Building buzz for your business

Ranked the No. 1 place to start a business (NerdWallet, 2013), Atlanta is a hub for creative and driven entrepreneurs. While just launching a business is a feat in its own right, growing it into a thriving operation requires a base of loyal customers. The most effective way to to win over these customers is through local word of mouth. And if you want that buzz, you have to make your company talkable – and that means having a story that is relevant, interesting, and authentic.

Let me illustrate with a story. There is a parking problem in downtown Decatur. The area is populated by dozens of little stores and restaurants, which makes it perfect for an afternoon of shopping and snacking. But it gets crowded, particularly during the holidays, so some people stay away for fear of getting a parking ticket.

A few years ago, the Decatur Downtown Development Authority came up with a great solution.

The association decided to buy all the time on all the meters in the neighborhood in the days leading up to Christmas. Then when someone didn’t pay for his meter, the police would place a flyer on his windshield that looked like a ticket:

“Happy Holidays. Thank you for supporting Decatur merchants. 30 minutes of free parking has been added to your meter as our gift to you.”

This took some doing. The association had to convince the mayor and the chief of police to go along with it. And it cost a little bit of money. But that effort turned something rude into a fun, talkable event. The shoppers got a smile out of it, and the local media jumped all over it. That’s proof of talkability right there. Now the association does it every year.

You can turn any marketing tactic into something talkable. You just have to be a little creative. To put this to work in your own small business, look for a story about your company that embodies three qualities: relevant, interesting and authentic.

A relevant story is one that is connected to the lives of your audience – to the people most likely to do the talking. If you’re building race cars, you won’t get far talking about trunk size. But if you’re building family sedans, trunk size is relevant to your potential customers.

An interesting story is one that makes people stop and say “hmm.” There are two ways to create the “hmm” factor. The first is cognitive dissonance – something that challenges your assumptions or presents information in a way that doesn’t immediately make sense. The second is news – information that is new or noteworthy, particularly about recent or important events.

An authentic story is about more than just telling the truth – it has to match what consumers think they already know about your brand. And when you tell your authentic story, you need to sound like a person. Consumers can smell PR talk, and they’re not interested in it.

The Decatur Downtown Development Authority’s campaign worked because it had these three qualities. It addressed a problem that frustrated holiday shoppers, which made it immediately relevant to their lives. It did something that not only grabbed people’s attention – paying for their parking meter – but did it in a counterintuitive way, by surprising them with something that looked like a parking ticket, but was actually a gift. That made it interesting. And most importantly, it was human. They weren’t handing out coupons or sale flyers or any of the other marketing gimmicks consumers have become so used to tuning out. It was authentic.

Once you have your brand’s relevant, interesting and authentic story, you will be well on your way to generating the kind of local word of mouth that will bring customers into your circle and grow your small business.

Ted Wright is CEO of Fizz, a word-of-mouth marketing firm in Atlanta. His book, “Fizz: Harness the Power of Word-of-Mouth Marketing to Drive Brand Growth,” was published in November.

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