Understanding Word-of-Mouth

We have a collection of “classic comments” in healthcare marketing. Here’s a sampler of what we hear from time to time from medical providers, office managers or facility administrators about the age-old and ever-popular Word-of-Mouth advertising (WOM).

“The only marketing I need or want is word-of-mouth advertising.”

Or maybe, “I’m really good at my profession, and word will get around.”

Or, “I want an all-referral practice, and word-of-mouth will carry the day for me.

It’s still a bit of a shocker to hear comments like these. It makes us wonder if they originate in a retro healthcare marketing world that’s different from everywhere else. (Perhaps a reality that’s not constantly changing, competition is non-existent and new patients are clambering to get in the door?)

To our ears, these are verbal red flags that mark misconceptions about Word-of-Mouth. Don’t get us wrong, anytime you can win a personal referral—through WOM or otherwise—that’s a good start. WOM is compelling, effective and convincing. We’re all for it, but there are shortcomings and misconceptions. Let’s clear up a few, like these:

“WOM is the best form of advertising.” Well, it’s good, but it doesn’t stand alone. Delivering a positive patient experience or outcome (also good things) does not assure a testimonial, a recommendation, an endorsement or a referral to a friend or relative in need. WOM advertising requires a continuing program to ask for, inspire and support referrals.

“The only marketing I need or want is word-of-mouth advertising.” This is wishful thinking…with a dash of denial. Word-of-Mouth advertising is a product of a deliberate marketing program, not a substitute for one. Real or imagined, WOM is not a justification for avoiding other marketing and communications tools.

“I’m really good at my profession, and word will get around.” We’ve met world-class practitioners who were virtually unknown to the people who needed their skills and service the most. Being good, even great, does not spontaneously produce referrals.

“I want an all-referral practice…” First, see all above. A referral-based practice is a worthy goal, but WOM alone will not “carry the day.” There is nothing automatic about it. WOM comes from relationships, not from the sky. Specialty practices, which depend heavily on referrals continually foster and grow relationships from professional sources. Likewise, referrals from patient sources demand constant cultivation.

The concept of Word-of-Mouth advertising inspires many misconceptions because there are really two, entirely different, meanings attached.

On the one hand, the inbound referrals that are the result of Word-of-Mouth are largely pre-conditioned to want to buy your services. This is a major appeal of WOM. There’s little “selling” involved because individuals are already inclined to try your services.

However, this is not to be confused with the need for a deliberate program to generate referrals as one component of a complete marketing effort. Even those patients or professional sources that are inclined to make referrals need to be asked to refer through a deliberate and supportive program.

Word-of-Mouth is neither a panacea nor a magical alternative to a well-considered marketing plan. Here’s an article in our free reference library about shaping successful relationships and increasing referrals. And you can connect with us here if you need assistance with your marketing plan.

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Stewart Gandolf

Stewart Gandolf

Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder at Healthcare Success Strategies
Stewart Gandolf, MBA, is CEO of Healthcare Success, a medical marketing and health care advertising agency. He is also a frequent writer and speaker. Most importantly, he is happily married and a "rock-n-roll daddy" to two wonderful girls.
Stewart Gandolf
Stewart Gandolf


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