Storytelling and talk triggers as your marketing strategy

As associates of the Content Providers, we are running a number of inspiration sessions on (video) storytelling together with Quadia. Location is Hilversum, Holland, on 18 and 23 January. If you are interested, have a look here. You need to book. Not sure if there are any place left.

Talk triggers

In preparation, I read “Talk Triggers: The Complete Guide to Creating Customers with Word of Mouth”.If you accept that social media is word of mouth on steroids, if you also agree that positive word of mouth is the Ultimate Moment of Truth, if you take it that word of mouth is one of the few (if not only) authentic way of spreading your message, and if you accept that word of mouth is one of the few media that has cut through in the attention war, you should really consider making word of mouth a considerable part of your marketing and media mix. Very few marketers do.

Understanding word of mouth

It is amazing how much marketing money is wasted. The core of the problem is that most marketers are more comfortable dealing with media buyers than they are talking to consumers (you know, people). Maybe the reason for the huge discrepancy between word-of-mouth importance and word-of-mouth strategy is that it is, by definition, harder to see and understand than most other advertising and marketing avenues? Decades of disintermediation have left them ill-prepared for the untidiness of word-of-mouth marketing.

It is not social media

I can hear the marketeers muttering “Social media”. It is different. Social media is great for speed, but it’s just a tool. Word of mouth is not the same. It is cheaper but a lot harder. Earning respect, earning recommendations, or launching deep ideas require a genuinely good company to provide a talk-worthy experience, with the emphasis on experience.

Cost effective marketing

The book uses a number of examples of how companies have uses word of mouth as the core of their marketing. At a fraction of the cost. Because word of mouth is not only very effective, it is also a lot cheaper, as you are in effect making your customers and your stakeholders the active carriers of your brand, creating a network effect of trusted distribution and media channels.


We are in an era where trust matters more than truth, and the truth is that your customers simply don’t trust you as much as they trust each other. Word of mouth is more persuasive and effective at the individual level because real, trusted people make recommendations to other real people.

The statistics

  • 19% of all consumer purchases in the United States were directly caused by offline or online word-of-mouth activity. That’s approximately $10 trillion of economic impact.
  • According to the research firm Nielsen, 83% of Americans trust recommendations from friends and family, and 60% trust online reviews
  • A study conducted by Blanc & Otus and G2Crowd discovered that the impact of recommendations and referrals in business-to-business (B2B) scenarios is actually far more significant, due to the considered nature of most purchases, the high average prices, and the limited number of total customers.
  • 63% of business owners believed that more than half their overall revenue came from referrals.
  • 58% of consumers ascribe high credibility to the information they hear from others during a spoken conversation.
  • 50% say they are very likely to buy as a result of that conversation.
  • Word of mouth spreads from an influencer’s mouth at a rate of eight factorial annually.

Free and hyper-relevant.

Think about it. It is hyper-relevant. The recommender customises the recommendation to fit the receiver’s perceived needs.% For free. It is time to have a plan for creating chatter. Not social media chatter. Real (offline) talk. Social media is heavily driven by people’s desire for social signalling. With a lot less impact (likes don’t buy you bread). Offline word of mouth is more persuasive than an online variant

The Cheesecake Factory

For example, take the Cheesecake Factory. Financial filings for the public company show that it spends just 0.20% of its total sales on advertising. Researchers found that a single word-of-mouth conversation by a new customer leads to an almost $200 increase in restaurant sales. The talk trigger there: the menu. Each of the chain’s 200 locations offers 85 different chicken dishes. The menu itself runs 5,940 words long. Because the vastness of the restaurant’s menu is so unusual that it compels conversation among its patrons.

You need a talk strategy

That’s why old-fashioned kitchen table recommendations remain so important. It’s the small, close-knit network of trusted friends that has the real influence. That is why you ignore your staff at your peril. They are the first careers of your brand. Read “Fusion”. In this age when consumer chatter is manifestly trusted and influential, the real question is; can you afford NOT to be purposeful and strategic any longer?

Hilton Hotels

Another example is Double Tree Hilton. Their talk trigger is cookies. Chocolate chip cookies. You can even buy cookies and have them shipped via The brand even sells the dough to bake them yourself, if you prefer. Clean hotels is not a trigger or USP. Good beds in hotels are a given. So they picked cookies.

Not a USP

It shows the difference between a talk trigger and a unique selling proposition (USP). A USP is a feature, articulated with a bullet point, that is discussed in a conference room. A talk trigger is a benefit, articulated with a story, that is talked about at a cocktail party.

Same is lame

A talk trigger is a good story. Where same is lame. It needs to be different. For a differentiator to keep spreading beyond the first telling, however, it has to be inherently more interesting. Customers view only 20% of businesses as “truly differentiated.” In truth, most customers don’t find things remarkable because they just aren’t different enough.

Set your business apart

The best story, the most compelling and dynamic talk trigger, can set your business apart in ways that incremental upgrades to customer service or price reductions cannot. It’s often said that advertising is a tax paid by unremarkable businesses. When you fail to have a meaningful experiential differentiator, you are not only required to pay the tax on unremarkability in the form of increased advertising spending. But you also have a much harder time charging any sort of premium for whatever you offer.

Improvement is not different

On the other hand, a focus on improving customer experience makes it more difficult to create and propagate a truly differentiated talk trigger. That is because customer experience enhancements are about being better, not being different. When it comes to word of mouth, different is better than better. Improved customer experience is not a competitive advantage. A talk trigger could be.

“You will not believe what happened to me when… “

Read “Difference“,  if you want a perspective. Again, same is lame. The best buzz for a product or service comes not from clever PR or advertising but rather from attributes inherent in the product or service itself. Word-of-mouth marketing is the organising of that talk and driving it in a particular way. It’s doing something intentional. Starting with “You will not believe what happened to me when… “

Create conversations

Don’t create brochures; create conversation tools. Word of mouth spreads when something occurs that customers do not reasonably expect. Your talk trigger message has to be crisp, concise, and simple. There cannot be exceptions, caveats, or circumstances. It turns out customers don’t like terms and conditions, particularly when they’re telling a story. That is just not how people share stories.

Remarkable, relevant, reasonable, and repeatable

All talk triggers shall be remarkable, relevant, reasonable, and repeatable. Remarkable and not just “good”. Relevant and tied to your core business. Reasonable and not so grand as to cause distrust among customers. Repeatable and available to every customer, every timeIt has to be a story worth telling.


For example Umpqua. In each Umpqua location—the talk trigger—is a silver telephone. However, it’s not just any telephone. This special hotline enables any customer to press a single button to be connected directly to the bank president. Not the branch president, but the head of the entire Umpqua operation.

Penn and Teller

The talk trigger for Penn & Teller? The performers meet their fans. At the conclusion of each performance, the magicians dash up the centre aisle of the theatre, and as the house lights come up and the crowd of twelve hundred spectators files out, Penn & Teller wait in the foyer, ready to great each and every one of them.

Dr Gorab

Every weekend Dr Gorab calls each patient that is coming to the office for the first time the following week. His typical greeting is as follows: “Hi, this is Dr Gorab, I know we have an upcoming appointment for you next week. I just wanted to call to introduce myself and ask if you have any questions prior to your appointment.” Dr Gorab says 80% of patients mention the calls once in the office for their appointments.

How to create the talk triggers

Here are the steps:

  • Begin by gathering the internal insights that will help you to understand the type of talk trigger that is right for your organization. Unlock everything already known about your customers—what they want and how they use the products and services offered by your business. It’s internal anthropology. Never forget that your employees are talking about your company no matter what. They are members of the community too. Whether you like it or not, they are acting as brand ambassadors when they leave at the end of the day.
  • Set up a team that includes one or more representatives from marketing, sales, and customer service. Great marketing is about capturing and cultivating momentum. Your sales and/or operations teams will be fearless advocates for solving customer problems. And your customer service team is your secret talk trigger weapon, as it’s the closest to day-to-day issues.
  • Determine your brand voice and personality.
  • Research
    Ask the marketing minds to bring some current research and thinking about word-of-mouth trends, either from within your own organisation’s research archive or from general industry publications.

    • How does your brand stack up against competitors, and what sets you apart?
    • What makes a customer choose you or, alternatively, choose a competitor?
    • What are the specific value propositions that your competitors are using to win over customers who are otherwise sitting on the fence?
    • Among current and renewing customers, or those loyal to your company, what are the most requested product features or additions that you haven’t yet introduced?
    • What are the customer anecdotes?
    • What do the call centre logs tell you?
    • How do our customers experience our product?
    • Why do our customers refer us today?
    • What do our customers say about our brand, unaided?
    • What do our customers say about our competitors or partners, unaided?
    • Where in the product experience is the right time for us to introduce a talk trigger?
  • Live the customer experience. Experience what your customers are experiencing. When was the last time you experienced your own product or that of your competitors? If yours is a product that can be purchased in a retail environment, you might find it fun to bring a child along for the experience. A young mind sees the world free from prejudice of price, promotion, or place.
  • Engage with your customers. Ask:
    • How did you hear about us?
    • How do we, as a brand, make you feel today?
    • When I buy or use this product/service, I’m…
    • What I don’t expect from this product is…
    • What I’m talking about in my life right now is…
    • What I want is…
    • What I really want is…
  • Test your talk triggers. Can you explain your talk trigger to a child? If you cannot, it’s going to be hard to effectively amplify for both your customers and your marketing efforts. Complete this sentence: We do [TALK TRIGGER] because [REASON].
  • Measure. You do need to allow talk triggers time to work. We’re so used to quick results, particularly in marketing, that it feels almost unnatural to intentionally slow down. When you compile conversations, look at the percentage of conversations that’s related to talk triggers versus other topics about your business or brand. For optimal performance, a talk trigger should be present in at least 25% of the conversations. In the short term, 10% of customer conversation is a good place to begin. If you cannot encourage 10% of your test audience to begin talking about your trigger voluntarily, it is clearly not the right mechanism to incite conversation.
  • Deploy. Because talk triggers are designed to be operational differentiators rather than marketing campaigns, how you think about expanding it to your entire company needs to reflect a different deployment model than marketing programs.

Your employees

The reality is that even if your customers LOVE your talk trigger, it will never work unless everyone in your organisation—large and small—is equally smitten. Employees love to share stories. A unique talk trigger can become a point of pride for every employee and give employees their own version of the story to share. Perhaps the delivery of the talk trigger is something unique and helps to provide an insider’s perspective on the culture of the company. It’s like jazz. The musicians have the freedom to do their own thing, but always within the framework of the overall initiative.

Organisational ownership

Clearly articulate to employees why you’ve selected this talk trigger and how they’re involved in the story. Don’t announce it only in an email. Make everyone feel like they are co-owners of this differentiator, because, after all, they are the ones who have to live up to it every day. You have to live your talk trigger in every sense. Beyond the actual provision of the trigger itself, you may need to think more broadly about how your talk trigger is supported across your business. Are the FAQs on your website reflective of the trigger? Do you need to update customer service scripts or internal processes to better ensure that they’re consistent?

Make it part of your marketing mix

Talk triggers work because they’re subtle and tangible. They’re not designed as quid pro quo referral. They are genuine experiences, not advertising. That is the precise reason that a word-of-mouth impression drives five times more sales than advertising. It’s not just an investment; it’s a communications strategy too. Put it in all of your advertisements. Post it on social media. Make sure that you let people know that’s something that you do. Make it part of your communication mix. Tell the story on all your media channels. Amplifying a talk trigger is a virtuous cycle that keeps itself going. It keeps the talk trigger in active conversation and keeps it relevant. And as they evolve over time, talk triggers become part of a company’s culture.

Other books

“Talk triggers” reminds me of “Social customer service” and “Chief Customer Officer 2.0“. After reading this book, I am on the look for my own talk triggers. I would welcome any suggestions.

sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

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