"Word of mouth" might possibly be the most overused phrase in marketing.
Small business leaders use it as a way to describe the informal process that happens when satisfied customers and users tell their friends about a product or service. In many cases, it's a marketing strategy that owners hope will occur with little or no inputs from the business.
In recent years, the phrase "viral marketing" has also found its way into the small business vernacular. Motivated by outrageous success stories, business owners hope that information about their product or service will spread rapidly -- like a virus -- through the ranks of the buying public. Inexperienced marketers may even identify viral marketing as the anchor point of their strategy and use it interchangeably with word of mouth terminology.
But do viral marketing and word of mouth describe the same thing? Not really -- and the difference can be critical because the effectiveness of viral marketing initiatives are largely beyond the control of marketers and business owners.
Word of Mouth Marketing (WOMM)
Word-of-mouth marketing happens when individuals communicate information about a product or service to other consumers. For example, if someone values your company's offerings he will likely talk about it with a handful of friends and family members.
In most cases, the marketing impact ends there -- consumers won't continue to talk about the product until they try it for themselves. Marketers and business owners have a certain amount of control over WOMM using several strategies to initiate consumer to consumer conversations.
The primary difference between word of mouth marketing and viral marketing is that viral marketing doesn't fade after the first generation of promotion. People who hear about a product or service from a friend continue to pass information along to others in a multi-generational promotional environment. Instead of being driven by consumers or by the efforts of the company to initiate conversations, viral marketing is driven by the passion of the people who benefit from the product.
Even though viral marketing is in many ways more desirable, it is difficult to create or predict. Viral marketing success is out of the hands of marketers and business owners. Unlike traditional WOMM, you can create a framework that increases the odds of your product going viral, but there is little you can do to instigate the process itself.