What makes word of mouth work? Trust & targeting


“Word of mouth is more than 10 times more effective than advertising.”

“Word of mouth generates more than twice the sales of paid advertising in categories as diverse as skincare and mobile phones.”

Both of these quotes originate from the McKinsey Quarterly, a quarterly publication by McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm. They’re pretty compelling reasons to want to generate WOM.

Just why is word of mouth so beneficial? It’s all about trust and distribution.

#1. We trust our friends. If they’re talking about it, it must be worthy of our time and attention.

#2. The message is targeted. By default, our friends filter content and redistribute based on their knowledge of our interests. It’s a simple game of allowing others to target for you.

When you think about it, could there really be anything simpler? Word of mouth has been happening since the beginning of time. People shared stories around the campfire. Back in the days before moveable type and the printing press, the telling of stories orally was critical to ensure that both history and news spread to the masses. There was only so much pen and ink that could be applied to paper by one individual.

And in the age of electronic media, word of mouth holds even more promise. The thought of being able to distribute electronically as well as orally offers a dizzying array of possibility. Or at least, that’s what we’ve come to think.

So how much of word of mouth do you think actually takes place online? Most people guess in the neighbourhood of 50-60%.

But that’s wrong. Dead wrong. Not even close.

The actual number is 7%. No there isn’t a second digit missing or a typo there. The reality is that most word of mouth is still face-to-face people talking to each other. We tend to think of online sharing as being higher because of all the hype around social media, and the fact that there is a visible record of it having taken place. The reality is that the average person spends 2 hours of their day online. That’s a commendable amount of time, but it shadows in comparison to the rest of the hours spent offline. We tend to forget about that in the age of social media. While there is the potential to broadcast your conversation to many online, the simple math tells us that far more conversations take place offline. While there isn’t a crumb trail recording that conversation between two Moms on the soccer field or between friends at the café, you can bet there is a lot of influence taking place there.

So the next time you’re all a flutter about Twitter, or mired in writing the perfect Facebook post headline, keep it in perspective. It’s perhaps more important to focus on WHY people are sharing and talking. That will be the focus of next weeks post.

So what are you going to do with this clever bit of information? I’m willing to bet you’ll tell someone, or it will find its way into a conversation this coming week. And if you want to share it online, that’s great too! Your help to grow the friend & fan base for my blog is greatfully appreciated!


Mary Charleson


  1. This will be coming into the conversation I’m going to have with you about the Mother’s Story Lab we’re running in Feb/Mar. Wanna test out all kinds of innovative marketing and community engagement? I’ll send you the grant apps I just got in yesterday.

    • Glad you enjoyed the story. Also received your detailed email – all great ideas. We definitely need to brainstorm over coffee. This CapU idea came together so quickly and was a ton of fun. We actually got pick up on QMfm and Mountain fm for Jill as well, which is really rewarding. We likely would have gotten some print, given the interest, but with the long weekend in there and early deadlines, there was almost no way we could get uptake prior to the close of voting, since it is on Eastern Standard Time. But talk about learning on the fly for the Capilano University students!

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