Say It With a Soundbite: The Secret to Word of Mouth Success

My high school job was working as a “box boy” at the local QFC grocery store bagging groceries and stocking shelves. When I was hired, they had an orientation session where they wheeled in a TV with a VCR (high tech!) and asked us to watch a movie which explained that the key to their success was their word of mouth reputation.

The trainer told us that any time they received a written complaint from a customer, they counted this as at least 10 unhappy customers.

What stuck with me more, however, is that for every positive letter they received, they would count this as 20 happy customers. While it does take effort to send a complaint, far fewer happy customers take the time to write or tell anyone about their experience.

After the training session ended, I made it my mission to make an impact at my new job. Goal #1: get a glowing customer letter! If I could do this, I could help my new employer (and hope to get a promotion). I did get at least two happy customer letters by the time I moved on. But it taught me  the power of every customer interaction. By creating a happy customer I could help the business succeed, even as a lowly box boy.

‘Tell your friends!’

One of the keys to survival for most businesses is to create happy customers that return and bring their friends. And it all starts with word of mouth.

Word of mouth (WOM) is still the best advertiser for nearly all businesses. Let’s go ahead and call it the holy grail. Positive word of mouth can instantly unlock stuck deals, create new profits, and better yet, create more positive word of mouth.  

Recently, I was talking with another dad I met at my son’s baseball game who was telling me about a laser tag course his kid loves. As I listened, I thought, why am I blindly trusting this guy’s opinion? He’s selling me on a place that is far away, expensive and I’m not even sure my kids are old enough to get in. And yet, here I was asking a near-stranger about something that I was interested in, because he had a son the same age as mine that also played baseball.

We are human after all. Hearing a heartfelt recommendation from this dad had a real weight that a website just can’t compete with. A day later, I found myself looking up the laser tag place he recommended and was compelled to take my boys.


The power (and problems) of word of mouth

As the above example proves, humans trust other humans. That’s what makes WOM so effective. People want advice and recommendations from their peers. In fact, 83% of consumers trust brand recommendations from family and friends, and 66% trust opinions shared by other consumers online

WOM can even lead to greater customer loyalty and repeat business. One case study published by Inc. showed that a hair removal salon called The Sweet Spot earned tens of thousands of clicks, hundreds of coupon redemptions, and 60 regular salon clients from a three-month, reward-based WOM campaign.

The problem is that WOM is slow as molasses. In the parlance of our time, “it doesn’t scale.” It’s also hard to track, as it happens all the time across countless different channels. While it’s relatively easy to keep tabs on public-facing WOM like tagged social media posts and customer reviews, 2017 Engagement Labs data found that 52% of word-of-mouth happens offline -- and that’s just the measurable interactions with brands, like customer surveys, call center logs, and sales team anecdotes. It’s nearly impossible to find out how many customers have mentioned your brand during private, face-to-face conversations like I had with my fellow baseball dad (although Alexa, Siri and other AI-powered “listening” devices are likely chipping away at that).

So how can your business get a hold of its word of mouth reputation? How can you inject energy into the WOM profit-generation machine?

The answer is to create a powerful soundbite that helps customers relay your business and its message to their network of friend, family, and colleagues.

Finding your soundbite

The key to coming up with an effective soundbite is  being intentional about what you want your customer to say. By offering an easy-to-share, pre-written message, your customers will be more inclined to take that step and tell their network about your business -- especially if there’s something in it for them.

One company that does this really well is a meal delivery service called YouFoodz. This Australian company offers free meals to any customer who gets a successful referral sign-up, and they make it incredibly easy to do. A Campaign Monitor article highlighted their brilliant one-click referral strategy:

YouFoodz referral email screenshot.

“YouFoodz follows up with a pre-written message and a Facebook share button so that users don’t need to think – they just need to click. With the lead image … promising a week of free lunch, the call-to-action is set up for success and maximum conversion.”

Even if you’re not necessarily offering a tangible reward for someone’s WOM referral, a soundbite like this will help your customer tell the story that you want to tell.

What makes a good soundbite?

In their book “Talk Triggers,” authors Jay Baer and Daniel Lemin cite four key requirements to generate word of mouth referrals. I view these as the core characteristics of a good soundbite:

  1. Remarkable. Apple’s product design was remarkable. Zappos’ customer service was remarkable. This is the hardest factor for most brands, but it could also be the foundation on which your business is built.

  2. Relevant. Many businesses use cheesy gimmicks to get noticed. If you stay in the zone of what your customers care about, you are more likely to make an impact.

  3. Reasonable. Your product or service soundbite must be reasonable or believable. If everything is free and service is unsustainably good, customers will get suspicious. They will likely not want to risk sending their friends and family to a business that will be closing soon.

  4. Repeatable. Your soundbite needs to be something that can be done again and again consistently so new customers can also experience the remarkable joy or delight they learned about via WOM.

With that in mind, here are a few helpful hints that can help you generate your brand’s WOM soundbite:

  • Think about what’s unique or memorable about your business. Stake your claim. What’s your key differentiator? What are you the best in the world at? Your team or customer feedback can help you brainstorm here.

  • Use new campaigns, messaging initiatives, or product launches to drive discussion of what you would like your dream customer to say to their best friend about your product.

  • Can you make your claim sticky, short, sweet and specific? Your soundbite should be as short and punchy as possible, like your product name itself.

  • Use an analogy or metaphor. For example, “It’s like Uber for accountants” or “It’s like Photoshop for audio.”

  • Try and have a soundbite that doesn’t sound like a sales pitch or ad copy, something that your customers will relay naturally.



If you want an excellent example of an effective soundbite, look no further than high-end lumber company WindsorONE. They began placing a sticker on each trim board they sold that simply read, “Call Kurt for a Shirt” with a phone number.

Builders called thinking it was a prank, but a guy named Kurt actually answered the phone, took down their contact information, and sent them a shirt and a business card, encouraging them to tell other builders to call. The campaign was a smash hit, to the tune of 50 leads a week for WindsorONE. That is the magic of word of mouth. (You can listen to “Talk Triggers” authors Baer and Lemin discuss WindsorONE’s WOM success further in this Marketing Over Coffee podcast).

Still not sure what your soundbite should be? Ask a mentor or a marketing consultant, or better yet, ask your customers. . A customer-generated soundbite not only helps your customers convey their enthusiasm, but it also sounds more natural and less “corporate” when it comes directly from real users of your product or service.

Just ask them for a shorthand way to describe your product or service. You’ll be amazed at what they come up with.

Activating your soundbite

Once you’ve narrowed down your candidates for a soundbite, do a resonance test by asking your future prospects or customers what they think of it. Tradeshows and events are great venues to try out new messaging before you officially launch your soundbite internally or via your marketing campaigns. A few things to consider:

  • Try to capture your soundbite in video or customer quotes. It is powerful to have actual customers or press partners authentically repeating your soundbite.

  • Plant seeds with customers in casual conversations or at trade events: “Would you describe us as (insert sound bite here)?”

  • Think about where and when will your customers be when they recommend your business. At a trade show? On LinkedIn? Out and about wearing a branded t-shirt? What can you do to help make this easier or more friendly?

  • How can you stimulate their recommendation?

Don’t overcomplicate your soundbite. A single soundbite is powerful, even if it highlights just one aspect of your business/product or service. Remember, a single reason -- a killer feature or a feeling of safety that your brand creates -- can swing a sale.

Beyond the soundbite: More ways to generate WOM referrals

While a catchy soundbite can help your WOM efforts considerably, there are many other ways to encourage customers to spread the word about your business. One highly effective tactic is the often-cited “surprise and delight” technique -- giving a customer an experience that is so unexpected and positive, that they can’t help but tell their friends about it.

Here are a few post-purchase actions that could earn you a WOM referral:

  • Create a customer success nurture sequence and include valuable post-sale education or tips on ways to have success with the product. For example, if a customer bought accounting software, send them best practices for small business payroll.

  • Help customers discover a secret recipe or insider tip

  • Showcase your more interesting customers on social media or in a blog post

  • Check in on their progress months after the sale (not just in the first day or week) to ask if they need help.

Another tactic (though one that might require a little more planning and effort) is physically getting in front of customers and mobilizing them as your product evangelists.

Credit: Nik Shuliahin/Shutterstock

One of my favorite sticky product evangelism stories that generated a lot of word of mouth was the 2002 launch of Sony Ericsson’s T68i camera phone. The company hired 60 ordinary people to go into Times Square and pose as tourists,  asking strangers to take a picture of them...with their phone. The unsuspecting New Yorkers would agree, then look at the phone  with puzzled amazement and excitement as they saw what was possible (remember, most people had never seen or heard of a camera phone at this point).

Here’s the brilliant part: Sony Ericsson ran this campaign  during lunch times, so the people their actors interacted with could go back to their office and tell their co-workers. Word spread so quickly that after just a day or two, the company ended the campaign due to market saturation.

The Sony Ericsson campaign is actually a pretty good way to think about how to approach your WOM efforts. While your product might not be as revolutionary as, say, the first camera phone, your objective is the same: Get somebody stop in their tracks, engage with your brand, and be impressed enough to tell someone else about it when they walk away.

When you have a memorable soundbite and a consistent goal of surprising and delighting your customers, you have a recipe for word of mouth success.

Need help figuring out what makes your brand memorable and unique? Go 2 Market Coach can help you find clarity and uncover your business’s true purpose. If this sounds like something you’re struggling with, let’s talk.

Further Reading:

Aside from “Talk Triggers,” here are a few other WOM-related books I’d recommend: