We all know the story – way back in the day, brands used to spend most of their marketing budgets on traditional advertising.  The lucky ones could afford to run radio and TV ads, or national print ads in glossy publications.  The ‘little guys’ chose local newspapers and magazines, and hoped that they were getting someone’s attention.  And they probably did – back then.  Of course, things have changed.  People who scoffed at interactive initiatives in the wake of the dot-com bust are now scrambling to create online ads to capture the attention of their target audience.  They are paying for clicks on Google ads, and they are happy to do so.  Does it work – sure it does.  We know it works because we can track behavior online.  Anyone who is not actively tracking their online initiatives is asleep at the wheel, but that’s another story.

So, what’s the difference between the old-school TV and print ads and the banner ads, or paid placement on sites like Google?  The most basic answer is the medium itself.  Is a banner ad so different than a print ad?  Not really.  Fundamentally, advertising is a brand’s way of ‘telling’ people about a product or service, regardless of the medium.  But every day that goes by, people are less and less receptive to being ‘told’ about your product or service by you.  Therefore, in order to break through, the next generation of successful brands will be those whose customers do most of the work for them – spreading the word to others.

I did a quick mental inventory of things I have purchased recently, and why I decided to make the purchase.  The overwhelming majority of things were based on referrals from people I know and trust.  I’m one of those people that trusts others – perhaps to my downfall at times, but nonetheless I have an inherit trust in people.  Then there are those key people in my life that I trust with my purchase decisions.  These people represent a small percentage of my ‘social network’, but they are the ones that say ‘you need to buy x’ and I do it – almost without question.  Music, tickets, gadgets – I’m obsessed with learning about things from my friends and spreading the word to others.  In fact, when I discover something I enjoy from a referral, it’s almost guaranteed that I’m going to spread the word – sometimes in a big way!  If something really clicks with me, I’ll tell everyone I know about it.

None of this is rocket science.  Most people at least understand the concept.  But what are they doing to enable people like me to sing from the mountain top?  Does their website have a platform to bellwether?  Better yet, do they have a network of tastemakers who get advance notice of new products, or even advance releases of new products?  How much would it cost them to put their products into the hands of the biggest advocates that spread the word to the masses?  Compared to a single TV ad or full page print ad, how would that look?

Next time you find yourself entering your credit card info online or carrying a shopping bag into your home, do a quick inventory of how product referrals factored into the equation.  Then think about how you can get your product or service to be talked about more – by the right people.  Think about how you can get your customers to ‘talk amongst themselves.’