How Online Word-of-Mouth Marketing Is Changing

I saw someone using a payphone the other day. I figured he was just trying to get a clever Instagram shot in hopes of being on a sponsored AT&T post. Nope — he was actually making a call…or making a fake call to avoid an ex-girlfriend. (I’m not sure those things are even connected anymore.)

Regardless of his reason, the fact that this seems striking is because it’s so out of place. As processes catch up to new technologies, we either abandon the old version (like the payphone), or we merge the old and the new, like an e-magazine. But some processes take longer to catch up to the technologies now fueling them.

Consider, for example, the way we choose who we do business with (personally and professionally). In most cases, not much has progressed in 20 years. We’re still looking through directories, flipping through flyers, or at the very most, perusing the online version of them. Beyond that, we’re still relying on word-of-mouth recommendations from our friends.

Up until five years ago, that meant that backyard, over-the-fence word of mouth was still king, and any business with hopes of survival relied on those “Bob told me you do great work” phone calls. Now, we’re all neck-deep in social media. Most of us are connected with many more people than we actually know, and rather than facilitate word of mouth, this can actually complicate it.

For business owners, that means it’s both easier and harder than ever to get genuine, socially driven recommendations. It’s not just about more likes or better reviews, either — here’s why:

  1. Fake reviews are everywhere. With lots of controversy in the news about purchased book reviews and the inability of most sites to prevent anonymous accounts, experts guess that at least one-third of all online reviews are forged. So, don’t believe the reviews you’re seeing, unless you know the person reviewing. Some local user review sites facilitate this to an extent by letting you follow other reviewers.
  2. Facebook likes or Twitter followers don’t equal a recommendation. With most businesses constantly running contests through these social media sites, and the number of ways to skew Facebook’s “like” system growing by the day, consumers need to be wary of equating seemingly high popularity to quality. Instead, pay attention to the brands your closest friends or colleagues interact with — cultivating lists can be a preliminary way to sort through the noise.
  3. If you’re a business, no one is searching for your service on social media. Most businesses at this point have a Facebook page. But if you consider how consumers search for things, how many are likely to type “landscaper” or “attorney” in the Facebook search bar?  For the most part, you still have to establish word of mouth before you can use these sites as new customer acquisition channels.
  4. Publicly asking your friends who they do business with may cloud your next move. I don’t know about you, but if I posted something on Facebook about needing a golf coach, house cleaner or new hair stylist, I’d get crushed with witty and unhelpful comments from my friends — or worse, they’d volunteer to help, which I don’t necessarily want. You still don’t know who they actually hired, or would hire, to do the work for them. (Groups — whether on LinkedIn for professional advice, or Facebook for personal references, to name two — might be a more targeted, if still imperfect, way to acquire smarter information.)

Ultimately, that’s why I created  www.youneedmyguy.com – to create a platform where you could see who the people you’re connected with actually choose to do business with (without sending an email to everyone you know, or taking it to a public forum). If you’re a service provider, you can show your prospects how they know your current clients. It’s all about giving consumers an opportunity to make better decisions about who to hire — modernizing word of mouth, if you will.

In his 2011 Keynote Speech at Inc’s 500 Seminar, Gary Vaynerchuk talks about how we say things on social networks that we never would have picked up the phone and told our friends. “Word of mouth is the currency, and now we have the infrastructure for word of mouth to be on steroids.”

There’s so much more we can do to take advantage of that infrastructure, but we’re just now starting to dream up how. What about you — how are you taking advantage of social media’s power to change who does business with YOU?

Joe Cassara is founder and CEO of You Need My Guy, the best way to organize your referrals and recommendations online. He also serves as Managing Partner of Harvest Ventures, an early-stage venture-funding firm, and Mentor of StartFast, a venture accelerator out of Syracuse, NY.

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.

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