Last Updated: December 1, 2020

More than 425 million people worldwide use Gmail, the web-based email service by Google. Known for its ease of use and intuitive interface, Gmail grew rapidly at launch, but few people would have seen the service’s key features if it weren’t for one of the most successful word-of-mouth marketing campaigns in history.

Gmail started as a close, work-only email system for Google employees. The company launched it to the public in a limited, invite-only release in April of 2004. Google asked many of its employees to send out invitations to their friends and family to join the closed beta test of Gmail. Occasionally, those recently invited friends and family would also get the chance to distribute invitations. The use of Gmail went from being part of an exclusive network of people in-the-know, to being part of an international phenomenon that connected millions of people.

This was a great accomplishment considering that practically everyone who received an invitation to try Gmail had no need of it because they already used a different email system. By relying on users to recommend Gmail to friends and family, rather than raising awareness about the service through more traditional, outbound advertising, Google convinced people to support a product despite a lack of demand.

What is word-of-mouth marketing?

As the name implies, word-of-mouth marketing is any instance where consumers share information about a product or organization with one another, whether by talking or through some other medium. Internet communication, especially social networking, is a significant part of modern word-of-mouth marketing. Though traditional word-of-mouth relies on consumers talking to one another in a direct, personal context like an in-person conversation or a telephone call, Internet-based word-of-mouth uses a variety of platforms that may not involve speaking at all. (See also Internet Marketing)

Non-Verbal Word-of-Mouth

The Internet allows consumers to share information about products and organizations without ever speaking to one another. The following are examples of how word-of-mouth works online.

  • Social network posts (Facebook, Twitter, etc)
  • “Liking” or other signs of approval on social networks
  • Sharing links via email or other platforms
  • Posting media content (videos, pictures, audio clips) on websites

In the case of Google’s viral Gmail campaign, the company used word-of-mouth in real life and via Internet-based networks to spread information about the new email service. Google allowed the campaign to continue to spread by allowing current users to distribute new invitations themselves. The company continued to grant new users the ability to send invitations to their own social networks until Gmail became available publicly.

Who implements word-of-mouth marketing campaigns?

Any organization that can encourage people to spread information about a product, a cause, or the organization itself can use word-of-mouth marketing. It is useful in for-profit endeavors as well as in non-profit causes like political campaigns.

An apartment management company, for instance, could encourage tenants to refer their friends and family to the company if they are in the market for a place to live. The company could give incentives for these referrals by offering tenants a cash bonus or some other benefit if someone they refer to the management company signs a new lease.

Word-of-mouth is also a popular technique used by medical professionals to share patients between different specialists. A doctor could suggest a particular dental practice to patients, just as that dental practice could refer patients to specialists like orthodontists and oral surgeons. This is often based on the existing professional networks of the doctors and dentists, as well as each practice’s reputation. (See also Referral Marketing)

Political campaigns are especially dependent on word-of-mouth. In addition to convincing individuals to vote for a particular candidate or issue, they also encourage people to talk to others about doing the same. This is frequently accomplished by providing people with content they can share, like email newsletters, online videos, and social networking pages.

Word-of-Mouth is Mostly Positive

Word-of-mouth works best when people have something kind to say about the product. Luckily, the vast majority of word-of-mouth mentions are positive and very few are actually negative.

All Product Mentions via Word-of-Mouth

Implementing word-of-mouth strategies

The principles of word-of-mouth marketing are simple, so the process of using it should not attempt to be too complex. There are four steps organizations should take to create a successful word-of-mouth campaign.

Dettol Meets the Moms of China

Faced with declining sales and unfavorable public recognition in its biggest market, China, the all-purpose sanitizer company Dettol spoke to its target demographic in several Chinese cities. Mothers were the target and the conversation the company had with them found that people in China generally thought of Dettol as being primarily a floor cleaner, rather than a multi-purpose anti-bacterial fluid.

Sending samples of a new, portable spray bottle to 4,000 moms with large social networks, Dettol’s sales skyrocketed 86% in just three months. Learn more about Dettol’s marketing strategy here.

First, the company should give consumers something to talk about. This means providing a quality product and highlighting its key features. If, for instance, a new ice cream shop called Frozen Treats opens and wants to develop a positive reputation in its community, the shop could start the campaign by asking consumers the question, “What is your favorite flavor at Frozen Treats?” This begins a specific, product-focused conversation, rather than just a general discussion of the shop itself.

Next, the company should decide where this conversation will happen. The company should research what media its consumers use the most, and then place the marketing materials for the campaign in those media. Frozen Treats is trying to capture the attention of its local community, so it may want to place ads asking “What is your favorite flavor?” in a community newspaper, on local TV stations, and through social media pages that pertain to the community. (See also Reply Marketing)

However, simply starting the conversation often isn’t enough. The company needs to give consumers a reason to talk about the product. Frozen Treats could direct consumers to its website to vote for their favorite flavor and promise in the marketing materials to offer a discount on the most voted-for flavor.

Lastly, the company needs to make sure the conversation continues. Frozen Treats may see an initial rush of customers at the start of the campaign, but it can also let new and potential customers know that people are talking about the shop. Frozen Treats could announce the winner of the Favorite Flavor campaign in new marketing materials and use this momentum to launch a new campaign that encourages people to vote again. This would allow the company to learn about where the conversation was taking place and what kinds of materials were most effective.

Keeping it Legal

Today, companies that are suspected of paying actors to pose as consumers for word-of-mouth campaigns are investigated by consumer protection agencies on an individual basis. In most states, a paid marketer is required by law to disclose his or her true intent and relation to his or her employer.

Careers in word-of-mouth marketing

Though word-of-mouth campaigns rely on the behavior of consumers, companies still need smart, capable teams of professionals to ensure every aspect of the campaigns go smoothly. The following are three roles on a marketing team that are often involved in word-of-mouth campaigns.

Market Researcher

What do they do?

Word-of-Mouth Marketing Salaries

  • Market Researcher
    Starting: $39,000
    Median: $51,000
    Top Earners: $65,000
  • Public Relations Representative
    Starting: $34,000
    Median: $46,000
    Top Earners: $55,000
  • Content Specialist
    Starting: $41,000
    Median: $54,000
    Top Earners: $72,000

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

A market researcher gathers and analyzes data about consumer behavior and trends. In word-of-mouth campaigns, a researcher helps the team identify how to reach the target demographic and how to understand what that demographic wants. This job may involve conducting surveys, reading market reports, and performing research through sources both online and offline.

Education and Skills

Market researchers should have a bachelor’s degree in marketing, business, psychology, sociology, or data analysis. Previous experience in an academic or scientific field may also be useful.

Public Relations Representative

What do they do?

Word-of-mouth often begins with someone from a company reaching out to consumers. Furthermore, modern word-of-mouth frequently requires an ongoing conversation with consumers via social media. Public relations professionals specialize in communicating with consumers through multiple media and maintaining a company’s presence online and in the real world. This requires strong communication skills and a thorough understanding of new media.

Education and Skills

Public relations representatives should have a bachelor’s degree in marketing, business, public relations, communication, or psychology. It is also valuable to have a background in customer-facing positions like retail or customer service.

Content Specialist

What do they do?

Modern word-of-mouth can involve content like videos and blogs consumers can share with one another. Content specialists craft these materials and make them easy to share. This takes creative thinking and skills with media technology.

Education and Skills

Content specialists should have bachelor’s degree in marketing, communications, public relations, or business. Previous experience with web properties, video, or other media may be helpful.

How can a marketing school help you succeed?

Our Recommended Schools

  1. Grand Canyon University (GCU)

    GCU's Colangelo College of Business offers leading edge degrees that address the demands of contemporary business environments.

  2. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU)

    Explore the bond between business and consumer behavior with a degree in marketing.

Word-of-mouth is one of the oldest forms of marketing, but has evolved with modern society and technology. Those who wish to learn about it must also develop a firm understanding of the entire field, which can be achieved quickly and efficiently through a marketing education program.

The beginning of a marketing program will stick to the basics of business development, from project finance, to marketing terminology, and research practices. All of these things are essential to any marketing campaign, from the most straightforward word-of-mouth strategy to the most complex, multimedia effort.

Technology courses in a marketing program explore common business tools like office suite software for communications, database management, and presentation development. They also expose students to the usage of new media and best practices for learning emerging technologies.

As students approach the end of their marketing program experience, they will have the opportunity to analyze case studies of successful marketing campaigns and eventually engage in simulations that ask them to develop their own, original campaigns from the ground up. The skills students use to create and implement their campaigns are identical to those they will use in the workplace. This degree of focus and realism is invaluable to anyone who wants to have a long and successful career in marketing.