Tips on Barter and Incentives

Can you use your friends to promote your product? Find out how you can make word-of-mouth campaigns and social media tactics work for your business.


Ever since we’ve been watching sitcoms like Friends and Desperate Housewives, we’ve come to understand that friends are always there for us, have been, and will be. A few have even come to believe this ever since their baby days, when friends would draw graph charts for each other or complete another friend’s homework assignment.

Is life all that rosy and happy, even in business and advertising? If you launch a new campaign and look at your friends just like Puss-in-Boots looks at Shrek, will they sell their soul to help you achieve good results? Heck, will they at least take the pains to even tell a few people about your product? Perhaps, you’d say they would.

But as a seasoned oak that’s been bracing the strong winds of branding for a good amount of time, I’ll reveal a shocker.

Fact: Friends never sell for their friends.

Could it be true? Yes. It most definitely is. Friendships look pretty in sitcoms, but in the world of advertising, they could give you more trouble than good. I met a fresh entrepreneur at a business networking event, and he had the three most important things in the checklist to be a good and successful entrepreneur. Passion. Determination. A great product.  But unfortunately, he had nothing else on his side.

After the initial introductions, he told me about his publication and how he was going about to make it work. He asked me if it was worth telling others about his publication. I was surprised. Here was an enthusiastic kid with a good idea that could take him places, and there he was, asking if he should let people know about it. Of course, he should! I told him he should let people know about the idea ASAP! And he should definitely spread the word.

About a month later, he called me and told me that he was a failure. Apparently, the very next day after our meeting, he mass-mailed all his friends in his 200-odd member mailing list and told them about his new publication. He asked all of them to forward the mail to all their friends, and pester those friends to mass mail it forward to their friends and so on. Basically, he wanted to grow like rice on a chessboard! He even added a P.S. note saying “Please, please, please, please, guys, please forward my mail so people will think my book is a good one. With you guys to help me, I can seriously make it big through word-of-mouth. Thanks a lot for all the help. I really can’t do this without your help. You guys are my best pals! And hey, don’t forget to delete this part of the message before fwding! :-)

You can probably figure what happened next. A few friends did forward his mail after deleting his P.S. note as real good friends do. Most of his good friends didn’t do anything more than glance over it once. Quite a few others smirked to themselves and forwarded the mail along with the P.S. note!

With all the drama though, he got no calls, and my guess is that his mail probably didn’t cross the first two chains to achieve a strong chain-mail status. What went wrong here? How could best friends not help? There’s always the jealously and the what-if-he-becomes-bigger-than-me syndrome. But most importantly, keeping the advertising perspective in mind, what would his friends get if they promoted his book? The simple answer is a big blip. Nothing.

The most basic concept in the world is that of Barter. We’ve been doing it for as long as we can remember. And another important concept that matters is Incentive. If a barter doesn’t work for someone, they look for an incentive. If that doesn’t come into the picture, people don’t promote. A simple, straight fact.

If you decide to retweet an article or tweet-follow Guy Kawasaki or follow Ashton, it’s probably because you think it makes you look better than the others around you. It either makes you more knowledgeable or better connected, and you want to let people know about it! You don’t do it keeping your friends’ sole interests in mind. You do it for You! So why should your friends be any different?

Fact: Friends never sell for their friends. Business associates do.

On the other hand, if you really want your word-of-mouth campaign to start off on a successful note, tell your business associates about it. There’s a big chance that it may show you better results if your idea is a good one. There’s always a good incentive in this picture. And as long as people can get something by associating with you, they’ll gladly pull your cart for you.

By talking about a good idea, your associates can pass the word around to people who may be interested in your product. This makes that particular associate seem well-connected and informed, which increases their brand value. They will talk about you as long as they think your idea is worthy enough to talk about. That’s Barter.

On the other hand, some associates may talk about your idea with their own business associates in the hope that they may be able to crack a deal in between and obtain a commission. That’s Incentive.

There could be several other reasons too. Perhaps, to impress someone, to gain brownie points for being well informed, to be in your good books, or plainly, to suck up to you! All this as long as you and your idea seem worthwhile. So word-of-mouth, my friend, can be just as fickle as fame. But what matters most is that IT WORKS!

Friends are personal contacts, and they’re great for a good time. Business associates are professional contacts, and great for your business. Never mix business and friendship. This is just one of those things all over again. So if you want to take your company to the next level, remember the fact about Barter and Incentive. As long as you have one of these, who needs friends?!