Starting up any business takes a lot of nerve, but sometimes promoting it can take even more. Advertising is a necessary part of succeeding, yet no one except experts are quite sure how to go about it. Solo entrepreneurs especially are left to do their own research, guess which advertising method best fits their business model and take a big risk that often has no immediate payoff. Sometimes you won’t even know if your advertising directly led to more business; you just have to guess if it was worth it or not.

Tie this to our increasingly digital age, and you get a blurry picture. Solo entrepreneurs think that everyone in moving more and more toward digital advertisements, that everything is all pop-ups and SEM, and many leave older methods behind. But is that the right decision?

Where is word of mouth now?

Word-of-mouth marketing is the most basic way to get your message out. It’s also the oldest and most effective form of marketing; 92 percent of people claim that family or friends’ recommendation is the biggest influencer on what they buy. But since everyone communicates so differently these days, how has that affected word-of-mouth marketing?

Well, our traditional idea of it has definitely changed. While friends still recommend businesses in person, they are also constantly paying attention to the digital sphere. This represents a huge opportunity for startups since it’s a very low-cost way of getting your message out there. However, with this constant exposure comes skepticism. Just seeing that your sister “likes” a business page is not usually enough to spur a real interest in your product. Instead, word-of-mouth marketing, no matter the platform that it takes place on, necessitates a genuine trust between the two parties. Unfortunately, much of the digital world feels inauthentic, which can make it difficult to truly take advantage of word of mouth.

It’s further complicated because our online lives are so cluttered. With various social media and news platforms, connections with hundreds if not thousands of people, and myriad advertisements continuously popping up, it can be difficult to hold someone’s attention. You might inspire a customer to post a glowing recommendation for your business, but if all their friends scroll past it, it’s not going to pay off.

Should You Focus on Word of Mouth?

Plenty of small startups rely exclusively on word-of-mouth marketing— even some not so small ones, like Zappos. But whether your business can afford to exclusively rely on word-of-mouth marketing is another question entirely.

Focusing on word of mouth can be advantageous in two main scenarios. One, like Zappos, you have a great PR team. If you are lucky enough to have that, exclusively focusing on word of mouth can pay off.

Most startups don’t have that, though. However, it can still pay off if you lack competition. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a monopoly or that your concept is totally unique. Rather, there has to be a base reason why the noise, online or otherwise, isn’t clouded with mentions of your competitors. On the most basic level, if there’s only one neighborhood babysitter, there’s only one option for parents to refer to each other. That kid is going to get a lot of business.

There’s a lot of things you can do to generate more customer loyalty and therefore dominate your marketing base. Loyalty programs, getting people in the door and having a personal relationship with your customers not only increases their enjoyment of your product or service, ut increases the chance that they will share their experience with their friends. Furthermore, these are all low-cost ways to market your business, which is perfect for startups.

What else can I do?

olely pursuing word-of-mouth marketing isn’t a good strategy for every business. If you’re competing in a highly competitive market and your PR team is just you, then you might want to consider other low-cost options.

  • Partner with someone in your industry, although not a direct competitor. If you make ketchup, offer a promotion with someone who sells hot dogs. This allows you to reach a customer base that is already interested in what you’re selling.
  • Email marketing can be a relatively cheap way to reach a mass amount of customers. For every dollar spent, you gain $38 on average.
  • Get creative and engage in guerilla marketing. Depending on your customer base and location, there are tons of ways that you can get your brand out there. Spray paint it on park benches, in skate parks, or on sidewalks. This approach usually requires a lot of effort, but it can pay off big time if you’re competing with big companies.

All the same, if you can maximize word-of-mouth marketing, go for it. These alternatives are totally viable and might be more valuable than word of mouth in certain situations. However, word of mouth has maintained its status as the easiest marketing strategy, giving you the highest range of payoff. This has remained true throughout the digital age — there’s just more competition for the same sound space. But if you can pierce through all the white noise and reach your customers, do so. It’s one of the best ways for startups to get off the ground.

Dayton socialises for a living and writes for fun. She will forever be a prisoner of her family’s business, doomed to inherit responsibility despite frequent existential protests.