can leap from person to person, regardless of following connections between individuals, simply because the message is noteworthy.

So how can a business person manage or influence word of mouth on Twitter?

The example so far has been of positive word of mouth, but we all know that negative news spreads farther and faster than the good news.

Twitter gives a business the tools to spot a negative story before it gains much traction, and respond to it.

If a restaurant customer complains that she was served a bad meal from Tina's Grill, Tina can learn about this complaint immediately if she is tracking her own brand name on Twitter. Then she can respond with a prompt apology and an offer to make it right. Perhaps she can offer a free meal or a generous discount.

(Please note that customers increasingly take their complaints to their friends and followers on social media. They have lost confidence in getting any kind of acceptable response from company customer service lines, so they often vent online.)

When Tina takes prompt action and makes the situation right with her disgruntled customer, this exchange is also witnessed by potentially thousands of other people who follow either Tina or the customer, or who are tracking specific keywords.

The key is to track your brand and company name at all times so you can jump in quickly before negative word of mouth takes off. Then respond in such a way that takes ownership of the problem and goes the extra mile to turn an unhappy customer into a delighted one.

I've even seen a couple of extraordinary examples of businesses that took care of problems not of their making. In one case, the customer turned out to have bought a product made by a competitor, yet the company STILL took care of her. Amazing!

Can you imagine how much "juice" that can give a business when such acts are witnessed online by thousands of other people? Imagine that some of these people are either bloggers or potential customers?

On the other hand, can you imagine how well a snotty attitude or an off-hand "that's just our policy" remark would go over?

Can word of mouth be planted on Twitter?

Yes it can. All businesses on Twitter send tweets about a blog article, news release or information about a product. If the message is interesting enough or solves a real problem, it is very possible that it will be retweeted.

This is why the whole concept of content marketing and producing interesting, valuable content is so integral to social media. No one will follow someone for very long if all they tweet about is the ham sandwich they ate for lunch.

Twitter users who use it for business crave good, valuable information. When we find someone who consistently sends good info out, we follow him or her. And we retweet their content to our followers.

Good content that is interesting and informative can get the whole word of mouth ball rolling in the first place.

Before I wrap this up, let me add two additional tips:
  1. If you want to make it easier for people to find (and retweet) your information, pay attention to the #hashtag conventions within the Twitter community. A great article on hashtags can be found here.

  2. People are much more likely to retweet your messages if you have taken the time to build friendly relationships with them. This is the value of "Social Capital."

    It is very possible to build friendships on Twitter. Being nice and cooperative can go a long way to cultivating these relationships. These other people on Twitter also appreciate having their messages retweeted. If they send something out that you regard as valuable, retweet it. You can also mention them on #followfriday to promote them to other people who may wish to follow them.

    Just like the "real world" people tend to do business with other people they know, like and trust. In the Twitter world, they also tend to retweet them.

Of course word of mouth still relies on others to pass a message along. That hasn't changed with the advent of Twitter. But if a business wants to create or influence good word of mouth; or if they want to respond to negative word of mouth before it gains much traction, Twitter is the best tool ever created to accomplish these ends.

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