Building Passion to Inspire Word-of-Mouth Sales

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At the 2014 Winter Institute session “The Passion Conversation: Understanding, Sparking, and Sustaining Word-of-Mouth Marketing,” Geno Church, word of mouth (WOM) inspiration officer for the marketing company Brains on Fire, presented a variety of case studies on word-of-mouth marketing to help booksellers inspire indie bookstore passion among their customers.

One of the first examples of word-of-mouth marketing that Church noted stemmed from his youth in Greenville, South Carolina, where, as a result of watching the town’s bustling textile business dissolve, he committed himself to helping sustain the country’s economy by buying American-made products. In recent years this led him to purchase a pair of jeans from a Missouri denim company that uses only American sources and labor. But Church also discovered that the company offers free alterations at the time of purchase. “That’s a very simple, humble deed that doesn’t go unnoticed, and that’s created a ton of word of mouth for them in Kansas City,” he said.

Like the denim company, bookstores have to find a way to keep current customers engaged and to bring new ones through their doors by inspiring their customers to share their love of the business with family and friends. “Every customer who comes in is an opportunity to become a messenger for why they love your bookshop,” said Church. And if you understand why people talk, you have a greater chance of sparking the conversations about your business that you want them to have.

Three main behavioral and emotional triggers motivate people to share information and have conversations about a brand, product, or business, he said. And passion is what makes customers move beyond sharing information to advocating for a brand.

Through functional conversations, we share practical information — “the nuts and bolts” — that helps us better understand the world in which we live. For an example, Church told booksellers to “think about some of the factual and functional conversations customers have” about their businesses, including the details and experiences they might be sharing with others.

We use social signals to impress others, to show them how unique we are, and to express our expertise in the world, Church said. Among these types of signals are branded shirts, tote bags, and other merchandise bought by customers or T-shirts bearing a store logo worn by staff. A good example of a social signal is when a staff member continues to wear the store T-shirt even after work. “Do they continue to wear it when they go through the rest of their life?” he asked, and, if they do, he noted, “that sparks conversation…” The more distinct a brand, the easier it is for customers to project their uniqueness by visually identifying with the brand.

The last trigger is emotional, said Church. “We talk about things and we share things when we’re excited and we love something, and we also talk a lot when we’re disgusted and we can’t stand something. So brands that evoke a strong emotion are far more likely to get talked about,” he said. Church encouraged booksellers to think about the ways in which their stores could be designed to amaze and amuse people, as these emotions can evoke the strongest response and cause people to share their experiences with others.

“Your business is not just a brand or a label; people today want to know what’s behind the company. They want to know what you stand for and what you’re about,” said Church. Customers develop a passion for the brand that shares personal stories with them and passion is what tips the scale from customers experiencing emotional, functional, or social triggers to becoming advocates for the brand that they love. “If you do this right, your customers are living messengers for your brand. What word of mouth is really all about is having people out there advocating on behalf of you,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

At Brains on Fire, Church has worked with a number of organizations to translate company missions into personal, relatable goals and to connect the companies with the customers or fans who will advocate on their behalf. At Wi9, he shared some of their stories.

For a fitness center offering a common product or service, it can be difficult to find a unique hook, said Church, so instead of pitching typical weight-loss stories to lure in customers, Anytime Fitness in Santa Rosa, California, decided to call attention to current members who were making progress in smaller ways, such as spending five full minutes on a treadmill or making it to the gym three times in one week. It began issuing “Kicking BUT” cards to members meeting these small but important goals, and the cards act as an encouraging reminder to members to make health a part of their everyday lives, regardless of any “buts” or excuses. The gym’s program acknowledges the small successes of the members and makes sure that the members know they are being seen and cared about, and the members go on to share their stories with family and friends by word of mouth.

When Justice for Children International, a group seeking to end child trafficking and exploitation, rebranded and changed its name to Love146, it won the support of people across the globe and saw the movement explode through the advocacy of its supporters. The changes were made to reflect what the founders discovered on a trip to Southeast Asia: a young girl in a brothel, identified only by the number 146, who, unlike the other children who were beaten down, still appeared to be passionate about escaping her situation. By developing a personal story to outline its mission, the group revamped its image and goals and saw the level of engagement from donors and advocates skyrocket.

The National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL) was looking to create a literacy project that would ignite a passion for reading in young children. Brains on Fire talked with families and children about how they engage in reading and learning and discovered that many parents have the goal of raising their children to be lifelong learners. The NCFL “is not just in the literacy business, but in the family business,” said Church. With that in mind, the group developed the online resource Wonderopolis with a dual goal: to help kids become lifelong learners by engaging them in daily conversations that centered around things they are curious about and to create a place where children can come together with parents and teachers to engage in conversations and learning together.

Church also related the story of Oliver and Emily, who founded the natural, organic skincare line Ursa Major using Vermont natural landscape as inspiration, and he described how they embedded themselves deeply in the personality of the brand. In addition to working at connecting the products with their lives and experiences of their customers — they often include personalized notes with products and send out “Live Major” stickers, which customers take on trips and adventures and post pictures of online — the founders spend each evening at their farmhouse table answering questions and corresponding directly with customers. Though they might be in the skincare business, “they’re in the people business,” said Church.

It’s important to keep customers engaged at a personal level, said Church. While many of us are using Facebook, Twitter, and other outlets to achieve this, Church encouraged booksellers to focus on their customers as people first. “We don’t decide anymore what gets talked about; people do. Advertising only prompts 22 percent of all conversations people have about a brand, a product, and a service,” said Church. The remaining 78 percent “leaves a huge playground for us to have conversations. The playground there is engaging people in conversations in different ways.”

Church noted that Indies First began with a letter from author Sherman Alexie to his fellow writers and grew by passionate word of mouth into a crusade for independent bookstores. As a result, he said, the grassroots movement racked up 344 stores participating; 1,110 author appearances; 21,731,346 event-related tweets; and a print circulation of 18 million articles mentioning Indies First — all because of the passion for indie stores, which prompted people to spread word of the movement. In the end, 86 percent of stores saw moderate to significant increases in sales compared to 2012’s Small Business Saturday.  

Something to consider, Church said, is what a bookstore could do to get customers talking about the store. “You’ve got an open invitation there for them to help share why they love your bookshop to someone else,” he said. Tell customers about the story behind the founding of the bookstore, or tell the story about the first customer to ever visit the shop — and make sure the store’s staff can carry that message as well. Because bookselling is a people business, it’s important to find a way to make customers feel strongly about the store and offer them something they can’t get elsewhere, like that owner-customer relationship, said Church. People are looking to be treated as a friend or as a family member these days, not as a number.

“Advocacy inspires us to share our love for a thing so much that we become a living messenger for it,” said Church. Customers come to independent bookstores to have conversations with booksellers and to find the perfect product; they think about what bookstores do for them, be it making them more worldly, helping them discover new passions, or finding out about a new career. The experiences customers have in bookstores are what bring new customers in, if the customer chooses to share their experience with others; booksellers have to make it a valuable experience for every customer. “This is hard work,” said Church, and inspiring passion in customers “has to be something that your business does every day. It’s not a magic bullet.”

A video of Geno Church’s full presentation and discussion with booksellers is available to ABA member booksellers with a BookWeb username and password. Booksellers can also access Church’s white paper on word-of-mouth marketing.