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Does Word-of-Mouth Marketing Work for Authors?

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.


In 2022, billionaire Mark Cuban launched a pharmacy venture to distribute prescription drugs at lower prices. On Twitter in mid-June, Cuban stated in a tweet that this new venture would not “spend a nickel on marketing. We completely rely on word of mouth” (and that was said in all caps). Agreed, advertising for prescriptions is expensive and escalates the cost of healthcare. So this could be a positive venture that could benefit many people.

But I’m a bit put off by the brag of spending no money on marketing and relying totally on word of mouth. My concern is that small business entrepreneurs and authors will look at this super successful billionaire and think they can be just like him, spending no money or resources on marketing and relying totally on word of mouth. Well, he’s not totally wrong in thinking this way. But let me explain why this may not work for smaller operations.

Mark Cuban Is a PR Machine; You Are Not

I admire what Mark Cuban has accomplished. With his climb to joining the billionaire’s club and being a star investor on the reality TV show Shark Tank, he’s newsworthy with just about any move he makes. The media and PR ecosystem is primed to cover his ventures and adventures. He doesn’t need to spend a nickel on advertising because he’s already “getting ink” in the media, both online and offline. People are also eager to be a part of his PR machine. That’s called earned media, and it’s as good, even better, than any advertising.

The reason I’m concerned is that starry-eyed authors and small businesses will take brags like this as permission to do no marketing or promotion and let word of mouth handle sales. Sadly, there’s the issue of scale. You are not Mark Cuban. He has 8.7 million followers just on Twitter at present. Your following, even if you’ve done significant paid advertising to get it, is nowhere near what Cuban has. You also don’t have the cachet he does. If you’re genuinely active in building your base of fans and followers, you’ll get some word of mouth going. However, it’s just a tiny fraction of what a successful business mogul would have.

For the word-of-mouth marketing that you can achieve through social media, based on my experience and observations, I’ve estimated that you could forecast about 1 percent of your fan base will actually buy your book or product or take any suggested action. Do your math

“I Don’t Monetize My Friends”

I had the honor of assisting the late Liz Strauss with some of her SOBCon events. Liz was a force in the early days of social media and had a significant following on Twitter. She was connected to many New York Times best-selling authors and other influential business people.

After one of the events, Liz and I shared a cab ride back to the airport. I asked her why she didn’t try to make money from her large and influential following. Her curt answer, which was typical for Liz, was, “I don’t monetize my friends.” End of discussion.

It’s not that Liz didn’t do business with her “friends.” She did consulting with many of the people that, from my observation, I would consider her friends. Even I have done business with many of my friends online and off. But that’s not what she’s talking about here.

There’s a difference between doing business with friends and making money off of your friends. The problem with much of what we call “word of mouth” marketing today is that it’s mention this, get that. Use this promo code. “Thanks to such-and-such sponsor…” It reminds me of the scene in Mike Judge’s dystopian future comedy, Idiocracy, where one of the president’s cabinet members ends whatever he says with “brought to you by Carl’s Jr.” because he gets paid to do so. Can we all agree that that is not word-of-mouth marketing but just a different form of advertising?

Word-of-Mouth Marketing Definition

Maybe we need to define what word-of-mouth marketing really is.

Here are some examples. I was chatting with one of my neighbor friends. We both have dogs that are scared of fireworks. I shared what calming treats we use for our dog. In conversation with another friend who has the same knee problem my husband does, she recommended a cold wrap that she’s used.

No pressure. No commissions or affiliate links. Just sharing things we appreciate that could benefit another.

Is Word-of-Mouth Marketing the Same as Referral Marketing or Leads Groups?

For those of you who have been in the networking scene for a while, you’re probably aware of leads groups. In these groups, members share referrals for other members. To continue membership, each member is required to bring a certain number of referrals for group members. Using the earlier example for the dog treats, if there was a dog treat seller in the group, I would give a referral to that seller connecting them with my neighbor.

Though this sounds like word-of-mouth marketing, it is not. It is a personal selling model to ferret out leads for business. Sharing is engineered and not organic. As a side note, there are a ton of problems with this networking model that worked in the past but not now due to privacy concerns and the Amazonization of buying and selling. I share more about what these groups are and what they can and can’t do in my books, How to Network and Networking for Authors.

Because I am highly familiar with leads groups and was a past chapter president for one of them, I don’t recommend leads groups for authors unless they are highly connected in their communities and can deliver leads for fellow group members. On the flip side, fellow members will usually not be able to deliver book sales leads in sufficient quantity to justify the huge expense of membership fees, time, and effort that these groups require.

Is It the Same as PR?

Word-of-mouth marketing is not PR or public relations. It’s because it’s “public” and not one-to-one sharing. PR is used to create “buzz” in the media and for the masses. If people share a press release or other announcement, that can increase awareness. But that’s just news.

Is Word-of-Mouth Marketing the Same as Social Media?

Yes and no. If I share my review of a book with my friends on social media, it can create awareness for the author and the book, just like PR. But it’s my personal recommendation that makes it word-of-mouth marketing.

This is why I fear that the #booktok community phenomenon on TikTok will fail. TikTok influencers are already being approached by publishers and authors who offer freebies or cash for reviews. Once you inject incentives into the system, it becomes a game, and authenticity plummets.

Does It Work for Authors?

About the same day I posted about how authors unjustifiably cry about their low book sales, I ran across another author lamenting about how TikTok hasn’t worked for pre-sales of her book.

As I’m wont to do, I took a peek at her TikTok profile. She had maybe a total of a dozen TikTok videos in two months. That was the total posting activity, and apparently the lifetime, of her account. Many of those dozen posts were book cover reveals. On top of that, she had about 100 followers total. From my experience on TikTok since 2019, I’ve found that many followers are bots and spammers. If you do and have almost zero, you can expect zero.

Yes, word-of-mouth marketing can work for authors. It’s the basis for all your social media marketing efforts. The only problem is that it takes effort and a long time to build, and it can be unreliable. You don’t know when or where readers will share a review or recommendation for your book. That’s why you need to be consistent in your postings over the long term, as well as consider Amazon and social media advertising to supplement your word-of-mouth book marketing.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Heidi Thorne