It’s undisputed that word-of-mouth has always been an important part of building a brand. It’s just that prior to digital technology, it occurred on a more intimate, face-to-face level—over the backyard fence, on a front porch, on the bleachers at your kids’ Little League games or at cocktail parties. If people had a great experience with one product or another, they’d just naturally want to talk about it with others and your brand would be the beneficiary at no cost. Social media platforms have given word-of-mouth marketing a scale and scope it’s never had before, and obviously the upside potential is enormous. It’s only natural that marketers would want to catch the wave of a message gone crazily viral to reach millions of customers in record time.

But, while you hear marketers talking about word-of-mouth as a boon to everything from restaurants to movies to shoes and nail polish, what’s going on relative to pharmaceuticals? Well, the fact of the matter is that people love to talk about what ails them. Equally so, they love to talk about what they’ve found out about the products and protocols that work best for them and that, hopefully, will benefit others in the same situation.

The popular patient network, PatientsLikeMe is proof positive of this. It’s one of many online venues in which people can share their real health experiences. Giving consumers a platform to share symptoms and information has also been a part of the campaign recently launched by Novartis for its drug Gilenya, used to help treat multiple sclerosis (MS) in young adults. Because MS often strikes people in the prime of life, it only makes sense that this Swiss drug maker would make an online forum available to the digitally savvy target.

Having said this, pharmaceutical manufacturers have more stringent regulatory issues when it comes to any form of marketing than those whose companies sell movies and shoes and nail polish. While health-related brands would like to be—and should be—part of the digital conversation, they obviously have to be extremely mindful of what they say versus what their customers say. As smart business sense would have it, the key to success for pharmaceutical brands is actually the same as the key to success for any other type of brand when it comes to leveraging the word-of-mouth dynamic. And that is to get consumers to want to tell your story for you. You want consumers to become advocates, happily and voluntarily telling the world about the products and services they value. Brands that have gained an edge in the marketplace know how to use the new supersized power of word-of-mouth to their advantage and to the advantage of their customers.

One great example of a company that has made effective and efficient use of social media to let consumers tell the story is Ford. While it launched many initiatives that tap into the vocal power of the people, by far the most ambitious one was what Ford called the “Fiesta Movement.” This grassroots social media campaign was used to promote the Fiesta model in which 100 social “agents” were given cars, along with the freedom to share their opinions with the rest of the world, which they did through millions of tweets, YouTube videos and blogs. That’s a lot of advertising—all without spending a dollar on traditional media.

Another example comes from a more high-flying transportation company, KLM Airlines. While it’s hard to differentiate an airline experience these days—seats are all the same, food is all the same (peanuts are peanuts) and the wait at the gate is all the same—KLM found a way to set its brand apart. It harnessed the fun and power of social media and created the Meet & Seat program, through which you can choose your seatmate after reviewing the social media profiles of passengers who have signed up and entered their information. The initiative was launched using online media, of course, and has literally and figuratively taken off.

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In writing my latest book, The Edge: 50 Tips From Brands That Lead, I polled and pulled insight from companies large and small, across multiple categories, to get their tips on making the most of word-of-mouth marketing. Here’s what I learned from the best and the brightest:

• Consumers will share experiences that they find worthy of sharing. Every point of touch with your brand should not just meet, but exceed the criteria for making this happen. Social media should not be a separate line item on your budget, but the underpinning of every brand interaction.

• For people to share a story, it has to be credible. Authenticity is critical in this ultra-skeptical world, especially in a category as sensitive and regulated as pharmaceuticals. If an initiative doesn’t align with the nature of your brand, doesn’t feel real, then consumers won’t pass it along (or, if they do, it won’t be for the right reason)!

• Word-of-mouth will happen with you or without you. Use it to learn what you’re doing right. Use it to learn how you can improve the brand experience.

• Short stories are easier to tell than long ones. Consumers can only tell your brand story the way you want it told if you’ve sharply defined it for them.

• Always remember that when something impacts a consumer’s life on a personal level, they’re more likely to share it.

• For people to want to share a brand experience it must be extraordinary. Make sure you give them something to talk about.

• Make it easy for consumers to share your brand story with others. Give them a platform or forum to pass along their input.

• Consumers like to be recognized and thanked for their loyalty. Acknowledge consumers who have something nice to say about your brand. Reward their support.

• Consumers vote with their wallets. Treat your brand’s advocates like the shareholders they are.

Just as with most things in life, there are very few guarantees in marketing. But it is by incorporating these tips into their thinking about social media and specifically, word-of-mouth, that brands with an edge have been able to keep their edge. Talk value in building a brand is significant. Consumers have always trusted other consumers more than they’ve trusted any institution. The opportunity to make a consumer an active advocate is of immeasurable value in today’s market.

  • Allen Adamson

    Allen Adamson is managing director of the New York office of Landor Associates, a brand consulting and design firm. He is also the author of BrandSimple and BrandDigital.

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