You don’t need to spend a lot of marketing dollars to create a sensation among consumers.

Heinz ketchup, Blendtec blenders and Makers Mark whiskey are all examples of brands that have used successful word-of-mouth marketing with minimal investment.

With email, blogs, YouTube and a plethora of other consumer-driven content exploding on the Internet, savvy restaurateurs can no longer afford to ignore the power of their customers’ opinions, says Andy Sernovitz, author of Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking.

“The days are gone where you can write a gazillion ads to convince people to buy your stuff, even if it isn’t very good,” says Sernovitz, who delivered a speech on the topic of viral marketing Saturday morning to a packed room of several hundred attendees at the NRA Show in Chicago.

“What’s the first thing people do before they buy?” he asks. “They Google.”
Some 60,000 regular folks penned Internet reviews on products or services this year alone, notes Sernovitz, all the more reason that restaurant owners should replace their traditional matchbook give-aways with in-store invitations for customers to post their own restaurant reviews on Yelp or some other popular restaurant review site.

“Your whole economic structure changes when your customers are coming in for free and telling their friends,” he says.

Sernovitz pointed to a host of successful word-of-mouth campaigns that required little investment and yielded explosive results.

Heinz, for example, invited customers to create their own ketchup commercials. The invitation to participate, which was displayed on ketchup bottles, generated some 4,700 grass-roots commercials and even spawned a new web site by one of the creators. The cost to Heinz was very little, Sernovitz notes–the $57,000 award to the winner and minimal marketing time and dollars.
Blendtec, which makes a commercial quality blender for home use, had little market recognition before it created humorous videos demonstrating the product’s blending power. The videos, which ran on YouTube, featured seemingly unblendable products – such as the Apple iPhone–being reduced to a find powder.

“Give them a reason to talk,” Sernovitz says.

Key to much of this new world of online marketing is making customers feel special, he says. Maker’s Mark whiskey, for instance, invites its customers to sign up to become product ambassadors, sending them emails from the CEO inviting them to special events, sending them signature whiskey glasses and even engraving their names on special casks.

“Create an army of fans,” Sernovitz says.

One of the easiest ways to get started in the world of word-of-mouth marketing is to assign someone on your staff to spend a few hours a day searching online for references to your company in blogs and other consumer driven sites.

Respond to reviews of your restaurant or product, and take extra care to seek out disgruntled customers.

“Say thank you and I’m sorry,” Sernovitz says. “Find the unhappy people and make them happy again.”

By Deb Cohen

Deb Cohen is QSR‘s monthly Finance columnist and is reporting straight from the floor of this year’s NRA Show in Chicago.

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