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Word-of-Mouth Marketing Should Be Like a Jockey—Short, Agile and Human

How Bissell got moms talking

Ted Wright is CEO of Fizz, a word-of-mouth marketing firm in Atlanta.

Every vital brand has a story to tell, and the most effective way to spread your story—even in today's digital age—is through word-of-mouth conversations. The key to word of mouth is having a great story to share, and the best stories are like jockeys: short, agile and human.

Short. In our experience, the average word-of-mouth marketing conversation lasts 32 seconds. You don't need to talk to people for long. You just need to find a way to start the conversation. Or, more accurately, let them start it.

Agile. Your story has to be able to work in many different situations so you can talk to people in a variety of environments. When you venture out to start conversations with people, the environment will be unpredictable. Most brands have a variety of target consumers, and each one will have different questions about the product. They don't care that you have one message your company is trying to convey. You must be able to make your story relevant to anyone's life.

Human. Your story has to be authentic, which is about more than just telling the truth; it has to match what consumers think they already know about your brand. And when you tell your authentic story, you need to sound like a person—not a lawyer or a publicist or even (gasp!) a marketer. Influencers can smell PR talk, and they're not interested in it.

Here's one way to tell when you're being authentic: Most of the time, authenticity is scary to a company. It requires that you share a fairly unvarnished reality, and an unvarnished reality is going to have lumps. In a world where your competition is all basically the same, it may seem like being the same is the safe bet. But once you make the decision not to be that way, you begin to set yourself apart. You create some cognitive dissonance. And that not only gets a customer's attention but it also gets her respect.

Consider the example of the Bissell sweeper, a manual sweeper whose sales had been languishing a few years ago. While a sweeper might not strike you as a particularly talkable product, there was actually a good story behind it. This sweeper had a remarkable capacity for sweeping up small items usually left behind by vacuums and lesser sweepers—think tiny action-figure accessories (swords, helmets and so on), kitty litter, pine needles and Lego blocks. If you have kids of a certain age, you know how annoying it is to step on Lego blocks. Plus, retrieving those pieces from the sweeper was far easier than retrieving them from the murky depths of a vacuum cleaner bag. Also, this cleaner didn't have a motor, making it far quieter than any vacuum.

We knew we had to get this sweeper in front of moms with young children. Lucky for us, it was Christmastime, and moms everywhere were waging war on the pine needles falling off their Christmas trees. So we parked ourselves in the Santa line at the mall. And while the kids stood in a slow-moving line with their parents, we threw a bunch of pine needles and toys on a carpet on the other side of that rope and staged demonstrations. And the short, agile and human story about the Bissell sweeper was born.

We had people wearing Bissell shirts, throwing all sorts of junk on a carpet from bags labeled "mess," and then showing what the sweeper could do. The moms were intrigued, but the kids were fascinated. "Mommy, that lady is making a mess!" they'd cry. "Can I help?" And we ended up with dozens of kids throwing toys and pine needles on the floor, who would then take turns helping our brand ambassadors scoop them up with the sweeper. You'd have thought they were playing with the hottest new toy of the season.

You can probably guess what happened next. Moms whipped out their cell phone cameras and started snapping away. The kids were already dolled up and coifed to meet Santa, and now they were jostling over who would get to help the nice lady use the sweeper. Naturally, the moms posted these pictures of their kids on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Thus, word spread, in the most adorable way possible, to thousands upon thousands of moms. And of course, as the kids were playing, moms were asking questions about the sweepers.

The story was short. The Bissell sweeper tackles small, annoying messes better than a traditional vacuum. It was agile. Our potential audience was anyone in that mall with a live Christmas tree at home—including moms, dads, cat owners, dog owners, smokers, people with allergies, people who love their carpets, grandparents and nearly everyone else. They all had different questions, but the story was agile enough that we could make it relevant to anyone. And finally, it was human. We didn't claim that the Bissell sweeper was the next revolutionary design in sweepers, or that its sheer power made it the most superior sweeper on the market. And it wasn't doused in marketing talk. We simply identified a story about the sweeper that we knew would align with what consumers thought they already knew about the brand, and made sure it was relevant and interesting to them. We made it human.

As a result, these moms had a great story to tell their friends: "We were waiting in line to see Santa, and there was this woman with a bag labeled 'mess' throwing action figures and pine needles all over a carpet. Zach ran up and asked if he could use the sweeper too, and next thing you know, he is sweeping up toys in the middle of the mall. By the way, you should check out this sweeper because it really did seem to suck up the pine needles."

All you need is one of these moms standing around the playground to tell two friends this story. Then those friends will tell two friends, and so on. Armed with this story, the right mom can infect an entire school. And if you win the school, you win the neighborhood. Win the neighborhood, and you can win the state. And so on and so on. In the five years previous to our campaign, sales of that sweeper had been flat, and the five years previous to that, they had been declining. In the final year of our campaign, sales went up 15 percent. In the second year, they went up 25 percent.

This is the beauty of word-of-mouth marketing. Once your story gets traction, it takes on a life of its own. But that only happens with the right story. Think like a jockey—short, agile and human – and watch as your stories (and sales) take off running.

Ted Wright is CEO of Fizz, a word-of-mouth marketing firm in Atlanta. His book, Fizz: Harness the Power of Word-of-Mouth Marketing to Drive Brand Growth, was published by McGraw-Hill in November.

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