Word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM) means that people spread about the word for a company and its products or services, either encouraging or discouraging others from buying its products or services. About 72% of consumers use this method to learn about new products and services (Christoff, 2019). WOMM is extremely important for SMBs, because most small businesses may not have the famous brand names as big organizations do. Also, small businesses may not have much to spend on traditional marketing (Salesforce, 2018). Thus, many small businesses heavily reply on WOMM to acquire new customers, promote their products/services and grow their business.
What is electronic word-of-mouth marketing?
WOMM can happen both online and offline. Due to the popularity of social media use at a personal level, social media has greatly affected the consumer decision-making process and purchase behaviors in the online environment. Today's consumers trust their social media connections' product recommendations and online reviews/ratings when they are making purchase decisions. Some consumers follow social media influencers and buy the products recommended and used by the influencers. Today's e-commerce environment has become a social commerce environment (Wu, 2018). Thus, electronic word of mouth (eWOM) becomes extremely important nowadays.
How small businesses can use electronic word-of-mouth marketing to their advantage
I frequently hear two questions about eWOM: First, how can I have my loyal customers advocate for my business, products or services on social media? Second, how can I reduce negative comments on social media? In other words, many organizations want to know how to foster positive eWOM and reduce negative eWOM in the online environment. Based on my research and consulting experiences, I would like to provide the following suggestions.
First and foremost, make sure that your products and services meet or exceed your customers' expectations. If your customers love your company, products or services, they are more likely to write positive comments online and recommend your company to their friends and connections.
I conducted focus group interviews with young consumers and explored their expected relationship-building strategies from online vendors. Several of my participants said that they want the online vendors to make their expectations real (Wu, 2018). The product quality and delivery time need to meet customers' expectations.
Especially for online shopping, consumers can't physically see the products and need to wait for the products to be delivered to them, they want the online vendors to be honest to them. Online vendors need to provide accurate and detailed product descriptions. They also need to make sure that the customers can receive the products within the estimated timeframe.
Second, engage with your customers. Customer engagement can happen both online and offline. If your small business is a multichannel company or a brick-mortar company, you can engage with your customers both in-person and online.
Many brick-mortar small businesses are family owned and community-based. Some customers like the personable atmosphere when they buy products or get services at these SMB stores. You may establish personal relationships with your loyal customers by offering exceptional services and inviting them to attend your company events.
No matter whether your company has a physical store or not, you can engage with your customers in social media brand/fan communities. You can build online brand/fan communities and encourage customer participation online, cultivate connections, and create enjoyable experiences in the social media environment. Positive interactions in the social media environment can foster positive eWOM and maintain a long-term relationship with your loyal customers. You can develop brand/fan communities by using social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Pinterest, or create your own independent online community in your company website/blog.
Third, provide effective customer care via customers' preferred channels. If your company is an online small business, you'll mainly engage with customers on your company website and social media sites. You want to make sure that you provide consumers two-way communication channels. If there are problems with the products, your customers know how to contact you and solve the problem. Online shopping is different from onsite shopping because consumers cannot physically see the product, touch the product or try the product on. Your customer may need to return or exchange the products. Therefore, you need to make sure that your customers can easily contact you if they have questions or concerns.
There are multiple customer support channels, such as 1-800 customer service phone numbers, a customer support email address, as well as a social customer care and chat function on the company website. You may choose the appropriate customer service channels based on your customer base. Specifically, young consumers are tech-savvy and prefer an online type of customer services, such as social customer care and chat function on the company website.
When your customers contact you, they expect quick responses. If your customers ask you questions in your social media sites or send you an email, please reply to them and answer their questions promptly.
Fourth, invite your customers to review your business/products/services on your company websites. Many consumers would read online reviews before making a purchase decision. Because online reviews are influential, retailers can invite customers to rate their experience and write reviews soon after the products are delivered (Tuten & Solomon, 2018). Thus, you can send your customers emails to invite them to review your products on your company website. If you provide good products and services to your customers, the review results will be mainly positive. It's fine to send emails to invite your customers to write reviews. However, you should not pay or provide incentives to get positive review results, because consumers want to see objective review results.
Finally, be responsible for your mistakes and respond to negative comments quickly and effectively. Small businesses not only have to foster positive eWOM but also need to reduce negative eWOM. To reduce negative eWOM, all customer concerns and issues need to be handled effectively. There are business review sites, such as Yelp, Google, Facebook, Amazon (related to e-commerce), and TripAdvisor (related to restaurants, hotels, and travel). Thus, your customers can write reviews not only on your website but also on business review sites.
You may check what your customers said online. If there are negative comments, you can contact the dissatisfied customers and resolve the issues. For example, Yelp allows business owners to respond to customer comments either publicly or privately (e.g., sending them private messages). If you made a mistake, own the mistake and correct the wrongs. Offering an apology may help. However, an empty apology alone may not be enough. You also need to take action. Research findings suggest that dissatisfied customers would expect the company to initiate systematic changes, such as changing corporate policies. Also, some customers would expect the company to offer compensations (e.g., giving a discount for future purchases) or give them a refund (Wu, 2015). You need to listen to your customers, understand their concerns, evaluate the situation, and provide a workable solution. If issues are resolved, negative eWOM can be reduced.
eWOM significantly affects consumers' decision-making processes. Specifically, WOMM is very important for small businesses. By providing exceptional products/services, engaging with customers, and having two-way communication with customers, small businesses can foster positive eWOM in the online environment.
Christoff, C. (2019, June 28). How to improve word-of-mouth marketing for your small business? Retrieved from https://www.business.com/articles/improving-word-of-mouth-marketing.
Salesforce. (2018, April 9). 3 Ways SMBs can develop a proactive word of mouth marketing strategy. Retrieved from https://www.salesforce.com/ca/blog/2018/04/develop-word-of-mouth-marketing-wtrategy.html.
Tuten, T.L., & Solomon, M. R. (2018). Social media marketing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Wu, M. Y. (2015). Customer relations in social media: Motives for social media usage, expected crisis response strategies from organizations, and electronic word of mouth (eWOM). China Media Research, 11(3), 65-72.
Wu, M. Y. (2018). Ethical customer relations in electronic commerce environment: Dialogic communication and making customers' expectations real. China Media Research, 14(3), 34-43.