• Robb G. Best

The Final Word on Word-of-Mouth

Let’s start at the location where every single sale begins. I’m talking, of course, about a customer’s brain.

Inside each customer’s skull is enough neural pathways to go around the moon and then circle the earth 6 times. It is this web of myriad connections that will decide whether to or not to make the purchase.

And that decision, the one that has enormous implications for you and me, our families, the economy, and virtually everyone else on the planet, begins its journey in the future.

Whenever someone decides to purchase a product, they begin the journey with a kind of thought experiment, imagining how their life will be with their new acquisition. This can take the form of a vague notion (‘Wouldn’t be nice to have a new pair of running shoes?’) or it might be a little more concrete (‘I want Chuck Conner All-Stars in bright orange with white laces, size 10 1/2’).

It is the job of a salesperson to usher these movies in our heads into reality, which often means helping to define that imagined experience.

Not so long ago, the first step to a sale might have begun with the yellow pages. Today, the Internet is where over half of new customers will plot the beginning and, in some cases, the end of the journey. This is why companies large and small devote major dollars to making their websites as vibrant as possible.

So does all of this mean traditional brick-and-mortar is going the way of the dinosaur? The demise of long-time retailers like Montgomery Ward, and more recent ones like Borders and Blockbuster, suggest that the Internet is definitely changing the purchasing landscape. In 2012, sales conducted online racked up over a trillion dollars worldwide.

In his book Contagious, Jonah Berger lays out the truth about the power of the internet as influencer. He points out the following:

  • Word of mouth is the primary driver of 20-50% of all sales in the USA

  • Including blogs, emails, and all social media, how much of that happens online? If you’re like most people, you’d guess around 50-60%. After all, it doesn’t take a mathematician to know that $1 trillion is a lot of money. However, according to the Keller Fay Research group, the real figure is (drum roll please): 7%.

  • Not 70%. 7%.

How is that possible?

Even if you, like the average American, spend two hours of each day online, most of your life is still conducted in “unplugged” mode. Even factoring in sleep, you spend 8 times more time dealing with people face-to-face, sharing your thoughts with the 150 people closest to you. (150 is the maximum number of real relationships one can actually juggle in their life according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar)

Your social group is powerful. You might have read incredible things about Nike on Consumer Report’s website, but if your friend told you she just bought a pair of Nikes and had a miserable experience, all of the carefully compiled statistics go out the window. Your friend’s word of mouth trumps the feedback of thousands of strangers.

And even though the average tweet or Facebook post has the potential to hit 100 people, less than 10% of them actually get read.

Yes, I can get up in the middle of the night half-asleep, turn on my computer, log onto Zappo’s, buy a pair of running shoes and stumble back to bed. And yes, that single item-based sale is susceptible to that sort of enterprise.

Still, when it comes to making purchasing decisions, your inner circle of family and confederates hold tremendous sway over the shopping center in your brain.


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