The Power of Word-of-Mouth Marketing

Building a buzz is an effective—and free—way to create public awareness and support.

October 26, 2009

Think about it. What makes you decide to try a new restaurant, see a particular movie, read a novel? Is it because you saw an ad, or because a friend-someone you trust-recommended it?

The whole advertising arena has changed. Today there are so many more choices and so much clutter. We're no longer all watching the same TV shows. One study says the average person is exposed to 3,000 advertising messages in a day, which sounds unbelievable until you think about all the ads you see in newspapers and magazines, in the mail, on TV and radio, on billboards, and on your computer screen.

Do the ads get your attention? Do you remember them? Do you run out and buy the products? Or do you start worrying about the scary side effects of those prescription drugs? You probably "zone out" on the ad marathons, TiVo past them, or head for the kitchen. But chances are you'll remember-and believe-what your friends tell you. There is no more powerful communication technique than the simple act of one person talking to another.

With all the newfangled technology out there, the commercial world has rediscovered the power of word-ofmouth marketing (WOMM). We think it's time libraries did too. Note that we're talking about not just word of mouth but word-of-mouth marketing. Many of us naturally drop the "L" word into our conversations both inside and outside the library. What we're talking about is getting organized, focused, and consistent about what and how we communicate. If we do it right, other people will help deliver our message. It's also called building a buzz.

We think WOMM makes sense for libraries for three very good reasons. One, because we can afford it. For the first time, the playing field is level. We can compete. We can win public awareness and support. Two, libraries have a potential sales force of millions, including our entire staffs, Friends, trustees, and satisfied customers who for the most part we have not tapped. And three, because it absolutely is the most powerful form of communication.

The two of us had been buzzing about buzz for some time when two regional library systems in Illinois, the DuPage Library System and the North Suburban Library System, applied for and received an LSTA grant to provide training, planning support, and information resources on word-ofmouth marketing. Thirty-five libraries participated, including 29 public, three academic, two school, and one special. We were hired to lead the training sessions and provide counsel on project development. It was a learning experience for all of us, and we share what we learned in a book, Building a Buzz: Libraries and Word-of-Mouth Marketing, to be published by ALA Editions this fall.

Starbucks. The Body Shop. Ebay. These are all companies that built their reputations on the strength of their product and strategic use of word-of-mouth. Satisfied customers became their sales force. Positive word-ofmouth is so simple, basic, and powerful that it's hard to imagine any company prospering without it. And you can probably think of more than a few ventures (we won't name them) that have suffered from negative word of mouth.

You also may have heard that some companies are paying people to do word of mouth for them. This is considered unethical in the advertising profession, and it is not the kind of word of mouth we are talking about.

Word-of-mouth marketing works best when it is genuine and reflects true passion. One of our favorite bits of wisdom about WOMM comes from Guy Kawasaki, who had the title of chief evangelist for Apple Computer. In an interview on the Creating Customer Evangelists website, he said: "Any car manufacturer should go to the Harley Davidson biker rally. They would learn a lot. It's almost too obvious. I'd like to know: How many car manufacturers have sent their marketing staff to a HOG (Harley Owners' Group) rally? They would learn a shitload of stuff. Pardon my French."

Why is this quote important? Because it prompts a big question. Could the people who use your library become a passionate community of champions-even if they don't wear leather? Could library users get as wound up and committed as Harley riders? Could they have as much fun? We think it's not only possible but essential. Word-of-mouth marketing can make it happen.

"We could see the statistics jumping."

The Winnetka-Northfield Public Library District was one of 35 Illinois libraries that participated in the Buzz Marketing Grant Project sponsored by the North Suburban Library System and DuPage Library System. For its project, the library focused on spreading the word about its online resources, with circulation staff taking a lead role. Head of Circulation Judy Wright shares her thoughts in this interview from the forthcoming book Building a Buzz: Libraries and Word-of-Mouth Marketing.

What impressed you about this project? Traditionally circulation staff isn't involved in marketing. Very few libraries allow their circ staff to interact at that level. We were excited about trying something new.

How did your staff respond? The staff was terrific. We were excited to see them excited. Some were a little more aggressive than others, but everyone participated. Some of the people I least expected were really shining by the end. I heard them say things like, "It's easy and fun to talk about things you know about and support."

How did you motivate them? The incentives helped make it fun, but when we gave them training on the databases, that was when it took off. Our staff felt knowledgeable and empowered once they saw how wonderful some of these databases are and how they could serve our patrons. Because they felt it was such a good product, it was easy for them to promote.

What kind of tools and incentives did you use? There was a contest to come up with a message ("We're up when youare: 24 hours a day"). Everyone was encouraged to enter. Everyone received a "cheat sheet" with our message and talking points. We had a bookmark with a checklist so we could mark the ones we showed them. We would ask them, "Do you know we have Morningstar?" or "Do you know about the Tumblebooks site?" and demo it to them.

We would circle the sites on the bookmark so they would remember once they returned home. Also, everyone who received a demonstration was given a notepad with our message. Having something to give out made it easier for the staff to present their message. The two staff who gave out the most notepads at the main library and our branch each received gift cards.

Are you still buzzing? Yes! We have installed a laptop computer at the circ desk so we could show people the databases. Staff use it to show how to do online reserves and account records, as well as demonstrate databases.

People like it. We like it. We're educating people more and more about databases and other services available online. It's become an expectation we have for staff. WOMM is being incorporated as a core competency and part of our staff evaluations.

Why do you think WOMM works? Hearing about and seeing the databases demoed makes a lasting impression- more so than seeing it in a newsletter. I think people respect someone else's opinion. You can also convey some excitement speaking one-on-one that you can't with the printed word.

What was the biggest thing you learned? We learned that this is one of the most successful ways to market. We've had better results from word-of-mouth than anything we've done-tangible results. We could see the statistics jumping.
What advice would you give other libraries? Many studies have proven that the circulation staff is the first and sometimes the only contact patrons have when visiting the library. We miss a lot of opportunities by not encouraging circ staff to promote the library. Get your circ staff out there. Get them trained and empowered and let them go. It will surprise you!


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