Marketers love word of mouth, or “earned” media. It’s a vein of gold worthy of mining in your marketing efforts. Every chief marketing officer aspires to find the word-of-mouth equivalent to the “Hand of Faith,” at twenty-seven pounds, the largest piece of gold ever found with a metal detector.

But the big question is always the same: Where can I find it? I think, if you want word of mouth, the key is not only to have shareable content but also to identify and advertise to the particular mouths you want to set in motion.

The Importance of Word of Mouth

It’s an important endeavor. Virtually every study done on the topic has shown that “recommendations from friends or family” is the most influential of marketing touch points. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association estimates that consumer conversations and recommendations drive about $6 trillion in annual consumer spending.

Almost every marketing conference is filled with marketing stories and case studies about a brand that drove huge amounts of conversation, buzz, etc. with its word-of-mouth marketing programs. Hand of Faith–scale word-of-mouth successes seem to be everywhere by that natural mechanism in which everybody refers over and over again to the same successes. Which is to say that they’re exciting and they’re seductive. But they are few and far between.

Word-of-Mouth Gold Is a Scarce Resource

Like most of the 49ers who struggled mightily to scratch out a meager existence by mining for gold, most marketers have had difficulty finding rich word-of-mouth “veins” and an even harder time mining them consistently.

The success stories are the exceptions. How many campaigns designed to create conversations didn’t actually create much of anything? Most. Catch any marketer in a weak moment, and he or she will admit to a low level of confidence in driving consumer conversations about a brand.

It’s not like we don’t know anything about word of mouth. We know from research what people are most likely to talk about and share: “make them laugh or make them cry, but definitely don’t bore them,” as Ehrenberg-Bass says. This learning increasingly informs marketing content development. That said, most marketers are still searching in vain for that big nugget of word-of-mouth gold.

A Different Approach: Advertising to the Influencers

What about a different approach? We already know that ads are one of the most frequently discussed topics when consumers talk about brands. Instead of simply creating content that tries to ignite conversations and sharing (something one routinely wants to do), what if we also focus our advertising directly on the people who are doing the talking or sharing?

For example, what if you could achieve these objectives?

  • Identify and advertise to people who are already talking about your category or brand.
  • Address your advertising only to consumers who disproportionately influence purchase decisions in your category.

Directing your paid advertising to people who are already talking about your brand or who really influence others when they share is a great idea in concept, but is it really practical? Especially for off-line word of mouth, which accounts for almost 75% of consumer sharing and conversations?

How To Advertise to Influencers

The short answer is yes, it’s now very practical. Word of mouth, both online and off, is well measured. TV and digital audiences are well understood. All that’s required is bringing the two together. So how does it work?

  • People who are talking about your category or brand—online or off—are identified via syndicated word-of-mouth measurement.
  • These people (no PII, or personally identifiable information) are “fused” to media panels, generating data on what they watch on TV and do online.
  • TV programs, dayparts, genres, etc. that over index with regard to the influence group you want to reach are identified and built into TV media plans.
  • For online, look-alike models are built, and these people are extrapolated to the broader universe of similar people online.
  • Digital “influencer” audiences are purchased through demand-side platforms.

What all of this means is that you no longer have to guess where the gold is. You can find your key word-of-mouth consumers and influencers watching TV and surfing online. More importantly, you can plan and buy media to reach them. You can advertise to them in a very focused manner.

The Word-of-Mouth Nugget: More Precision, Better Results

This means you can reach consumers who are already engaged in on and off line word-of-mouth conversations about your category or brand more precisely than ever before. And by doing so, you can ignite greater word-of-mouth conversations, positively affect your brand and increase sales.

Is this the massive Hand of Faith gold nugget that marketers have been looking for? There are no guarantees: you still need advertising creative that tells a compelling story, is memorable and emotionally engaging, and will encourage conversations. But by targeting these influencers and talkers directly, you significantly increase your chances of finding gold.

Think of it this way: it’s much better than doing yet another word-of-mouth campaign only to find a great big chunk of pyrite—otherwise known as (you guessed it) “fool’s gold.”