The Secrets of Word-of-Mouth Marketing

How to Trigger Exponential Sales Through Runaway Word of Mouth

The Secrets of Word-of-Mouth Marketing

Author: George Silverman
Pub Date: April 2011
Print Edition: $17.95
Print ISBN: 9780814416686
Page Count: 272
Format: Paper or Softback
Edition: Second Edition
e-Book ISBN: 9780814416693

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Why This Book—and Word-of-Mouth

Marketing Today—Is Different

My interest in marketing started one day in my father’s drug

store. I watched a Camel cigarette salesman repeatedly

approach customers who had just bought a pack of the largest

competing brand, Chesterfi eld. He had pushed a Camel and a

Chesterfi eld cigarette through two holes in a 3" × 5" index card, so

that the customers couldn’t see the cigarettes’ brand names. He

asked them to take a few puff s of each and tell him which they

liked better. Most of the Chesterfi eld smokers said that they preferred

the taste of the one that turned out to be a Camel. He showed

them that they had chosen a diff erent brand, Camel, over their

regular brand. Th ey were shocked, much to my amusement. It

looked to me, at about the age of 12, like a pretty good joke on

them. But then came my turn to be shocked. He off ered to exchange

the cigarettes they had just bought for his brand, whose taste they

had just proven they preferred.

Most of them stuck with their regular brand!

I saw another salesman do a similar thing with Breyers ice cream.

Same results. Even though they preferred Breyers, they walked out with

their regular brand. “Why?” I wondered.

At the same time, I was learning to practice the art of slight of hand. As

I mastered more and more sophisticated magic tricks, I realized that people

saw what they wanted to see, no matter what the evidence said. Why?

I was hooked.

I became a psychologist and professional-level magician and concentrated

on understanding the secrets of why people made the choices

they made—brand choices, beliefs, spouses, jobs, strategies—anything

that involved decisions. Even my magic revolved around the choices

people make about what to believe.

In 1971, I invented the telephone focus group, which became my

laboratory for understanding and experimenting with the decisionmaking

process. Th is is the work that led me to a systematic approach to

stimulating word of mouth as is detailed in this book.

I came to understand when and why people changed brands and

why they clung desperately to their Chesterfi elds.

It took about 40 years and more than 8,000 focus groups, word-ofmouth

teleconferences, and experts sessions, as well as the design of

countless word-of-mouth marketing campaigns, to accumulate the

knowledge that’s distilled in the following pages.

Not all of my clients will be happy that I’m divulging the secrets

behind their record-breaking sales gains—without, of course, giving

away any of their proprietary information. To all of my clients who recognized

early on how important it was to harness word of mouth, let me

extend a big thank you (even if you still won’t permit me to talk about

some details you know I’m dying to talk about).

In the fi rst edition, published in 2001, I predicted the birth of the

Word-of-Mouth Marketing industry. It’s happened, supported by

WOMMA (the Word of Mouth Marketing Association). When I stood

in front of the overfl ow crowd of 450 or so people who attended the fi rst

WOMMA conference four years later in March 2005 (about 50 were

originally expected), I was so choked up that I had to stand there, take it

all in, and compose myself before I could speak. I was overwhelmed by

the thought that aft er decades of trying to convince people of the importance

of word of mouth, this was the fi rst audience I had ever stood

before that was made up of people who actually thought that word-ofmouth

marketing was important enough to attend a conference about!

Th is made all the eff ort worthwhile.

I’m extremely grateful for the recognition, even though I’d prefer if

they had called me the “Father,” rather than the “Grandfather,” of wordof-

mouth marketing.

Before we get started, here are a few defi nitions that will help avoid

repetition, confusion, and convoluted sentences. I learned the importance

of defi ning my terms as explicitly as possible a long time ago from

Ayn Rand, who once asked me to clearly defi ne something that I told

her confused me. I was shocked, “How can I be clear if I’m confused?”

She said, “You can always be clear, even about your confusion. Try.” I

immediately answered my own question and resolved to never allow

confusion to be an excuse for indulging in the vague approximations

that are oft en such a tempting substitute for the eff ort of thinking.


A teacher once observed a child having trouble zipping up his jacket.

She said, “Th e secret is to put the straight part all the way in, hold it

down with one hand, and pull on the tab with the other hand.”

Th e child asked, “Why is that a secret?” By “secrets,” I mean key

principles, not things people don’t want you to know.

Th e central purpose of this book is to lay out the secrets—key principles—

of word-of-mouth marketing, as distinct from all the details of

the techniques, and to organize them into a systematic approach.

“Let’s Go Up a Level of Abstraction”

Th is is one of my favorite phrases. It omits the distracting details, so we

can focus on what’s important. Th us, we do not get bogged down in the

details, or the latest Bright, Shiny Object (BSO) that catches our attention.

Stupid Questions

I love “stupid” questions. Th roughout this book, I’ll be continually asking


Stupid questions are inquiries whose answers seem so obvious that

people are reluctant to ask them. Th ey are concerned that they will be

seen as dumb. However, I fi nd that stupid questions oft en take us to

another level of understanding by forcing us to rethink what is “obvious,”

but untrue. I would name the ability to ask stupid questions as the

secret to my success. Perhaps my tombstone should be engraved, “He

asked wonderfully stupid questions.”

So we’ll ask such wonderfully stupid questions as:

• “What’s word of mouth, really?”

• “Does it actually spread like a virus?”

• “How has the marketplace changed? Is the change something

deeper and more important than the Internet?”

• “Why do people listen to their friends?”

• “Why do people trust their friends?”

• “What’s trust, at its root, and how do we get some of that?”

• “What gives word of mouth its power?”

Customer = Prospect unless Customer ≠ Prospect

To avoid awkward language, “customers” usually means “suspects,”

“prospects,” and “customers,” as there is usually not a meaningful diff erence.

When the diff erence is signifi cant, I’ll be scrupulous about distinguishing

them. So, although sometimes it’s important to distinguish

suspects, prospects, triers, buyers, adopters, users, promoters, and evangelists,

other times, “customers” or “users” will denote all of the above.

“Buy” = “Buy into” = “Adopt” = “Believe”


“Sell” = “Convince” = “Persuade”

I’ll usually write, “buy,” even when money is not involved. Th ere’s always

a price to pay.

Product = Service = Idea = Methodology

Most of the time, I use the word “product” to mean anything you are “selling,”

that is, anything you are trying to get people to adopt, buy, or buy

into. So, if I write, “selling them your product,” when you are trying to get

people to adopt an idea, it means, “get them to buy into your idea.” If you

are providing a service, it means, “getting them to buy your service.”

Word-of-Mouth Marketing Is NOT Word-of-Mouth


Pet Peeve: Please don’t ever, ever, ever speak of “Word-of-Mouth Advertising.”

Ever. It’s a contradiction in terms that signals you’re an amateur.

Word of mouth is communication that’s independent, unbiased, and

lacking in vested interest. Advertising is the exact opposite. To put the

terms together reveals either sloppiness of thinking or a wanton disregard

for clarity. Oft en both.

Th e phrase is “Word-of-Mouth Marketing.”

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