Viral or Word-of-Mouth – which is better?

I get asked quite often to distinguish between what is “viral marketing” and what is “word-of-mouth marketing” – apparently there is some confusion out there with these terms.  Let’s see if we can’t clear it up and give you some more details.  The good news is that both are very powerful and very necessary.

Let’s start with Word-of-Mouth.  Simply put, it is when you get more people talking more about you.  It is unquestionably the most powerful way to spread the word about you or your business/organization.  But Word-of-Mouth doesn’t just happen.  It is “set up” in a way so that it encourages people to want to talk about you.  And there is “short-term word-of-mouth” and “long-term word-of-mouth”.

Where people often get confused between viral and word-of-mouth is when they are talking about the short-term version.  This is usually when there is an immediate promotion or something with a short time frame on it so it creates some “buzz” and thus starts to be spread via word-of-mouth.  The plus is that social media can really accelerate this type of word-of-mouth because it can happen quick and spread fast, thus the viral nature of it.  However, it usually doesn’t last very long and generally there isn’t much of a long tail or residual effect from short-term word-of-mouth.

Contrast this with long-term word-of-mouth.  This only happens when you have built a certain degree of “trust” and a “relationship” with the business/organization.  After all, you aren’t willing to put your personal reputation on the line to recommend, talk about, or spread the word about something you personally don’t feel good about – this is much too risky.  But the advantages are numerous when you capture the long-term word-of-mouth because it is more genuine, personal, and can last a very long time.  Creating this type of word-of-mouth is the holy grail for a business/organization and social media simply puts this “on steroids”.

Viral on the other hand, like with short-term word-of-mouth, is much more about getting an idea or promotion to spread as rapidly as possible and into as many new “networks” as possible.  Most people can relate to the “hot deal” that just came out and they want to share it with their friends and colleagues.  Get the word out fast and to as many people as possible.  Social media now allows us to do this to far larger audiences and much faster at a much lower cost.

The ideal of course is to combine both viral and word-of-mouth.  Find some event, promotion, new idea, or other point of interest and get the word out fast to your audience.  Then, if you have laid the right foundation, your audience will continue to talk about it and the long tail of word-of-mouth will take over after the promotion is over.  The key to remember is that without building the trust and the relationship ahead of time, the best you can hope for is either a viral program or a short-term word-of-mouth program.  Neither will give you the long tail so put the plans in place to build more trust and stronger relationships with your audience and you will get the best of both viral and word-of-mouth.

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