Growing your business with word of mouth

The world of digital media can be overwhelming for many small businesses. Do I need to hire someone to help with search? Isn't a website enough? What is social media? But, one of the simplest (and best) Web 2.0 strategies is really nothing new to small businesses, word of mouth (WOM). WOM marketing is just another way to talk about referrals. But, unlike the referrals of yesteryear, WOM isn't just done in person or over the phone — rather it can happen any time online.

Recently I chatted with Liz Klein, owner and head landscape designer of Design My Yard (a landscape design, installation and consultation company serving Central Texas) about how she has used WOM to grow and sustain her small business.

What I learned from Liz is in the landscaping business – like in many other industries- is about who you know and what you know. From her first job working at a family-owned nursery in San Diego, she learned that it was all about the relationships you formed with the customers. When customers see you as credible AND the source with all the answers they will not only keep coming back, but they also will talk to their friends and family about your service. The good relationship with one customer or contact can truly multiply when WOM enters the equation.

For Liz, referrals, being knowledgeable about local plants and networking with local nurseries and contractors was enough to sustain her business when she moved to Flagstaff, AZ and also when she moved to Austin, TX. But, she soon realized that if she really wanted to grow her business she would have to start marketing herself as an individual rather than a quality add-on service. To do this Liz checked out FLORA (Female Landscapers Out Running Amok), a local female landscapers group.

It was from a contact in the group that Liz found out that HGTV's Landscaper's Challenge had just finished filming an episode in Austin and was interested in finding three more local designers to be a part of the show. After the encouragement of many friends and her family, she applied to the show, was chosen to compete and ended up being selected as the winning designer.

After the excitement of winning died down, Liz realized that it would be good idea to look into some more traditional marketing — a Web site. Since the show was going to give her a lot of free publicity, she at least needed a place for viewers to easily contact her. The filming was done several months before the show was to air, so Liz had just enough time to get a good site together (with the help of a family member in the marketing business). The show provided Liz with great national visibility, which actually proved to be a great thing for a local designer. She received numerous calls from customers in other states wanting to give a landscape makeover gift to relatives in the Austin area.

Now, several years after the original airing of the show she still gets great traffic to her site. Every time the show re-airs, she sees a significant spike in traffic. To keep up the momentum Liz updates her site regularly with new before/after photos and key words people are using to find landscape designers. She also plans on doing sending out tips on fall clean up and preparing your yard for winter to the email list she's been putting together.

But –still– the cornerstone of marketing for Liz remains fostering WOM. She regularly calls to check on client's yards, how business is going for contractors and takes perspective clients to the yards of her satisfied customers. Have you been a word of mouth marketer without realizing it? What are some other WOM tips small businesses can use?

About the Author: Kara Krautter