By John Tabita

Word-of-Mouth: The Worst Form of Advertising

By John Tabita


Around 1999, I began to feel like the Internet was broken. As the web grew exponentially, search results were becoming less and less relevant. I jumped from search engine to search engine, longing for one that would find what I was actually searching for. But, alas … Alta Vista, HotBot, Excite … they all let me down.

Then, one magical day, an Internet consultant I’d been working with told me about a brand new search engine … and directed me to google.com. I’ve never looked back.

No prints ads, no television spots, and 13 years later, more than four billion searches a day. The company name has even become a verb: “Just google it.” Ah, the power of word-of-mouth.

Stories like that are why we believe word-of-mouth is “the best form of advertising.” But here’s the problem:

There is a special type of word of mouth that is achieved by only a handful of products and a tiny fraction of the world’s companies. And, in all likelihood, you don’t have it.

– Dave Balter, The Word of Mouth Manual, Volume II

Harsh words, but true. Here are a few myths surrounding word-of-mouth that need dispelling.

“Word-of-Mouth is all You Need”

When my partners and I started our company, I experienced first-hand how well word-of-mouth can work. In six months, we developed more sites than I had the previous two years freelancing on my own.

But there’s more to the story. Our one partner was extremely well-networked (you know, the type of person with 1000+ Facebook friends). And he was the technology consultant for an international business networking organization, which landed us the gig to redesign their corporate website. Word spread and we began designing the individual chapter sites. Purely through the strength of his connections, we obtained regular work, both in and outside the organization, without even trying.

Yet, in spite of that, it was still only part-time income—not nearly enough to support three people, including my family and a soon-to-be-wed partner. If we wanted to grow, we had to do more.

“Great Customer Service Generates Referrals”

Many business owners imagine that providing “great customer service,” “quality products,” and “something extra” will get people talking about them. After all, in the age of information “one good deed” can spread, right?

Of course, all of these are important; but, in reality, they are “the cost of entry.” In other words, clients expect these things, and if you aren’t doing them, you shouldn’t be in business to begin with. If you neglect good customer service or offer poor quality products, you’ll most certainly lose clients. But none of these ensures you’ll gain any.

Don’t confuse the purpose of customer service with sales and marketing. The aim of customer service should be to provide such exceptional service that your clients wouldn’t dream of going elsewhere. Its goal is to keep customers, not obtain new ones.

But don’t take my word for it. Ivan Misner, who wrote the book (actually, several) on word-of-mouth marketing, has this to say:

… good customer service is critical for the success of any business, but if you expect happy customers to talk about you a lot, think again.


“People will Offer Unsolicited Referrals after a Remarkable Experience”

A few months ago, I found myself stranded alongside the highway with a truck full of boy scouts. As we waited for the tow truck to arrive, one of the scout leaders asked who my mechanic was, saying that he was less-than-pleased with his.

I’m one of those rare and fortunate individuals who has a mechanic he can trust. Over the past six months, I’ve had more than my fair share of car trouble. Yet he always gets it fixed faster and cheaper than any other mechanic I’ve known. In spite of that, this is only person I’ve referred him to.

According to the theory, sitting under the hot sun with a dead alternator should have caused me to spontaneously start talking about my mechanic. It didn’t. Had the other person not asked, the topic might never have come up.

So much for “unsolicited” word-of-mouth referrals. If my mechanic’s depending on me telling others “how pleased” I am with his services, he’d better rethink his marketing strategy.

“Word-of-Mouth is a Powerful Marketing Strategy”

It’s not that word-of-mouth doesn’t happen. It just doesn’t happen often enough. As a marketing strategy, word-of-mouth lacks three key components of any good advertising and marketing plan: reach, frequency, and impact.

You can’t reach enough people, with ample frequency to have a lasting impact.

Incidentally, the next time I saw my mechanic, I mentioned that I’d referred my scout friend to him. Sadly, it turned out he’d never called.

If you’re truly convinced word-of-mouth is such a powerful marketing strategy, trying putting it in your business plan as your primary method of customer acquisition, and see if you can get funded. I doubt there’s a bank or investor on the planet that would give you money if you did.

So, have I convinced you that word-of-mouth marketing is a fruitless waste of your time and energy? Good. Stay tuned for next week’s article: Why Word-of-Mouth is the Best Form of Advertising. Confused? So I am most of the time.

Image credit

Feeling lost and out-of-control when meeting with potential clients? Asking the right questions can put you back in the driver’s seat. Get my free guide, 27.5 Must-Ask Questions for Consultative Selling. Just follow me on Twitter and I’ll send you a link.
  • Wim

    Hi John,

    I found myself itching to respond in depth to your negative interpretation of what are actually good qualities about word-of-mouth. Then, through my haze of disagreement I managed to read the last sentence of your blog and realized you are just setting up the story.

    Well, operation succeeded, you got my attention. Please hit me with your next blog.


  • Tim

    I fail to see how any of the points you made make word of mouth “the worst form of advertising”. Pay-per-click is far worse from a cost-conversion standpoint. So is television.

  • You definitely busted all the myths about “word-of-mouth” with this article! And I have to agree with you…I’ve seen it recently happening at a store near-by who was relying only on the history of the location and word-of-mouth…no marketing at all! And it recently went broke!

    I think word-of-mouth should only be a bonus you get from your customers for your great services and marketing!

  • David

    I think this is the worst article I have ever read on this site, talk about negative….no of course word of mouth probably isn’t able to generate enough business to take your business where it need to be, but it can certainly help you on your way.

    • I thoroughly agree, when I read this article I was somewhat embarrassed with myself.

      I would go so far as to call this a case of link baiting, however I was hoping to find a valid argument or discussion on why it’s important to focus efforts in every other area of advertising as opposed to word of mouth.

      Very poorly written article. Very disappointed.

      • I should also mention that yes I did read the last sentence, but my statement still stands, very poorly written, one sentence doesn’t validate this very narrowly evidenced thesis.

    • Of course I’m being negative. I’m taking the extreme view, because people are always gushing about word-of-mouth: “It’s the best form of advertising!”

      WOM is the worst form of advertising when you passively rely on others to talk about you. But active, intentional, and deliberate word-of-mouth marketing can the best form of advertising … hence, the title of the next article, in case you haven’t read it.

  • I agree that word-of-mouth can’t be relied upon as your only source of advertising, but it’s not all bad. I’m looking forward to your next issue as well as this has been a good source of advertising for my business.

Get the latest in Entrepreneur, once a week, for free.