Social Conversations Drive Word-of-Mouth Marketing

I worked at a well-known user-generated T-shirt company for a long time.  While it sounds incredible today, 10 years ago arguably the lowest barrier to entry to online first-person social commentary was to make a statement by throwing it on a T-shirt.  T-shirts were the pre-social-media online status updates for early internet community members, and we digerati bore them proudly.

This was a time before social media existed as a concept, let alone a marketing channel (blogging was the new buzz in tech in 2003), but the T-shirts always let me know what was a-buzzin’ on the internet.  Those of you who have been online for awhile might remember viral hits like The Flying Spaghetti MonsterJibJab, and – one of my favorites- We Love the Iraqi Information Minister (dot com).

These groovy internet sensations started social conversations.  They were shared, person-to-person, primarily via email and IM, and the really hot ones sold incredible numbers of T-shirts.  I called this “hit business” at the time, but at its core those concepts that arrested the attention of people online to the point that they were emailing it around and purchasing T-shirts to be in on the joke are great examples of how an idea becomes word-of-mouth marketing: those concepts were participating in relevant social conversations in an appealing way that kept larger community considerations in mind.

A Meme Creates Social Conversations

Creating social conversations is about creating a meme: an idea that spreads from person to person.  In the magical land of the internet, cats are the unofficial rulers of the meme kingdom (Grumpy Cat, Keyboard Cat, various other cats), but there are other ways to start word-of-mouth marketing that don’t involve a feline.

We marketers call this sort of viral sharing buzz, word-of-mouth or viral marketing, but the idea of person-to-person sharing of branded content is hardly new.  Advertisers have been trying to spark real-world buzz since the advent of advertising, with a small handful of recognizable campaigns (“Where’s the Beef?”) making their way to public consciousness.

Spreading content by word of mouth depends entirely on engagement, and engaging people in social conversations starts and ends with social listening


As driving word-of-mouth marketing is the only goal of a social media marketing program, sparking social conversations within your target social community is the only goal of placing content on a social media channel.

You, the social media marketer, are the catalyst for your content.   So how do you craft content that your community is going to feel inspired to share?

Engaging Social Conversations are Helpful, Fun or Otherwise Valuable

They call it earned media for a reason: you can’t pay for it, but you do have to work for it.  Earned media is earned, and in order to earn it from your community, you have to think about their wants and needs.  When crafting your target message, remember that your content must demonstrate three things in order to become a topic of social conversations:

  • Relevance – Make sure that you’re considering the interests of your community first, not your own.  (Don’t try to sell anything.)
  • Appeal – Be sure to engage your community members by giving them something great to share with their overlapping communities.  (Don’t try to sell anything.)
  • Consideration – Community is about mutual give and take.  Give first.  (Don’t try to sell anything.)


Did I mention that you shouldn’t try to sell anything?

A great example of an organization using social media in a relevant, considerate way – and not trying to sell anything – is the Phoenix Children’s Hospital, who created an app to help you choose the right car seat.  Knowing that the parents of young children are a great target community for them, the hospital identified a major pain point in the car seat selection process.  As a parent who spent countless hours doing exactly this research, I can say with authority that an app that takes into account your criteria for a car seat and spits out an actual brand and model number is extremely useful, and had I found that app while doing my own painstaking research, I’d definitely have warm and fuzzy feelings towards the fine folks who made that project easier for me.

Social Conversations ROI Depends on Social Networks, not Social Media

Social media makes it easy to share content with large groups of people; a click takes far less effort than a phone call or a walk to the water cooler.  The power of social media lies in the social networks of your target community members; the power of your content lies in its potential to start a social conversations among the community.  Once people become influencers or advocates on behalf of your brand, they are giving a personal endorsement to their community members, and those members are inclined to pay attention to one of their own.  This is how word-of-mouth marketing starts.

So, when you craft your target message to spark active social conversations, be helpful.  Or be funny, or understanding, or be all of those things.  When you’re looking to engage with people, the best guideline of all is simply to remember to be yourself.

Speaking of which, I should really dig out my Wolf Moon T-shirt.  (For those of you who don’t remember this meme, just read the reviews.) That one’s started a lot of interesting social conversations in the most unlikely of places.  Yes, you can expand your social circle with a T-shirt.  Take it from me.