Why Word of Mouth Beats Influencer Marketing, and How to Get It

Why Word of Mouth Beats Influencer Marketing, and How to Get It

By Jeff Barrett, CEO at Status Creative


In short:

  • Brands continue to run celebrity and influencer marketing campaigns, but research shows that consumers value recommendations from friends and family much more. 

  • To generate positive word of mouth, first peg why your brand needs attention and where that attention would ideally come from.

  • Then, consider these five tactics for getting the job done: Commit to the quality of your product or service, test various campaigns, find ways to stay top-of-mind, create a lifestyle out of your brand, and do something good for your community.



Celebrities and influencers saturate our social media feeds, promoting products left and right. However, 83 percent of Americans are more interested in purchasing a product if it has been recommended by a family member or friend, according to a new study.

The impact of verbal referrals isn’t a new discovery. But the vastness of that gap is noteworthy as brands continue banking on influencers for marketing clout.

This month, marketing experts and bestselling authors Jay Baer and Daniel Lemin released “Chatter Matters: The 2018 Word of Mouth Report,” which examines how word-of-mouth marketing affects Americans, including differences between generations and genders. The study, run through Baer’s digital marketing firm Convince & Convert, included an online survey of about 1,000 Americans. Its juiciest takeaways included:

  • If they could pick only one source of information when making purchase decisions, 50 percent of Americans would choose offline or online word of mouth.
  • Twenty-five percent trust no celebrity or famous person to make recommendations.
  • Americans value word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family 41 percent more than social media recommendations.

Conclusion: Celebrity doesn’t always sell.


"When it comes down to it, a celebrity's ability to influence actual purchase decisions is not exactly airtight,” Lemin said. “In our research, consumers rely far more on people like them--friends, family, their social network--than celebrities and influencers.”

There are very few “bankable” celebrities, ones who you know will move a marketing needle. Most don’t deliver ROI. If you’re in an industry like banking, insurance, finance or automotive, a celebrity endorsement may deliver a little more brand recognition when a purchase decision needs to be made. But that’s not guaranteed.

There are exceptions, of course. Matthew McConaughey made some folks want to drive a Lincoln. But then again, your experience renting one, riding in one or with a family member having one would likely influence you more, at least according to the survey data.

Oprah may be an exception ... but on the whole, celebrities don't affect our buys as much as friends and family.


So, generate positive word of mouth. 


To figure out where to start, think about why your business needs attention and where that attention would ideally come from. Generally speaking, the brands that best understand their customer are those who win at word of mouth. 

Then, walk through the following steps with your why and where targets in mind.

1. Commit (or re-commit) to quality.

Before engineering ways to generate word of mouth, you have to understand that this strategy hinges on the quality of your product or service. You’re not creating an ad to tell people something is great. You’re creating a brand that inspires others to do that for you. 

Apparel brand Outdoor Voices is known for posting images sent in by its fans. (credit: Instagram/outdoorvoices) outdoorvoiceshike


2. Avoid the temptation to use paid incentives, and test campaigns instead.

Don’t use paid incentives as a shortcut. Small payments to influencers that are intended to manufacture positive word of mouth rarely resonate. And besides, you should only implement a paid strategy after your brand has organic success first. I usually test five variations of an organic word-of-mouth campaign, and the one that sticks gets the budget put behind it. 

Testing before spending is a much more efficient use of funds. The process feels like betting on a horse after it’s made the final turn. 


3. Find ways to stay top-of-mind.

If you’re in an industry with plenty of competition (finance, banking, insurance, automotive, etc.), then constant visibility is key. People aren’t purchasing from you every month or every year, so the goal is to be top-of-mind throughout their lives. Capital One, for example, creates community and visibility through its new cafes. These hangout spaces give folks a reason to “see” the bank, even though they’re not always banking.  

As mentioned above, you’re more likely to choose a bank based on a recommendation from someone you know--or a recommendation that you meet them in the Capital One Café for coffee--than the Geico gecko or Flo from Progressive.

Capital One runs cafes that offer both banking advice brand immersion. (credit: Instagram/losangeles_weekend) capitalonecafe


4. Create a lifestyle around your product or service.

People buy expensive Yeti coolers because the product says something about them: They’re adventurous, wild souls who travel often and “live hard,” per the language in Yeti’s Instagram bio. Plenty of other brands make comparable coolers that work just as well. But those brands haven't added a component of community in the way Yeti did when it advertised to the fishing and hunting niches, sold hats and T-shirts to get people talking and produced a video series to tell stories of adventure. That’s creating a lifestyle. If you buy a Yeti, then you’re claiming to be a part of that lifestyle. You “belong” to Yeti.

It’s possible to create a lifestyle out of any product, even kitchen knives. However, it takes time and consistency. Start by creating an identity that people aspire to. 

Yeti posts images of its coolers on adventures like rafting and camping on Instagram. (credit: Instagram/yeti) yetirafting


5. Do something for others.

A healthy shortcut to positive word of mouth is practicing CSR, or corporate social responsibility. When given the chance to recommend two equal brands, most consumers--well, millennial ones at least--will side with the one that gives back more in a genuine way. 

In the ‘80s, ‘90s and even 2000s, CSR was about visibility: “Hey look, our brand did this philanthropic act, so you should trust us.” Now, it’s measured by impact. As consumers, we don’t go out of our way to recommend something if it’s just a couple of dollars cheaper or the assembly instructions are just a little bit easier. Instead, we recommend the place that is building wells in Africa with some of its profits or creating inclusion accelerators in underserved neighborhoods. 

And that’s the best part. Spending brand money to help others not only enhances your brand but also helps solve social problems. And in an age where every intention is transparent and every action is visible, the best word of mouth is based on genuine goodwill with tangible results. 

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