We often say that reviews are nothing new in marketing – word of mouth has been around as long as commerce. The two go hand in hand; people talk about the things they buy, both the good and the bad.

Our advisor Andy Sernovitz preaches the same. Andy is the New York Times bestselling author of Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking, and is the CEO of both WordofMouth.org and SocialMedia.org. I asked Andy for his thoughts around word of mouth, reviews, and how to create customer advocacy that grows in value over time.

What makes word of mouth marketing superior to outbound marketing?

With traditional advertising, you buy ads and hope they get noticed and bring in new customers. If you’re lucky, you bring in enough new business to buy the next round of ads.

But word of mouth marketing is different: Every time you invest in being a remarkable company, the love and loyalty for you grows instead of being used up. Instead of buying impressions, you earn fans. And because you’re not paying for ads to earn these fans, you get to reinvest these savings into even better products, services, and customer experiences – putting you even further ahead.

Over the long haul, you end up with a recession-proof competitive advantage that will carry you through good times and bad. That’s something traditional marketing just can’t do.

So how can a brand get good reviews online?

First and foremost, you need to be a great business that sells something fantastic. No amount of marketing gimmicks or advertising budgets can overcome generic, unremarkable stuff.

Once you’ve really nailed the first part, the rest is more straightforward than you might think.

For starters, have you asked your fans to review you? It sounds obvious, but so few businesses regularly ask customers for feedback and reviews.

You probably already have a whole bunch of happy fans who would love to support you. But they’re busy, and so few of us wake up one day and say, “Today’s the day I write a review about my dishwasher!”

So let them know how much their reviews mean to your business and how much you value their feedback. Your happy customers would love to help.

What is the best way to excite people (and get them talking) about a product that isn’t exciting?

No product is too boring for word of mouth. Some of the best word of mouth stories are about blenders, men’s health, and billing software.

A great word of mouth topic – attached to a great product – can start amazing word of mouth. For Blendtec, it was their “Will It Blend” series. For Movember, it’s their goofy moustache challenge. And for Freshbooks it’s just doing a whole bunch of buzzworthy things.

Blending iPhones, growing facial hair, and sending mustard to bloggers might not work for you. But something will – there’s a topic for everyone.

To find it, you just have to start trying stuff. When something works a little bit, try more of that.

And for the stuff that doesn’t work? Well, that means nobody talked about it – so nobody knows.

Are incentives – cash, rewards, or anything to get people to post more reviews – a good practice?

Too often, incentives for reviews are used by lazy marketers who are avoiding a bigger problem: They’re just not doing anything remarkable enough to earn reviews.

The most loved products and companies out there – the ones with glowing five-star reviews? They didn’t buy them. They earned them with fantastic products and incredible service.

Consumers know the difference. When you incentivize reviews, sure, you may get more – but they’re never as genuine, as helpful, or as powerful as honest love from raving customers.

And besides, you quickly get into complicated legal water when you start incentivizing things like this – especially when you’re talking cash or gifts. It’s just not worth risking an embarrassing fine and a ruined reputation, all for a few more reviews.

How do we deal with negative word of mouth and angry customers?

Every company – in every industry – faces negative word of mouth. You just can’t please everyone all the time.

The most important thing to do when this happens is to respond quickly and calmly (unless it’s just a troll and responding will only give them the attention they’re hoping for).

When you respond, do it like a real person – not a robotic PR rep. Offer a straightforward apology, explain how you’re going to make it up to them, and thank them for their feedback. And remember, the folks actually speaking up are doing you a favor – there’s a whole lot more angry customers who are just quietly telling their friends not to do business with you.

Negative word of mouth is an opportunity in disguise – and former critics you win over can become some of your biggest advocates.

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