Amplify Word-of-Mouth Sales With These Simple Referral Ideas

Word of mouth marketing | Shopify Retail blog

The most powerful method of marketing is also one of the most old fashioned: word of mouth. It impacts 20% to 50% of all purchasing decisions, according to the research firm McKinsey. And 92% of consumers will act upon recommendations from friends and family over any other form of advertising, based on research from Nielsen.

McKinsey study | Shopify Retail blog

Image Credit: McKinsey

Obviously, these person-to-person interactions about your brand matter. In its traditional form, word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing is a one-on-one conversation about a product or service between friends or family members.

But modern technology has significantly broadened WOM's potential reach. Consumers now share their experiences with companies on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter with hundreds of followers. Review sites like Yelp and Angie’s List provide a platform for finding and giving feedback to help consumers weigh their options. And innumerable bloggers and online influencers test products and services and share their thoughts with readers.

While online WOM is quick and convenient, it accounts to just one third of sales; offline conversations still hold the power, making up two-thirds of sales, according to the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA).

So how can you put this powerful marketing tool to use? First, let's get a deeper understanding of exactly what constitutes WOM.

The Types of Word of Mouth

There's more to WOM than one person chatting with another about a brand. With so many online and offline influences, WOM has evolved into a multi-faceted communication method with layers of complexities. But for our purposes, McKinsey covers three primary WOM types that retailers should understand: 

  • Experiential: This happens when a customer experiences a product or service firsthand and offers their feedback. An example is a shopper commenting on social media that a particular piece of clothing fits true to size. According to McKinsey, this first type encapsulates between 50-80% of WOM interactions.
  • Intentional: While less common, this WOM concept covers campaigns like paid celebrity and influencer endorsements. This method isn't implemented as much because of its difficulty to track and measure effectively.
  • Consequential: This WOM type is generally a customer's response to your brand's marketing initiatives. Customers or prospects may see a campaign (like a blog post, social media video, etc.) and share the message with their own networks. According to McKinsey, brands often see better results from consequential WOM marketing than from direct advertising.

Now that you have a better grasp on the types of WOM out there, let's dig into how to make WOM work for you. Here are five strategies retailers can implement to bolster buzz about your brand, increase awareness about your products or services, and boost your bottom line while you’re at it:

Offer Something Exceptional 

The first and most basic step a retailer can take is to offer something extraordinary that will make customers want to share. This could be a unique or unusual product, an item of superior quality, or goods presented in a new and fresh way. Then tell a compelling story that sets you apart from everyone else in your space.

GoldieBlox, a line of construction toys, is an example of a product that got people talking. And that chatter translated directly into funding and sales.

While an engineering student at Stanford University, founder Debbie Sterling noticed her classmates were predominantly male. She learned that girls start to lose interest in math around the age of eight, so she decided to disrupt traditional toys for girls that were focused on princesses. So, she introduced a line of toys that would teach girls engineering through storytelling. Toy makers told her the idea would never go mainstream, so she took it to Kickstarter. Her campaign video was picked up by Upworthy and went viral, and GoldieBlox raised nearly double its $150,000 goal in just four days, with preorders topping 40,000.

Customer service is also a key component to spreading the word about your brand — but you’ll need to go beyond basic to spark meaningful conversations. It’s that experience customers have to tell someone about, says Bob Phibbs, CEO of the Retail Doctor, a retail consultancy based in New York, and author of The Retail Doctor’s Guide to Growing Your Business.

“People rave about someone going out of their way, not just that they got a deal,” he says. “The way you matched the exact shade of purple, the way you took the order out to her car and put it in during a rainstorm while the shopper had an umbrella. Your goal is to get them to remark at how exceptional your service was.”

When prospective customers hear stories about brands going above and beyond, they take note and such info can sway their purchasing decisions. Nordstrom is one often-touted example of a retailer that offers excellent service, which translates to higher sales numbers. Phibbs recalls a recent great experience at Pirch, a high-end appliance and plumbing retailer that allows you to try the products before you buy. He was walking around the showroom when a salesperson remembered him and the purchase he made 18 months ago.

“I was stunned,” says Phibbs. “Having people on your sales floor who can do that is nothing short of remarkable customer service.”

With that kind of service, Phibbs is sure to share his experience with others on the prowl for appliances and plumbing parts.

Ask for Referrals

Another way to tap into WOM marketing is to simply ask. During their next visit, give customers extra business cards they can share with their friends. If a customer found you on a site like Yelp, ask if they’d leave a review, too.

The clothing store New York & Company has decal on fitting-room mirrors that features a #NYandCompany hashtag and the invitation to share a photo of themselves on social media if they like what they try on. This subtle reminder gets customers talking and sharing their experiences with the NY&Co apparel on social networks.

Found the perfect selfie mirror! 😎📸

A photo posted by Kayla Griffin 🐘📷🐶 (@kaylaseyes) on

The key is to make it easy, says Phibbs. “Have a way for customers to write reviews on Facebook, have share buttons on your website, have forward-to-a-friend buttons in all your emails,” he says.

You can also make it simple for current customers to write reviews about your exceptional products via email. Create an email marketing campaign asking customers who loved their experience to review your store on your site, Yelp, or Facebook. Include direct links to the appropriate page to make the process as frictionless as possible for shoppers. You can also include these links in the bottom of all your email correspondence to encourage a steady stream of fresh reviews.

Reward Your Loyal Customers

Repeat customers are your future brand ambassadors. Go through your data and identify frequent shoppers and top spenders, then encourage them to share with their friends and family by offering referral incentives.

Sony email | Shopify Retail blog

For example, Sony sent an email to its best customers offering up to $250 in products if they referred their friends to its branded credit card. The same email went to a random control group of customers. According to Marketing Sherpa, the best customers generated results that were 2.8 times better than the control group.

Take the same approach by creating a special WOM campaign for your best customers, offering exclusive coupons and deals they can share with their friends. Then offer them discounts or free products for every new sale they refer.

Engage Your Online Ambassadors

Pay attention to customers who share your products on their social media networks. Send surprise gifts or discounts when someone mentions your products. You can monitor mentions that aren’t made directly on your own pages by using or

Kohl’s recently got a lot of publicity
when a shopper recorded a video of herself wearing a Star Wars Chewbacca mask and mentioned that she bought it at Kohl’s. The video went viral and Kohl’s didn’t it go unnoticed. The company surprised her and her family with free Star Wars toys and $2,500 in gift cards.

Partner With Industry Influencers

Another way to tap into WOM marketing is to reach out to top bloggers. Tapping into an influencer network is a key way to get high-quality reviews written on your products so that more customers can discover your brand. Retailers can find bloggers and influencers in a handful of ways:

  • Search Google or Alltop for blog lists that fit your retail market segment. Once you find quality sites that speak to your target customer demographic, reach out to the writer and ask if they would be interested in reviewing free samples. One example is ModCloth, who nailed a creative collaboration that named some of their dresses after a handful of featured style bloggers. The bloggers then reviewed their apparel on their own blogs as well as ModCloth's site.
  • Search social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram for relevant hashtags to monitor discussions pertaining to your market and find top influencers in the space.
  • Comb through private Facebook groups to find any relevant to your brand. Then reach out to active admins of larger groups to discuss potential partnerships.
  • Check relevant subReddits (think /r/malefashionadvice if you sell men’s apparel) to see who is most active in these groups. Reddit participants who regularly contribute or leads discussions on a niche topic could be a wild card to consider for an influencer partnership.

You can also offer discounts or insider knowledge for influencers and bloggers to share with their readers or followers; three out of 10 influencers say they’ll collaborate with brands in exchange for exclusive and worthwhile information, according to a study by eMarketer.

How Will You Increase Word of Mouth?

New ways of advertising your products and services continue to be invented, but WOM marketing isn’t going away. The most important thing to remember is that people probably aren’t going to talk about your products if they simply do what they’re supposed to; people are driven to share your company’s name when you exceed their expectations.