April 24, 2018

What Does Word of Mouth Marketing REALLY Mean?

Ned Potter headshot

Ned Potter

There’s no better way to market your library than to have your users do it for you. Think about what it takes you personally to make a decision on trying out a new product or service—you’re bombarded with advertising messages 24/7, most of which you’ve probably learned to tune out and ignore, so when someone you trust and respect says to you ‘have you tried this specific example?’ you instantly value their recommendation above the white noise of traditional marketing. They are independent of any brand, they are speaking from their own experience—they are like you.

As library marketers, we all have an idea in our heads that we should be doing some sort of Word of Mouth Marketing. We know it is important enough to be referred to by its own shorthand (WOMM), and in fact, it even has its own association.

We’ve heard the statistics, for example that 92 percent of people trust recommendations from friends and family more than all other forms of marketing. We know the clever libraries make use of this promotional tool to great effect. But what does WOMM really mean in practical terms? How do you market your library by word of mouth when, by definition, you’re not actually doing the marketing yourself, you’re leaving it to others to spread the word? It’s a tricky concept to get a good handle on. Let’s take a look in a little more detail.


‘Word of mouth’ is the process of telling people you know about a product or service. Usually it is associated with being positive and trying to convince people to try the service for themselves, but of course, word of mouth can also be about how bad a product is.

In the library context, word of mouth marketing is the process of actively trying to harness and develop the power of users talking about your service to their peers, in order to boost promotion of your library.

Successful WOMM results in new members of the library, and in existing users thinking of better of your organization, and using it more. As with all good marketing, you want to inspire action on the part of your users and potential users—you are seeking to influence their behavior to benefit the library.

Top tips to harness WOMM

The easiest way to encourage word of mouth is simply to deliver a brilliant service. If you’re serving the needs of your given community successfully and with style, they WILL be telling their friends about you. They’ll be tweeting about you. They’ll be dropping your name into conversations.

So, I would always recommend focusing first and foremost on the customer experience, rather than the ways in which that experience might be shared. That said, sometimes it can be useful to give your users a helping hand to spread the word. Here are some ways to do this:

  • Keep your key messages short and easily shareable. Keeping it simple and marketing one thing at a time are key parts of successful marketing in any form, and it becomes even more essential in WOMM. You need a message people can pick up and run with, and share with their peer group without forgetting or mangling the details. 140 characters is a good maximum limit to apply to a key message; if your message can’t fit into a tweet, you need to ask yourself why not. Can it be reframed into something short and snappy? Remember, this isn’t dumbing down what the library does, it’s just providing a way in for people to discover services in more depth.
  • Identify champions for each part of your audience. It’s no good just having one or two people to help kick-start a WOMM campaign—you need champions for each section of your demographic. People need to be told how good your library is by people like them. In other words, you need someone with kids to promote the children’s services to their parent networks, and someone tech-savvy to promote the emerging technologies workshop you run to their business colleagues, and so on. Incidentally, it’s very hard to identify potential champions without being ACTIVE in your community—whether that’s academic, public, or business. You need to proactively position yourself as part of a wider dialogue, and you’ll soon learn who the key players are.
  • Directly approach people and be honest with them. Be real; there’s no need to try and flatter people into helping you promote the library. At my own institution, I will approach an academic I trust and say ‘This is what’s happening, here’s the message I want to deliver to the department—but I think it would be better, and get more traction, coming from you. Can you help?’
  • Give your word of mouth champions everything they need. You’ve identified the right people to spread your message—now make it easy for them. Craft messages for them to adapt and share. Give them the means to share—traditional materials like flyers and posters in traditional markets, and social media content like blog posts to share, presentations to embed, and videos to email to people too.
  • Document and share the feedback. If your WOMM campaign is successful, there should be plenty of material for you to pick up on and reuse, particularly if there’s traction on social media. Favorite those tweets, make a note of those comments, and document them all in Storify. Then embed the Storify narrative in a blog post, and tweet a link to that; build on the momentum.

Incidentally, there is a school of thought that you should reward your word of mouth champions and otherwise incentivize them; I’d caution against this. WOMM works because the recommendation is impartial, and I think it’s important to protect that relationship. Be nice to your champions, allow them to see behind the curtain of the library, and be sure to keep them in the loop if their efforts are successful—but don’t compensate them financially!

So, why not try out WOMM in your community? Focus on your service first and foremost, then craft simple, shareable messages about that service. Approach someone outside the organization who you trust, who has influence in the part of your community you wish to reach, and ask if they’d be willing to help spread the word. Make it easy for them to share targeted information about your library with specific parts of your community by giving them the materials, the tools, and the expertise to be able to do so. Record and evaluate the results.

If you’ve got stories of successful WOMM at your library, then leave them in a comment below and we can all learn from them.

Good luck!

Ned Potter is an Academic Liaison Librarian at the University of York, and a trainer and marketing consultant. He’s the author of The Library Marketing Toolkit (Neal-Schuman, 2012) and writes and speaks widely on the subject of marketing information services and emerging technologies. You can find him online at www.thewikiman.org, or chat to him on Twitter itself using @theREALwikiman.

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  1. yes, giving people a reason to talk about your stuff is the main challenge of WOMM but if SMEs would always focus first on the customer experience that is the point to start spreading WOMM

  2. I agree with your article wholeheartedly. I especially like the concept of finding champions to your cause and ask them for their help. Over the years of working at a public library, I’ve developed relationships with some of the local reporters. When I have an interesting program coming up, or some other newsworthy item, I make sure to mention it to them when they are at the library. If that isn’t convenient, I send them an email with the details.

    Much of the time it results in an article making it to the paper. It is a great way to maximize your WOMM. Instead of sharing one at a time; instead with the newspapers you reach so many more people at once.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t engage in other types of WOMM, I do and practice them regularly. I wholeheartedly encourage others to give these ideas a try…they work!