How to reach one million people through word of mouth

It’s human nature to want to tell stories.

Ever since writing my second book, Word of Mouth Mouse & Mobile – how to get your story told in the age of digital, I’ve been fascinated by how stories spread, and in particular the power of having others share your message for you. Word of mouth is a very powerful form of marketing not only for the huge potential reach, but also perceived authenticity and truth – when it comes via a trusted source through a friend.

So you can imagine my brain churning, calculating and reflecting on the potential power involved, when I heard Mathew Sweezey, Principal of Marketing Insights for Salesforce, come out with this statement while speaking on trends in the Era of Infinite Media, at a retreat hosted by Mark Shaefer recently.

“On average, 135 people have the same social reach as a brand with a million followers.”

The statement stopped me dead in my tracks. Initially as I tried to calculate how that could be possible (read all the way to the end and I’ll tell you!) and then on how simple it might actually be to reach a million people if you truly understood how word of mouth works. It suddenly struck me that a small business player with a modest but fiercely loyal following (say 500 – 1000 true fans), could actually have the same reach and clout as a big, established player with a large following, simply by ensuring they gave their loyal following something worthwhile to talk about to their connections.

This is seriously powerful stuff when you stop and think about it.

Word of mouth has always utilized advocates in the mix. Please don’t confuse an advocate with an influencer though. A word of mouth marketing advocate is a “personality type.” 10% of the population loves to share stories at a rate 10 times the rest of the population. This 10 x rate is combination of the number of times they share being higher, but also the scope of their reach being much higher than the general population. Influencers on the other hand are people with significant reach, who are paid to promote a product. While they can certainly amplify a message, true word of mouth is a FREE source of marketing. Advocates are an integral part of successful word of mouth marketing. WOM comes down to a numbers game, and they’re a huge part of it. Getting to that 135 number is relatively easy if you started with a true fan base of 500-1000 and assumed that 20% of your base would share content out, IF THEY THOUGHT IT WAS WORTHY. That’s the key, you need to be worthy of their attention so they will share. Here’s how:

1. The ideal WOM story is authentic, interesting and relevant Authentic: Stories need to be believable. They also need to be true. Interesting: Does it provoke conversations? Raise eyebrows? Make you go “wow”? Relevant: Will the audience care about it? Will there be enough people who care?

2. Make the storyteller look smart, funny or connected to an inner circle Everyone wants to look smart, or have something of value to share. Emotional connection, and in particular humour is universal. People want to help others laugh and be seen as engaging.

It’s human nature to want to be “in the know” and privy to insider or secret information, especially if it is of value. When you combine all three of these factors, framed from the sharer’s perspective, it’s possible to make a story irresistible to share.

3. Show up where people will care The key idea is to show up where people will care about your story. Word of mouth marketing requires presence in key communities, persistence and patience.

4. Success comes over time and is measured indirectly We can’t predict when organic conversations will occur, but we can look for patterns in our available metrics. These could include: web traffic, blog post comments measured through Google Analytics, email sign ups, inquiries measured through emails, direct message and phone calls, or social media mentions measured through monitoring and social listening on individual platforms.

Of course traditional print and broadcast media, both online and off can help amplify WOM stories tremendously, causing an additional wave of sharing, so integrating earned media and publicity into the marketing mix is also a huge part of this becoming a successful approach.

And just in case you were wondering how we take 135 people sharing your message all the way to one million people? Again, it’s a numbers game.

How can you reach the equivalent of a million brand followers through 135 people?

  • Assume 10% of those 135 (14 people) are “super sharers” and brand advocates with a social reach of 37,000. Super sharers and advocates have significant reach through extensive connections both online and off.
  • Assume the other 90% (121 people) have a social reach of 4,000 through a combination of social media and offline connections.
  • When we tally all social media such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Youtube, Snapchat, emails, blogs, membership groups and social circles the numbers for both break downs seem very reasonable.

It can be easy to get caught up in social media posting and sharing, and forget about creating stories and experiences worth talking about and sharing. The numbers don’t lie. There is power in word of mouth that far exceeds what you may have considered previously. When done well, this allows tremendous scale and amplification of your message for any small business.

Word of mouth done well allows your customers to do your marketing for you. Could there be anything better?






Mary Charleson


  1. Hello Mary, it was a pleasure reading this story very informative and action-orientated. Regarding, 1. The ideal WOM story is authentic, interesting, and relevant. I have the epitome of this PLUS MORE. Please reply, Thanks.


  1. […] It’s a numbers game. Let’s assume your friend interacts with ten other people each week. If one of those ten people talks about a birthday party, corporate party, wedding, or any other form of event where you and your magic could be a good fit, chances are your friend will tell the person about you. […]

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