“Any recommendations?” Word of mouth is a key source of information

In social service speak we call them “trusted intermediaries” – those people and organizations who are good at getting the word out about programs and services. Most often, we think of relying on trusted intermediaries when trying to connect with hard-to-reach populations, especially those with language or cultural barriers. But as The Center for Community Solutions continues to work with organizations to assess needs and identify solutions, I began to notice a pattern. Time after time, when we asked people about where they get information about programs and services, word-of-mouth, or information from families and friends, kept coming up.

Over the past several years, we’ve collected more than 10,000 surveys from people who may interact with health and social services. Most of these surveys were part of consulting work that we have undertaken from specific groups for specific purposes, so the questions vary. (Learn more about how we can help you here)

[Word of mouth] was the highest rated category for every age group

The Age-Friendly Cleveland Assessment was the first time we noticed word-of-mouth. Older adults in Cleveland were asked, “What do you use to identify and access community services?” They were presented with a list of options, and could choose multiple sources. Most respondents (58 percent) said that they use word-of-mouth, which was the second most common response after telephone. Word-of-mouth was also a top source of information for older adults in two other locations we surveyed for additional needs assessment projects. In Columbus, 63 percent of older adults rely on it and in Summit County, 70 percent consider it a top source of information. Across the board, word-of-mouth was a more popular way to get information than the senior center or any other community agency.

And it’s not just older adults who rely on recommendations or information from people they know. When asked, “What is the best way for you to get information about HIV/AIDS services?” people of all ages who are living with HIV or AIDS, from several Northeast Ohio counties, listed word-of-mouth their third source of getting information, after a health care provider and information available at agencies. Since these people were currently receiving care for their disease, we would hope that they got information from the groups that were providing services! For a separate project we asked students on college campuses who had heard of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center (CRCC) where they got that information. College students were only slightly less likely to say they heard of CRCC from a friend or family member than through an educational program – the two most common answers.

Most respondents said that they use word-of-mouth, which was the second most common response after telephone

International data backs up our findings. McKinsey & Company stated that “word of mouth is the primary factor behind 20 to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions.”[1] And the latest version of the Neilson Global Trust in Advertising Report, conducted in 2015, found that “recommendations from people I know” are the most credible advertising, with more than 8 out of 10 respondents saying they completely or somewhat trust the recommendations of friends and family.[2] It was the highest rated category for every age group, but I was surprised that younger consumers have greater trust in personal recommendations than older consumers. Milllennials, who were ages 21 to 34 at the time of the survey, had the greatest trust (85 percent) and the Silent Generation (ages 65+ at the time of the survey) had the lowest (79 percent).


So what does this mean for health and social service providers? Using trusted intermediaries and people with large personal networks can help agencies connect to more than just hard-to-reach groups. And while it’s important to communicate through a variety of channels, personal interactions are still a top way that people get information about services that they may need.

[1] https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/marketing-and-sales/our-insights/a-new-way-to-measure-word-of-mouth-marketing

[2] http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/press-room/2015/recommendations-from-friends-remain-most-credible-form-of-advertising.html