Jan 02, 2015 / by Jim Dougherty

You may be surprised to learn that only 7 percent of word-of-mouth communication happens online. (WoM) is information passed between a non-commercial communicator and a receiver concerning a brand, product or service. Seven percent.

This is a pretty shocking statistic, and I didn’t want to believe it. So I looked through the footnotes of Wharton Professor Jonah Berger’s book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, and looked into the study that this statistic comes from. It turns out that it was really well-constructed research.

If this is true, how do PR practitioners navigate from their brave new digital world back to the grassroots? How do we compel our audience to talk about our products, services and people? How do we create buzz? This is what I want to explore in this post.

Interested in word-of-mouth? Meet Jonah

Jonah Berger is one of the most prominent researchers on the topic of word-of-mouth marketing. His book was the culmination of some pretty fascinating and extensive research into marketing influence (you can see a list of links to all of his published research here).

Berger states that WoM marketing is perpetuated by the quality of content. He uses the acrostic device STEPPS to identify characteristics of highly-shareable content:

  • Social Currency
  • Triggers
  • Emotion
  • Public
  • Practical Value
  • Stories

While I thought that I could come up with a unique list of ideas to perpetuate word-of-mouth buzz, most PR and marketing insights are variations on Berger’s STEPPS. So, I’m going to use his ideas as a framework for a discussion about nine ideas to generate better word-of-mouth communication… but I’m not going to use his acrostic. I have to draw the line somewhere.

1. Make me look smart.


People share things that bring them esteem. Ponder that for a moment: why do YOU share anything? If you’re honest with yourself, a lot of what you decide to share puts you in a good light. When you read something and decide not to share it, is it because people may not perceive it as favorably as you do?

Consider these two tweets:

Comedian Jenny Johnson

Forrester Research Analyst (and former director of marketing at Saks Fifth Avenue) Sucharita Mulpuru:

These two tweets couldn’t be further apart in tone or substance, yet they both give the sharer a bit of esteem for passing them on. Sharing Johnson’s post conveys a certain amount of humor to the sharer and sharing Mulpuru’s conveys a certain amount of business acumen to the sharer.

A litmus test for this criteria would be to consider what esteem your message conveys to a person who shares it.

2. Make me think of you.

In Contagious, Berger discusses Disneyland and Cheerios. Disneyland is a place for unbridled awesomeness. Cheerios are a bland, o-shaped oat cereal. Guess which one gets more buzz? Cheerios, by a landslide.

The reason that Cheerios gets more buzz is that people are triggered to think of Cheerios once every day. We think about Disneyland when we are planning a trip there or when someone else tells us about their experience. The Disneyland trigger is far less frequent.

A litmus test for triggered prompts would be to consider the products or events that your message is associated with and to consider how often people would think of you because of it.

3. Make me feel something.

If you are like 1.5 million people (and me), you probably listen to the Serial podcast every week. For the uninitiated, Serial is a serialized podcast that investigates the 1999 murder of a high school student and conviction of her ex-boyfriend for her murder. Each week journalist Sarah Koenig looks at an aspect of the murder case – conflicting accounts, an unreliable witness, possible coercion, lawyer misconduct and holes in the prosecution’s timeline of events. It’s compelling because it’s highly emotional. It’s shareable because it’s highly emotional. I told my wife about it. She told a bunch of people at work about it.

A litmus test for emotion would be to consider the emotion that your messaging evokes in recipients. Incidentally, anger can be an emotion that can cause people to share too…. although that’s probably not one you want to tap into.

4. Make me like everyone else.


We have a tendency to imitate other people. For my preschoolers, this means that they embrace Batman and American Girl without ever encountering them in our house. For my wife and I, this means embracing every new iPhone that comes out no matter how nominally improved they are. As much as we value our uniqueness, we all have a desire to fit in. This is our internal lemming.

A litmus test for imitation would be to consider how well you are leveraging current advocates to get referral customers.

5. Make me valuable.

A great example of value add is the Cision blog. You’re here right now reading, and odds are if you find some insight valuable you might share this article to a PR colleague or friend. Why would you do that?

One of our motivators is to help other people, and the Cision editors do a great job to make the content useful for PR practitioners (I don’t make this observation as a sycophant as this level of detail sometimes makes pitching ideas challenging). If you consider some of the things you read and share, this may be a big motivating factor for you.

A litmus test for value is to consider how helpful your message or content is for its intended audience.

6. Tell me a story.

Good storytelling is compelling. I wrote about this a few weeks ago and won’t rehash all of it now. But in the criteria of Aristotle: great stories invoke pity, fear and catharsis. Go to the movies or read a book and you’ll clearly identify this path that the storytelling is trying to create conditions for a cathartic moment. A happy ending.

For brand messaging, the stories are different but the form isn’t. We identify with adversity, we self-identify with fear, we champion catharsis. Brand storytelling while different must be compelling in a similar way.

A litmus test for storytelling would be to make sure the story has clear, strong storytelling elements. PR Expert Robin Thornton adds another criteria for good storytelling: authenticity.

“Be authentic. It is obvious when something is over-crafted and not genuine. There is an awkwardness, an instinctive reluctance or discomfort which makes it uncomfortable to pass the message along.”

7. Leverage Influencers.


This is an insight from Forbes that diverges somewhat from Berger’s insights. Berger cites Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point discussion of “connectors” (who spread viral messages to disparate groups) discussing that there isn’t research to support that finding.

Influencers might be better thought of as distribution channels. A recent paid blogging campaign in which I participated allowed 10 bloggers to give away iPads on their site by whatever means they wanted to, and then tracked their conversions (sign-ups) by blogger. I was #3, the two bloggers who got twice as many people to sign up for the service had 1/10 of my readership. The lesson being that network influence is real, but it is also relative. Influencers are better thought of in aggregate – a small number probably can’t move as many mountains as you want them to (a compelling reason to use the Cision database!).

A litmus test for influencers would be well-engineered metrics to determine the effectiveness of a campaign.

Want influencers on your side? Get your free “How to Succeed With Influencer Relations” white paper now!

8. Plant a “Big Seed”

HBR ran an interesting piece a few years back talking about the dynamic of viral marketing. In it they present the “patient X” model of virality where one single message propagates through a network. What they propose is a better model where multiple messages are planted at the same time (through PR and marketing channels) and propagated more widely. They call this the “big seed” model of WOM.

As social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, search engines and press releases have gotten more efficient through digitization, a lot of extra noise (and filtering) has been created. It makes sense that a big seed approach to word-of-mouth could be far more effective than a small initial propagation especially if the message is time-relevant.

A litmus test for big seed WOM would be to engineer some metrics (how did you hear about this?) to measure the effectiveness of different (paid) channels to propagate word-of-mouth.

9. Ask

PR expert Jennifer Berson shared a really important insight that we oftentimes overlook. If we want people to share something, do we make a point to ask them?

“Brands can encourage word of mouth communication from their loyal customers by including a marketing card with each sale, asking customers to share their feedback & images through social media and providing a brand-specific hash-tag, as well as the brand’s social media handles. At each touchpoint with the customer–whether it’s at the point of sale, on the product packaging, and even through customer service–brands can ask & encourage their customers to share their feedback, thoughts & experience with the brand through social media and customer contact forms through the website.”

A litmus test for this would be to look at the touchpoints that we have and to make sure that our message is shareable and that our audience is properly encouraged to share it.


People trust word-of-mouth communication far more than we trust advertising or social media referrals. It is as powerful as it is elusive. By considering the dynamics and form of our messages, we can make our content more shareable and give it better distribution.

“People influence people. Nothing influences people more than a recommendation from a trusted friend. A trusted referral influences people more than the best broadcast message. A trusted referral is the Holy Grail of advertising.” – Mark Zuckerberg

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About Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision Blog and his own blog, leaderswest. His areas of interest include statistics, technology, and content marketing. When not writing, he is likely reading, running, playing guitar or being a dad. PRSA member. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.