The Power of Word of Mouth

How do you make ideas, solutions and behaviors catch on?

This question is top of mind for anyone working to make social change possible. In the book, Contagious, Jonah Berger points to one powerful lever that can be used to spread ideas – word of mouth or social transmission. “People share more than 16,000 words per day, and every hour there are more than 1 million conversations about brands online,” according to Berger. “Word of mouth is the primary factor behind 20 percent of all purchasing decisions.” Berger offers six ingredients of contagiousness: Social currency, emotion, public, practical value and stories.

Recently, we put one of these principles, social currency, to the test when we partnered with East Bay Community Foundation on an amazing project, a one-day giving blitz that raises money for participating nonprofits in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. We loved this project because it combined all the things we value: inspiring generosity to support the organizations and leaders making a difference right in our backyard. Our partners at the foundation had ambitious goals for the 2016 campaign: They wanted to serve more nonprofits, attract more donors and increase the amount of donations. Over the course of three to four months, we worked closely with them to design and implement a communications strategy that could help them reach those goals.

The strategy included key messages that could be used across a range of channels (earned media, paid media, media partnerships, email, thought-leadership and social media). By using multiple strategies, we wanted to create a “surround sound” of information about the day that could engage donors and compel them into action. As part of the social media strategy, we considered ways to leverage the power of word of mouth to spread the word about this special day.

At first, we thought well-known East Bay leaders and influencers could be the perfect messengers for this strategy. But the foundation settled on an even better way forward: focusing on the more than 500 nonprofits and local leaders that had signed up to participate in East Bay Gives. The foundation provided the incentive – a prize for the nonprofit that could motivate the most champions to share about the day on social media channels. We provided the meme – a simple PDF sign with the East Bay Gives hashtag and date of the event that included the phrase “#EastBayGives because…”. We asked the nonprofits and their supporters to fill in the blanks, take a picture with the printed sign and share online. The nonprofits jumped into action, and the results were fantastic. In the course of six weeks alone, just on twitter, the campaign generated nearly 5,000 tweets (an average of 113 tweets a day) and garnered 10 million potential impressions.

Combined with coverage in newspapers, radio, blogs; paid ads via Google Adwords and Facebook; foundation’s own channels; and media partnerships with Diablo Magazine, SF Business Times and more, the strategy helped East Bay Community Foundation reach its goals. Despite technical difficulties with the Kimbia platform, an issue that impacted giving days nationwide, East Bay Gives 2016 raised more than $1 million for participating nonprofits. The total amount reflects funds raised from donors who gave directly via organization’s websites as well as matching funds. In all, the 2016 campaign exceeded last year’s results in every area, almost doubling the total number of donors, and increasing total donations by more than 55 percent.

For us, a key takeaway of this project was the importance of marshalling, engaging and equipping existing supporters as powerful messengers. Whether it is an event, issue or campaign, word of mouth is a powerful tool that good causes—not just brands—can use to raise awareness, inform people and inspire action.

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