When I was entering the working world, Facebook had barely made a mark on university campuses, let alone dominated the planet with advertising, promotions, banners that follow you around the web and pixels on websites tracking your every move. We also had a lot more privacy online back then, but that's an entirely different topic.
The world has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, with online advertising and marketing taking center stage for business owners trying to promote their products or services. The internet took a previously expensive and complex process – advertising directly to people – and democratized it. When Google launched AdSense, its online advertising platform, it quickly became the default place to test an idea – and advertising agencies, marketing specialists and ads on TV, in print and on radio all suffered.
Businesses were able to understand exactly where advertising money went: where your ad appeared, who clicked on it and how much money you made in return for your spend. Spray-and-pray marketing (where you throw out ads widely and hope for the best) has slowly been on the decline ever since.
Lumped in with the spray-and-pray style of advertising is word-of-mouth marketing. But I don't think that word-of-mouth has suffered. I think it's evolved and is being underestimated by business owners, influencers, agencies and tech platforms across the board.
There's a particular behavior that's really started to irritate me recently. Think about the last dinner you attended with friends, whether it was at their house or at a restaurant. Did someone, at some point, start talking about a YouTube or TikTok video that they recently saw and then pull out their phone to show that video? I hate it, but that's word-of-mouth marketing right there.
The more technology evolves, the more the world changes, the more some things just seem to stay the same.
Customer service, for example, is one of those things that just stays the same. If you treat a customer badly, they're going to use their mouths to tell anyone and everyone, online and offline. Whether it's watercooler gossip or a quick video call with your mom, you're irate and you're going to do something about it.
Now, more than ever, customers are empowered and have a platform to shout from about their disdain for you and your business.
Conversely, if you successfully launch an advertising campaign and understand the new world of word of mouth, you could have an instant hit that ‘goes viral’ and makes your business famous. Relying purely on social media algorithms to do this is naive and wasteful. Brands need to tap into their fanbase and engage them in a remarkable way – by that, I mean in a way that makes your fans take the time to make a public remark.
Businesses that live in the shadows die in the shadows when it comes to branding and marketing. That old saying ‘any press is good press’ is as true today as it was 50 years ago. Businesses like tech accessories company Dbrand understand this intimately.
If you don't know it, Dbrand makes skins for mobile phones and other devices, but it also has incredible brand positioning, which it uses to spark conversation and create word-of-mouth marketing opportunities – like publicly calling its customers bitches online, calling out brands it doesn't like and openly hating on customers it doesn't want.
The reason Dbrand is an important example here is that it has a very clearly defined customer demographic. It wants you to complain about it if you're a bit of a Karen; it wants you to hate on it publicly so that it can roast you and gain more followers. It thrives on the word-of-mouth battering that it receives, because it knows exactly who its customer is. You don't build community by including people – you build community by excluding people. Dbrand gets this.
I can't think of a better example of guerrilla word-of-mouth marketing than Dbrand. It understands the difference between good customer relationships and bad ones, and how those spill over online and turn into word-of-mouth viral hits.
If you think word-of-mouth marketing is dead, you just don't understand it or how to use the platforms at your disposal. Now is the time to figure this out – before you miss the conversations that are happening with or without you.