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5 Disadvantages of Word of Mouth Advertising (If It’s All You’re Doing)

March 26th, 2024 | 4 min. read

By Kim Kovelle

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A group of three women chatting and sharing some word-of-mouth information

Old-school word-of-mouth marketing is never bad, so long as it’s positive. But even so, if it’s all you’re relying on, it’s a risky proposition.

Take a home remodeling business based in New Jersey. They relied on referral bonuses and direct phone calls for four years. It was going reasonably well but holding ... steady.

“They wanted to grow but sensed they were hitting a wall,” shares Michele Potts, sales director for Zoe Marketing & Communications. “Traditional word of mouth was only getting them so far.”

In 15+ years of digital marketing experience and 40+ years of traditional advertising, Zoe has seen similar drawbacks for companies relying solely on word of mouth. Whether you’re riding its high tide or starting to question its limitations, it’s essential to get a better sense of:

By the end, you'll still feel confident that word of mouth is beneficial! But you'll also feel more empowered to combine it with digital marketing and start planning your next steps.


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Graphic showing a word-of-mouth marketing trust perk

The perks of traditional word of mouth

WOM + IconsTraditional word of mouth is earned and worth its weight in gold. These endorsements can fast-track people’s decision-making. After all, Nielsen's Consumer Trust Index reports that 92% of people trust recommendations from family and friends above any other advertising.

Also, according to stats assembled by the marketing at Invesp:

  • It leads to 5 times more sales than paid media
  • It results in about 13% of all sales
  • 88% of people put the “highest level” of trust in recommendations from folks they know
  • 64% of marketing pros even say it’s the most effective form of marketing

Even so, alone, it can fall short of your revenue goals. And even if your word of mouth is currently doing well, you can extend your reach even further with multichannel digital marketing.

Graphic show 5 problems with word-of-mouth marketing5 disadvantages of word-of-mouth marketing

Let's pivot to a few ways word of mouth comes up short. For all its good, relying solely on traditional word of mouth can have several distinct challenges.

WOM x Icons-min1. Referrals alone are often unsustainable

Over the years, local businesses have told us, “I don’t need to do marketing. I have great word of mouth.” Which can be great — until it possibly isn’t.

All businesses try to forecast revenue each month. However, when it depends solely on whether other people recommend you, there’s often more flux.

“The trend may keep up for a while, but things can change quickly — like they did during the pandemic,” Zoe sales director Potts says. “And if that happens, you could suddenly be in a bad spot. Or at least more vulnerable to the ups and downs of the market.”

That’s why having more than one referral source is always important, in case one “breaks.”

WOM x Icons-min2. Your message can get muddled

Word of mouth is a bit like the old game of “telephone.” What exactly did people hear first, and what are their expectations based on it? “With the grapevine method, you have far less opportunity to control the message,” says Potts.

Likely your referral heard something positive about you. But maybe the person giving the referral got something slightly wrong or didn’t offer enough detail. Inaccuracies are common.

With complementary digital marketing, however, you can tailor that message — whether in the ads you create or the landing pages you send people to. It creates clarity for key prospects.

WOM x Icons-min3. It’s hard to control who your message reaches

With word of mouth, you also can't control who gets your message. You’re relying on the people who do hear about you to like what they heard and reach out.

Then, it takes more effort on your end to vet them. For instance, someone may rave about an excellent lawn service to a friend. But maybe they didn’t talk money, and that service is out of the friend’s budget. “Some prospects will pan out,” Potts says, “but inevitably, others won’t.”

Digital marketing fills the gap by targeting your message to a specific audience. You can hone in on geographic location, age, gender, interests, income and recent online behavior.

For instance, with that home remodeling business Potts mentioned? By targeting people specifically looking for home improvement with digital marketing, in a year, they increased their sales by 30%.

WOM x Icons-min4. It’s tough to quantify

How much of your business came from word of mouth last year? In the past few months? This gets tricky. Evidence is often anecdotal — or, if new clients fill out a form saying where they heard about you, you’ll get some sense.

Still, analyzing those leads is more challenging and unpredictable than using trackable, measurable digital marketing methods.

WOM x Icons-min5. Negative word of mouth can be extra derailing

Of course, not all word-of-mouth marketing is positive. And that can be especially troublesome with online reviews, one of the digital word-of-mouth pipelines.

Positive referrals on your Google Business Profile or Yelp can be a significant boost. But negative reviews can be more problematic — especially if you don’t have a solid digital marketing presence.

Respectfully responding to public complaints helps. But bad reviews can still give people pause and make them question doing business with you.

Again, it comes down to marketing in other ways, too, where you can control your message and build up trust.

Digital word of mouth methods of social media engagement and Google Business Profile reviewsThe growing role of digital word of mouth

Word of mouth has broken out of the world of private conversation. Social media shoutouts and reviews on various websites are just as pervasive. And digital word of mouth is a logical place to start expanding your traditional efforts. This includes: 

  • Social media: Showcase authentic customer stories, behind-the-scenes photos or even “before-after” images of your services, when it applies. Engage with commenters.
  • Google Business Profile reviews: Encourage customer reviews (Google makes it easy with a link you can send). GBP is often the public’s first impression of you. 

Both of these methods help you build trust, expand your reach and boost your SEO (search engine optimization). This all makes it easier for new customers to find you.

Next steps to expanding beyond traditional word-of-mouth

While it’ll always be valuable, old-school word of mouth does have pitfalls. Common issues range from muddy messages to sustainability issues. The key? Diversify your marketing.

If you want support in expanding your efforts, talk to us at Zoe Marketing & Communications. We'll use our digital expertise to tailor a plan that fits your needs.

In the meantime, start growing beyond traditional word of mouth with these two must-reads:

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Kim Kovelle

As Zoe Marketing & Communications’ content manager, Kim Kovelle brings nearly 20 years of writing and editing experience in metro Detroit. She has strong roots in community journalism and a knack for making complicated topics make more sense.