For so many, starting and running a business is the dream--the ultimate career goal. 

Entrepreneurship and small business management are rewarding ventures for creative, passionate individuals who value independence and ingenuity. But running a small business isn’t always easy. It’s time-consuming, stressful, and downright overwhelming at times. 

According to research conducted by Gallup, 39% of small business owners work more than 60 hours each week. And even outside of those 60 hours, they spend plenty of time thinking about--or stressing about--their business.

One of the most precious and coveted commodities for small business owners? Time. Avoiding burnout is a top concern, but so is finding the time to do it all. Short on time, money, and resources, one of the areas of business that causes the most headaches for small business owners is marketing. The problem? Without a strong marketing strategy in place, it’s very difficult to grow a fledgling business or keep an established one growing and thriving.

How can small business owners improve their marketing strategy, regardless of the time, money, or knowledge they have to invest? Is social media or digital marketing the answer? As it turns out, word of mouth marketing may be the key to sustainable growth. 

In their book Talk Triggers: The Complete Guide to Creating Customers with Word of Mouth, Jay Baer and Daniel Lemin lay out a step-by-step process for generating word-of-mouth marketing that attracts new customers. The advice they share is valuable for anyone who’s interested in marketing or customer experience--regardless of industry or business size. But the tips they share are particularly powerful for small business owners.

If you’re struggling to make headway with your current marketing efforts and looking for practical, powerful ways to attract new customers to your business, keep reading. 

Based on the fantastic guidance Baer and Lemin have shared, I’ll outline why word of mouth marketing works so well in the digital age, explain what a talk trigger is, and offer up practical tips for developing a talk trigger of your own. 

Is Word of Mouth Marketing Still Relevant in the Digital Age?

In 2019, one-third of small businesses planned to spend less than $10,000 on advertising. The top mediums they planned to spend more on were social media, online search, and online banner advertising. 43% felt that social media was the most effective medium for achieving their advertising goals, of increasing sales and revenue, converting leads to customers, and/or standing out from competitors.

When asked about their marketing and advertising plans, the term "word-of-mouth marketing" was noticeably absent from the conversation. 

Why, then, would two marketing and customer experience pros devote an entire book to generating word of mouth marketing? And how can this old-school tactic work hand-in-hand with the digital mediums today's marketers use to drive leads, business, and loyalty?

In Talk Triggers, Ed Keller, the CEO of Engagement Labs, shares his take. "I think it is vitally important for brand marketers to understand that the rise of social media is real, it's undeniable, and it's an important channel. But interestingly, it has not knocked the value of word of mouth off the table."

If anything, many brand experts would actually suggest that social media only makes word of mouth more powerful and further reaching, which makes sense. Think about traditional spokesperson marketing from several years ago. Athletes or musicians would advertise or endorse products via TV advertising or billboards. Think about the Britney Spears Pepsi campaigns or Nike's "Just Do It." Today, influencers spread the word about products or services via YouTube and Instagram.

And according to McKinsey, in 2020, we're much more likely to make purchasing decisions based upon the advice of our trusted networks of peers, friends, and family than the recommendation of a celebrity we've never met. 

This all begs the question--how can brands get people talking about their business? Sharing pictures on Facebook with their closest friends? Mentioning their experience in a blog post or at a dinner party. According to Lemin and Baer, business owners can steer the conversation by creating talk triggers.

What is a Talk Trigger?

Have you ever stayed at a Doubletree Hotel? If so, you probably just pictured (or imagined yourself tasting) the warm chocolate chip cookies they've become famous for handing out to guests upon arrival and check-in. That cookie is an example of a talk trigger. 

Jay Baer and Daniel Lemin define a talk trigger as “any specific operational choice that inspires conversation.” Ultimately, the goal is to spark word-of-mouth marketing through that conversation.

But what if you don't have the budget to provide every single one of your customers with a free warm cookie? How can businesses of any size and with any budget leverage the power of a talk trigger? There are plenty of practical, reasonable ways to create brand ambassadors who can't resist talking about your business. 

Characteristics of a Reasonable Talk Trigger

We've established what a talk trigger is, but what makes one actually work? Is any catchy idea good enough, or is there a formula for success?

According to Baer and Lemin, there are four criteria for developing a talk trigger that sticks and works. A talk trigger must be:

  • Remarkable
  • Relevant
  • Reasonable
  • Repeatable

What does it mean to be remarkable?

Being remarkable means being unique, taking a risk, and not just falling into the trap of trying to do what the competition is doing. That's a lot easier said than done, as the business world by nature is competitive. And according to The Harvard Business Review, competition breeds conformity. 

Being remarkable is not about being good enough to go head to head with the competition. It's about doing at least one thing better and very different than they do it. As Baer and Lemin put it, remarkable is anything other than "just good."

What does it mean to be relevant?

Sure, it might be fun to give away free duck-shaped lollipops. But if ducks don't tie back to your business in any way, what connection are you building? In order for a talk-trigger to have staying power, it must be tied to your core business.

I love the example that Baer and Lemin use to bring this criterion to life on page 51 of Talk Triggers.

Think about all the companies you've come in contact with who've run some sort of marketing promotion in which they gave away a free iPad. From survey incentives to trade show raffle drawings, the iPad has become one of the go-to crutches for marketers over the last decade. But stop and think about that for a moment. For 99% of businesses, does an iPad really tie-back to their core product offerings?

The answer is "no." And so, most of the companies who've used their own money to get customers talking about (or excited about) their brand have done little more than creating word-of-mouth marketing for Apple. 

What does it mean to be reasonable?

This one is pretty straightforward. Don't have the budget to fly all your new customers to a weekend getaway in the Bahamas? Then that's not a feasible talk trigger.

A reasonable talk trigger is not a grand gesture (it turns out, those can actually cause distrust among customers). It's something small, but consistent. 

Here's an example from the book. Have you ever eaten at the fast-food chain, Five Guys? If so, you've probably ordered their fries. Yes, the fries are quite tasty. But what people often talk (and tweet and post about) is how they overfill the cups their fries are served in, to the point where fries are overflowing and spilling into the bag.

They've become known for the crazy large quantity of hot and fresh fries. And whether you pick up an order of fries in Raleigh, NC or Alameda, CA, you'll have the same experience. Just search "Five Guys" on Twitter and see for yourself.

What does it mean to be repeatable?

A repeatable talk trigger is one that's scalable. To meet this criterion, it must be available to every customer, every time. (Like that Doubletree cookie).

One of the local movie theaters we frequent here in Richmond, VA is known for handing out fancy chocolate mints as you exit your movie. They don't just leave them in a bowl. They have employees dressed in formal attire, stationed outside of each theater, handing them out butler-style, with a white formal cloth draped over their arm. Not what you might expect at a movie theater. 

They do this after every show, not just the movies that take place around dinner time. It's a small thing, but it's easily scalable and consistent. It's also something that I look forward to after every movie. Yes, the tickets cost more there and yes it's farther away from our home than at least two other theaters, but those small touches make it worth the extra effort. 

Putting the 4 Characteristics to Work: 5 Types of Talk Trigger to Consider

We now know that in order to be successful, a talk trigger must be remarkable, relevant, reasonable, and repeatable. But in a more practical, specific sense, what are some types of talk triggers that work really well? Lemin and Baer identify five main categories of talk triggers. They are:

  • Empathy
  • Usefulness
  • Generosity
  • Speed
  • Attitude 

I highly recommend picking up a copy of Talk Triggers, which includes a detailed chapter covering each of these five types of talk triggers. In the meantime, I'll do my best to offer a brief synopsis.

Empathy is really just about being nice--sometimes unexpectedly so. If you work in an industry that has a reputation for being cold (think finance, debt collectors, or healthcare), then empathy may be the golden ticket. Finding a scalable way to infuse pleasantness into customer interactions could be your talk trigger.

Usefulness, for many, is more practical. If you can figure out what your customers really want and need and then follow the four-step process for giving it to them, then you've got a good talk trigger. 

For other businesses, generosity is the right fit for their core goals and identity. Think about Warby Parker. They offer really nice eyewear at an affordable price and they make the shopping experience super convenient. But they're also well-known for their "buy a pair, give a pair" program, which has donated more than 5 million pairs of glasses to those in need. 

How about speed? The first brand I think of when I think speed is the under-the-radar regional fast-food chain Pal's Sudden Service. As their name implies, they are crazy fast. If you're not familiar with Pal's, you can read about them here

Finally, let's talk about attitude. This one comes down to personality. A bit of sass, if you will. Think about Wendy's Twitter account. Or take a look at the Tushy Bidet Instagram account or this Lume deodorant ad. Brands with attitude don't use corporate jargon. They attract people to their quirky messaging. 

Take Action: How to Create Your Talk Trigger

Ready to brainstorm on potential talk triggers for your business to adopt? Section four of the book Talk Triggers dives deep into the six-step process you can follow to do just that. Again, definitely read the book before you attempt to do this on your own, but here's a high-level summary of the process to help get you started.

Step One: Gather Internal Insights

Get stakeholders from each of the core teams in your organization together for a day of brainstorming. Document what you already know about your customers, your product, etc. During this stage, especially, it's helpful to have representation from as many areas of the business as possible. 

Step Two: Get Close to Your Customers

Do whatever you need to do to walk in your customer's shoes. Dive into the data you already have, but take it a step further to learn about what makes them tick, what their key challenges are, and how they interact with your products or services. Do mystery shopping, set up focus groups, create surveys or all of the above. The more you know, the better.

Step Three: Create Candidate Talk Triggers

After you've completed the first two steps, it's time to create several possible talk triggers. Here are some fill-in-the-blank style questions you can ask to kickstart the process (many more are included in the book):

  • When I buy or use this product/service I’m:
  • What I don’t expect from this product is:

Step Four: Test and Measure Your Talk Triggers

Once you've landed on 3-5 candidates, start testing them with your customers and measuring the impact. Figure out which ones (if any) get customers talking. If you find none of them is the right fit, then you can go back a step or two and try again. 

Step Five: Expand and Turn On

Did you find your winning idea? It's time to amplify. Spread the word, get the whole team on board, and be consistent.

Step Six: Create Your Next Talk Trigger

Think your work is done? Not so fast! Don't rest on your laurels. Start back from the beginning and work on coming up with the next big idea. 

Bringing it All Together

Word-of-mouth marketing can be a powerful tool for business growth--regardless of budget or resources. If you've seen mixed success with other marketing methods or campaigns, coming up with a talk trigger could be game-changing for your small business. Jay Baer and Daniel Lemin's book is a quick, engaging read that I highly recommend for anyone who's interested in marketing or the customer experience. 

When combined with digital marketing, social media, or traditional advertising efforts, word-of-mouth marketing can make a profound impact. If you're curious to learn more about attracting new customers to your business, be sure to download the eBook, “Within Reach: 5 Small Steps to Achieve Your Big Goals.” It’s full of actionable insights on how you can take your business to the next level.