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Word-of-Mouth Marketing

April 4, 2018 Jeff Bradford

I became interested in word-of-mouth marketing soon after we founded the Bradford Group 18 years ago. I realized that an overload of marketing messages was causing people to tune out the noise – especially paid advertising – and focus instead on what their friends and family had to say. As a matter of fact, when LinkedIn began in 2002 – two years before Facebook was founded and four years before Facebook expanded beyond college campuses – I saw it as an electronic version of word-of-mouth. That’s why I was one of LinkedIn’s first members and why I encouraged everyone in my network to join in 2002.


My interest in word-of-mouth became more intense when we were hired by The Nashville Symphony in 2005 to handle public relations for the campaign to build  Schermerhorn Symphony Center. The goal was to generate broad public support for this project, beyond the traditional classical music niche. We accomplished this goal by creating a massive, 300+ person network of influential Nashvillians, communicating our message to this group and motivating them to spread the word. It worked like a charm. (You can read all about it here.)

Why Does Word-of-Mouth Marketing Work?

  • Information Overload: The average person is exposed to more than 1,500 advertisements every day. So, we tune them out. We do, however, still listen to our friends.
  • Believability: People are very skeptical today. For example, they believe just 37% of information from computer companies, just 28% from drug companies and 16% from insurance companies. This heightened skepticism is particularly true among millennials, who can cut through hype very quickly. You are much more likely to believe a friend than an advertisement.
  • Customized: When a friend tells you about a particular product, she is telling you because she thinks that you – not some anonymous stranger – would like the product. The information is tailored to you.
  • Self-Generating: If 25 people tell 25 people about something, and this process is repeated five more times, the number equals about the population of the United States. It is a very efficient medium.
  • Inexpensive: It really costs only your time and attention, and a few well-placed word-of-mouth messages can quickly spread throughout an entire campus.
  • People Are More Connected: One word – the internet.
  • Experience Delivery System: Before we buy anything, we have to give it a test drive. Sometimes, as when buying a car, we directly experience the product to judge its effectiveness. Usually, however, we rely on indirect experience: hearing about other people’s experiences. In many ways, indirect experience is superior: someone else is spending the time gathering the experience and you can pool the experiences of several people to get a more reliable sample.

How Do You Do Word-of-Mouth Marketing?

Basically, you find or create a network of influential people, tell them something you want them to spread in the network and outside of it, and motivate them to do this.

Find or create a network of influential people: We created the Nashville Advisory Council for the Nashville Symphony project by identifying two influential Nashvillians I knew in 15 different categories, such as business, real estate, education, religion, art, etc. – and then asking each of these two people to recruit 15 more people like themselves. The original two became the chairs of the committee, such as the business committee. Within a month, we had over 200 members (15 x 15 = 225). It eventually grew to over 300 people.

We convinced people to join by making it very simple and gratifying to be a member of the Nashville Advisory Council. We told them that they had to do NOTHING but attend a couple of meetings a year and that they would be the FIRST people to know about all major symphony hall developments. They were the first to see the plans, first to try out the different chairs being considered for the hall, first to see the interior colors, etc. They also got to do exclusive things, like sign a giant concrete slab before it was hoisted onto the roof of the new hall. (You can still see these signatures in the attic of the building.)

Another way to “create” a network of influentials is to find it, something that is pretty easy in this era of ubiquitous information. For example, for IQuity, a company that is introducing new tests for autoimmune disease, one of which is multiple sclerosis, we identified people who blog on MS. We then contacted them and asked them to join “IQuity’s MS Advisory Board.” As a member, they are paid to complete a monthly survey about MS – and that’s it. We used their survey responses to develop news story ideas and, most importantly, they blog about their experience with IQuity, spreading the word about its new MS test.

Tell them something you want people to know and care about: Our goal was for all of Nashville to know about the many benefits the new concert hall would bring to our community. For example, even if you never attended a concert there, it would be a great economic development tool, it would spur quality development in the SoBro part of town (which was then languishing) and it would be a great educational resource for public schools. We shared all of these messages with the advisory council, with the facts and talking points to back them up.

Motivate members of the network to spread your message: The best way to do this, we learned with the advisory council, was to give information to council members that NO ONE else knew – and then giving them permission to share it. People love to be the first to know about something important and being privy to inside information, and the best way to get the most enjoyment from this knowledge is to tell someone else. Not only is this good for the community, it also enhances your prestige.

How Do You Identity the Influential People You Need For Your Word-of-Mouth Marketing Campaign?

Word-of-mouth is driven by a handful of exceptional people who have one or more of the following traits:

  • Vocal (may be soft-spoken, but not shy about voicing an opinion)
  • Energetic
  • Socially active (know a lot of people, though most may be weak ties to acquaintances versus deep friendships)
  • Politically active
  • Information hungry
  • Exposed to the media
  • Involved in many activities, often in leadership roles
  • Sought out for advice
  • Early adopters of new ideas and products
  • Cluster with people like them
  • Opportunistic – looking for and open to new ways of getting ahead

These influential people, who account for about 10% of any population, can be grouped into three categories:

  • Connectors: People who know and are liked by many other people in networks outside their own. Because they have a foot in many different worlds, they tend to bring them all together. They are particularly strong with ‘weak ties’ – which are connections to acquaintances versus close friends. These weak ties are actually more important to word of mouth than strong ones.
  • Mavens: People who know a lot about a few things – information specialists, experts, authorities, disinterested collectors of information. In your company’s case, a maven could be people who are seen as arbiters of campus popularity, leadership and power. The people who are ‘in the know’ about campus dynamics. They are not persuaders, however.
  • Salespersons: People who can persuade others to do and/or believe things. They have a powerful personality that allows them to draw others in and ‘dictate the terms of the interaction.’ They are born, not made.
  • Mavens are data banks: They provide the message.
  • Connectors are social glue: They spread the message.
  • Salespersons are the change agents: They make the message stick.

 Characteristics of An Influential

Per 2001 research by RoperASW

 A man or woman (50% each)

  • Middle-aged
    • 45.2 years old for the median (+2.3 years from the total public)
  • College educated
    • 80% have attended college (+30 points from total pubic)
    • 49% are college graduates (+26)
  • Married with children
    • 70% are married (+13)
    • 53% with children at home
  • Homeowners
    • 74% own their own home
  • Employed
    • 72% are in the workforce
    • 58% in full-time job
  • Executive or professional
    • 34% as the leading occupation (+19 )
  • Hard worker
    • 41% in dual-income household (+10 )
    • 22% own their own business (+10 )
    • 75% consider their work a career (+19 )
    • 22% regularly bring home work (+12 )
  • Moderate in political views
    • 76% are moderately conservative (30%), moderately liberal (16%) or ‘middle of the road’ (30%)
  • Saver
    • 71% regularly put money away for retirement (+21 )
    • 75% have money in mutual funds, stocks, bonds, retirement accounts or money markets (+24 )
  • Active in the community
    • 74% attended a public meeting on town or school affairs (+58 )
    • 68% wrote or called a politician at local, state or national level (+56 )
    • 50% served on a committee of a local organization (+43 )
    • 48% were officers of a club or organization (+41 )
    • 45% attended a political rally, speech or organized protest (+38 )
    • 40% wrote a letter to the editor or called a live broadcast to express their opinions (+34 )
    • 35% were active members of a group trying to influence public policy or government (+30 )
    • 31% made a speech (+27 )
    • 25% worked for a political party (+22 )
    • 21% wrote an article for a magazine or newspaper (+18 )
    • 6% held or ran for political office (+5 )
  • Lead active leisure life

How they spend their leisure time:

    • 58% read newspaper often (+21 )
    • 49% read books (+22 )
    • 40% read magazines (+17 )
    • 35% spend time on hobbies (+11 )
    • 31% make home improvements/repairs (+11 )
    • 30% go online, browse the Web (+11 )
    • 27% do volunteer work, community service (+20 )
    • 26% exercise, play sports (+10 )
    • 21% travel on weekends (+12 )

Less likely to use leisure time for passive activities:

    • 35% watch TV (-14 )
    • 21% watch sports (- 6 )
    • 15% watch videos (- 2 )
    • 11% nap (- 4 )
  • Active minds

Favorite hobbies of Influentials:

    • 68% reading (+26 )
    • 55% music (+10 )
    • 54% travel (+27)
    • 45% cooking (+8)
    • 44% gardening (+15)
    • 40% computers (+21)
    • 40% exercise (+14)
    • 38% pets (+17)
    • 30% fishing (+5)
    • 29% hiking (+15)
    • 29% camping (+8)
    • 28% bicycling (+12)
    • 27% crafts/making things (+12)
    • 25% photography (+13)
    • 22% investing (+15)
    • 22% team sports (+6)
    • 21% water sports (+5)
    • 20% golf (+9)
    • 20% painting, sketching, drawing (+11)
  • Belief in Growth and Change

Percentage who agree with the following statements:

    • 93% “If you have an unhappy life, you can change if you really try.” (+13)
    • 82% “How my life turns out is pretty much within my personal control and depends mostly on what I do or don’t do.” (+19)
    • 62% “Most people don’t change things in their lives often enough to experience all that life has to offer.” (+18)
    • 60% “Prospects of achieving the ‘good life’ are very good or have already achieved it.” (+21)
    • 54% “I am well on the road to achieving my vision of the American Dream.” (+18)

 How Connected Are You?

Review this list of 274 last names taken at random from the Nashville phone book (from the days when we had phone books). Give yourself a point every time you see a name that is shared by someone you know. (The definition of “know” is very broad. For example, if you sat down next to someone on an airplane, you would “know” each other if you introduced yourselves.) Multiple names count. If the name is Adams and you know three Adams, you get three points. Names must be exact: If the name is Wood and you know a Woods, it doesn’t count. The person you know can live anywhere and you do not have to have communicated with him or her recently.

Adams, Agee, Aleman, Allen, Altosaili, Anderson, Anglin, Armstrong, Austin, Bailey, Baker, Ballard, Barlow, Baskin, Bates, Beasley, Beckham, Bennett, Berry, Billingsley, Birdsong, Bledsoe, Bolin, Bonner, Bowman, Bradford, Brakefield, Briggs, Broadhurst, Brown, Bryant, Buchanan, Buntin, Burton, Butler, Calhoun, Campbell, Cardno, Carranza, Carter, Castro, Chambers, Chavez, Cho, Clark, Clayton, Cobb, Cole, Collins, Connor, Cook, Corcoran, Cox, Crawford, Crookston, Crowe, Currey, Dahlgren, Davenport, Davis, Deane, Dennis, Desheles, Dismang, Dominquez, Dougher, Draper, Dubose, Durall, Easter, Edwards, Elliott, Englert, Ervin, Ewing, Farmer, Fentress, Ferrell, Fitzgerald, Floyd, Forrest, Fox, Franco, Freeman, Furukawa, Gamons, Garcia, Gaskins, George, Gilbert, Glenn, Goetz, Goodman, Gourley, Green, Greer, Griffith, Grundy, Haas, Hale, Hall, Hamilton, Harbula, Hardy, Harris, Hart, Harvey, Hawkins, Heath, Henderson, Herig, Herring, Hill, Hinshaw, Hobbs, Hollingshead, Holtzclaw, Hooper, Hostettler, Hudgens, Hughes, Hunter, Hyche, Ingram, Jackson, James, Jarvis, Johnson, Jones, Jordan, Kantz, Keith, Kerr, Kimble, King, Kline, Knott, Kuhns, Lamar, Langford, Lattimore, Lawrence, Lee, Lester, Lewis, Lindberg, Lloyd, Long, Luckett, Lyon, Mackin, Maney, Mariutto, Marshall, Martinez, Massey, Mayes, McCall, McClain, McDavitt, McElroy, McKinley, McNamara, Medell, Mellencamp, Miele, Miller, Milligan, Mitchell, Moon, Moore, Morel, Morrisette, Motley, Murphy, Napier, Nelson, Netherton, Nicholls, Nolan, O’Bryan, Oleson, O’Neal, Owen, Pace, Parker, Passomato, Patton, Peck, Perez, Perry, Phillips, Pierre, Pinson, Pope, Powell, Priddy, Pugh, Rabalais, Ramirez, Ray, Reagan, Reid, Rhee, Richardson, Risby, Roberts, Robinson, Rogers, Rose, Ross, Russelburg, Rutherford, Salamon, Sanders, Scanlan, Schrock, Scott, Sellers, Shanklin, Shastri, Shepherd, Short, Simpson, Sircy, Slusher, Smith, Sneed, Sparks, Spencer, Staggs, Steckel, Stewart, Stone, Strobel, Sullivan, Swanson, Swinford, Taylor, Thames, Thomas, Thompson, Tidwell, Tomlin, Touchstone, Tucker, Turner, Tyree, Van, Vaughn, Volkert, Wachs, Wade, Walker, Waller, Warrick, Watson, Webb, Welch, Werthan, Whitaker, White, Wilhoite, Williams, Willis, Wilson, Winters, Wood, Woodard, Wright, Xu, Young, Zavalin, Zimmerman.


0 – 20: Nowhere Man

21 – 50: Anybody

51 ­– 100: Somebody

101 – 150: Everybody

150 – 200: Influential

201+: The Man/The Woman


Acknowledgments: A lot of the lessons I put to use in our word-of-mouth marketing campaigns came from these two great books:

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