Here is a DMU exclusive interview with Andy Sernovitz writer of the best-selling book Word of Mouth marketing. Andy is also CEO of GasPedal ( and Health) and teaches at Northwestern University.

First of all, thank you very much Andy for your time and support.

Would you mind telling the readers your path to becoming the “Guru of Word of Mouth Marketing”? How did you end up here?

“Word of mouth is an old concept: Earn the respect of your customer and they will tell everyone. The idea of a formal marketing practice around it is what’s new. I was deeply involved in permission marketing when I was asked to start the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. Permission marketing has the same root concept – get people to want to talk to you and about you. The book came later.”

But what is Word of Mouth Marketing exactly?

“Okay. Here’s the quick version. Everything you wanted to know about word of mouth marketing but were afraid to ask.  It all comes down to this: Happy customers are your best advertisers. If people like you and like what you do, they will tell their friends.

The definition: Word of Mouth Marketing is a) giving people a reason to talk about you and b) making it easier for the conversation to take place.

It’s C to C Marketing—when a consumer tells a consumer about you. Actually, it’s B to C to C. When it comes out of the mouth of a marketer, it’s marketing. When a real person repeats it, it’s word of mouth.”

You wrote your famous book “Word of Mouth marketing” in 2006. If any, what is the main difference between a word of mouth marketing campaign one decade ago vs. a current one?

“Social media both helped and hurt WOM. It taught everyone about ideas like sharing and networks, and it made WOM really easy. But it also led many people to forget what WOM is all about – real people. Too many social marketers treat it as just another form of mass advertising.”

Would you say it is easier for a brand to spread its messages through social media than using traditional channels?

“It’s not easier, but it’s more meaningful, and bigger in the long run. If you find that thing that people will talk about, you can build a global brand around it – without advertising. It’s worth looking for.”

In your opinion, what was the most unforgettable Word of Mouth marketing campaign in 2006?

“Zappos was the original WOM superstar. They were always giving us a reason to talk about them.

They surprise and delight you. Zappos doesn’t do much in terms of up-front stunts and promotions. Instead, they invest in surprising, delightful experiences for their customers. Both strategies can pay off, but at Zappos, they’ve found that surprises — like instant upgrades to overnight shipping — create instant, long lasting conversations. And even loyal customers who have ordered dozens of shoes from Zappos still feel special each time they get a note saying they’re getting super-fast shipping, even though they didn’t order it.“

And what was the most unforgettable one in 2016?

“Everyone is talking about Instant Pot. It’s a simple product that people really fall in love with. They built a great company by building a great product – and encouraging people to talk about it.”

Discover more about Instant Pot:

And finally, what is your favorite Word of Mouth marketing campaign in the last decade?

“WindsorONE makes lumber used for trim boards and moldings — and they’re fantastic at creating word of mouth. In one amazing stunt, they stamped “Call Kurt, Get a Shirt” on the top of their pallets. When the guys at the lumberyard called the number, Kurt sent them a funny shirt. Once word got out, lumberyard staff everywhere were eager to sell all the WindsorONE lumber just to get to the phone number and show off the shirts to friends and co-workers.”

Discover more about WindsorONE:

Do you think Word of Mouth marketing can be applied whatever the field and the size of a company (e.g. SME in BtoB – industrial sector)?

“It’s exactly the same. WOM is about finding people and giving them a reason to talk. Different people are in different industries, but the conversations and strategy is the same.”

But what are the motivations making people talking about you?

“There are three basics motivations which are driving word of mouth conversations.

You: People talk about you because they love your product, they love your company, your services. If you’ve given them something to love, you can build on that. And if the client is happy he will tell everybody. But being good is not enough, it is just to be in the game. You just did what you said for this amount of money. So, for word of mouth being good you have to take it to the next level. You have to think about your purple cow (see Seth Godin). You have to give people something worth saying. You need to think about what people would talk about. A good reason to talk does not need to be clever or related to a product feature, you just need to give something fresh.

 Me: I make recommendations because it makes me special. This is why I share. People wants to be smart, to feel important. I know something, I am an expert, I want to help people about what to buy. People will talk about you because it shows off their importance and expertise and because they feel like they’re in the inner circle. Give them things that make them feel important.

Us: We talk about brands because we want to belong to the tribe. This is one of the most powerful emotion. Make people feel special, like part of the family,

Besides these motivations don’t forget to talk about love. New love is the most powerful engine of word of mouth, it gets people talking. Start here and remember these two principles:

  • Love and money don’t mix. When you start providing rewards or incentives for word of mouth in most cases you kill the word of mouth. Because if I love your product I want to tell everybody this product is amazing! You should try it! It is going change your life! And if my friend founds out I am paid for making this recommendation even if it is a genuine one it is creepy and he does not tell everybody.
  • Nobody talks more than a lover scorned. When you screw up, when you break the relationship (the product is not working, there is a warranty fight, the customer service fails), word of mouth turns bad and it turns bad very fast.”

Let’s talk about disclosure and ethics, a topic you’ve been fighting for since the early 90’. Why disclosure and ethics are so important from a marketing point of view?

“When you’re planning a word of mouth campaign, remember that ethics come first. Without the trust of your talkers, they’re not going to tell their friends about you. If you get even the slightest feeling that something isn’t 100 percent ethical — don’t do it! There’s no gray area with ethics.”

Some companies seem to ignore these principles by using fake testimonies for example without any disclosure. What are the major risks for those companies?

“This is ignoring the law. Whatever the media, we get back to the premises of the law that we have to be truthful in our advertising and cannot lie about who we are when we do that advertising. That’s really all they’ve ever been. In the US, the FTC has made this really clear: lot of states are busting people, example in NY where the biggest fine was 300 000 $. More important, Google and Facebook have said they would remove you from Google for doing any of this kind of stealthy marketing we are talking about. In the US, what you have to do is to be compliant with the FTC rules which are:

Number one, you have to require disclosure and truthfulness in social media which basically means do not lie to people. So if your advertising is advertising you have to say this is marketing and the claim you make has to be truthful. This is actually good news because what it says is that you can do any marketing you want, there is lot of creative freedom. The only boundary is: when it is marketing be sure that everybody knows it is marketing.

Number two, you have to monitor conversations and correct misstatements. It says that if you recruit people to spread messages about you, you have to monitor these conversations and correct any misstatements. Meaning if those people fail to disclose they are working with you or says something untruthful, you’ve got to make a good effort to get them correct their records. The rules are reasonably reasonable meaning you are not responsible for everything said about your brand but only the stuff you caused to happen.

Number three, you have to create social media policies and training programs which means it is on you to teach rules number one and number two. When you hire someone to spread your messages on social media you have to teach him the disclosure rules.”

What is your opinion about companies buying Facebook likes?

“My advice is avoid paying cash for social media coverage like sponsored Twitter or Facebook ads. When you start paying other people to say things on your behalf it is not social media anymore it is advertising. And then it gets back to that trust issue.”

What are the most important rules for safe social media outreach?

“The 4 rules of honest word of mouth marketing

    1. Word of mouth isn’t stealth. It’s open, honest communications with customers and the community.
    2. Fake work of mouth doesn’t work. You will get busted. The backlash will destroy your reputation.
    3. Oppose all deception. Protect the trust in genuine word of mouth—for yourself as a marketer and for your family as consumers.
    4. Follow the Honesty ROI to stay out of trouble
  • Honesty of Relationship: You say who you’re representing.
  • Honesty of Opinion: You only say what you really believe.
  • Honesty of Identity: You never lie about who you are.”

How to disclose a message if I want to write on behalf of my company?

“Disclosure is really easy. The place to start is having these 10 magic words: “I work for ___________, and this is my personal opinion.” And you start a disclosure habit, and it separates employees’ opinions from official company statements”

A company requests a loyal consumer to post a positive review for a new product. What are the elements to be disclosed in this consumer’s product review?

“There are three big things we’re always required to disclose:

Who are you? What’s your relationship to the company/agency/influencer program? Anytime you’ve recruited people to talk on your behalf, you need to disclose that.

Were you paid? This includes any kind of incentive, not just cash. All of this only applies to what you have caused to happen as part of your marketing program — not when customers grab free samples on their own.

Is it an honest opinion based on a real experience? If not, it’s false advertising. This is always illegal. If you’re asking someone to write about your software, your hotel, or your food — they better have actually tried it.”

Technically speaking, how to disclose a message on Twitter as the number of characters is limited?

“FTC says that your disclosure has to be clear and conspicuous to the Average Reader. It has to be upfront. Good test is the Mum test. If you put out your social media campaign and Mum calls you up and says: “Honey I love what they are saying about your products on Twitter that’s so wonderful” and you say “Mum I paid them to say that”. So if your Mum does not get what you do is marketing is not good enough.  If you cannot figure out how to do and your post require to be disclosed, you cannot legally run the post. If you got to tweet, and it is a marketing tweet but you cannot figure out how to properly label it at marketing but you run that tweet anyway that’s illegal”.

What is your opinion regarding native advertising? I mean Do consumers interpret native advertising as an ad or a published article? It is quite ambiguous here, do not you think?

“All the trouble you can get into comes down to this question of disclosure — making it clear what’s advertising and what’s marketing. Now, since the dawn of media, advertising and media have always existed together. The difference between what’s right and wrong is the phrase, “And now, a word from our sponsor.” This difference is what it all comes down to.”

Is a company also responsible for all the messages spread by its marketing agency?

“The brands are 100% liable for anything that happens in your name. If you hire the agency and they hire a subcontractor or anything else, in the end you are the one who is busted for anything wrong with the campaign. Be very careful about who all your partners are because it is on you.”

As we close up, what would be your top marketing advice for the MS Digital Strategy students?

“Marketing is about people. Not clicks or numbers. Never lose sight of who you serve; never forget that you need to earn their business.”

Find the disclosure best practices toolkit on