Strategic Word of Mouth Marketing for ESL Businesses

Does it seem like a challenge to persuade potential students to try your ESL teaching service? 

Does it feel like a lot of effort to build a sales funnel that delivers a steady stream of clients?

Perhaps it does.

That’s why, for most ESL business owners, word of mouth marketing (WOMM) referrals are a windfall.

We all want those new student leads coming in with little or no effort, right?

But should we be relying on word of mouth marketing as the sole source of new clients?

Benefits of Word of Mouth Marketing (WOMM)

Let’s look at a few of the immediate attractions of WOMM for ESL small business owners.


Paying for ads can be expensive, and results are not guaranteed. Word of mouth referrals have the obvious advantage of requiring no advertising budget. If satisfied students are spreading the word about your teaching, you can keep that money which you would otherwise pay for Facebook Ads and Google Ads in your hip pocket.


If content creation and organic social media is your marketing plan, then having your students spread the word, saves you some work. When your satisfied clients make positive mentions of you to their followers, it opens up your message to a whole new audience.


Studies have shown that consumers are more likely to take action on a recommendation from a trusted friend, acquaintance or family member than from a marketing channel alone. According to the research firm Nielsen, 83% of respondents say they completely or somewhat trust the recommendations of friends or family.

In a different study by McKinsey, word of mouth recommendations were cited as the primary factor behind 20-50% of all purchase decisions.

Disadvantages of Passive WOMM

I occasionally hear established teachers say, “I don’t need a marketing strategy. My students come to me by word of mouth.”

But is passively waiting for word of mouth referrals a sound business strategy?

Let’s consider some drawbacks of relying too much on WOMM.

No control over message content

When you rely on students to spread the word about your value proposition, you are relying on them to communicate the message correctly. But what if they don’t understand or remember your unique selling points?

For example, if you want to emphasize how you can help business people prepare for presentations, how much does it help if your former students are telling friends about your accent reduction teaching methods?

It’s like the kids game of “Chinese Whispers” where the original message becomes mangled in the retelling.

According to the research firm Nielsen, 83% of respondents say they completely or somewhat trust the recommendations of friends or family.

No control over message recipient

Maybe you have decided to pivot away from kids lessons and into IELTS Exam preparation. In that case, it won’t help much if your former clients are only talking about you to their friends who have kindergarten age children.

Word of mouth marketing gives very little control over which audiences get to hear about our teaching offers.

Getting “unqualified leads” is sometimes worse than getting NO leads, because now you have to spend time and effort dealing with people who are not your target audience.

No control over message timing

When you have a busy teaching schedule, there will be times when you don’t need any new students, but there will be other times when you ARE actively looking for new students (e.g. after a course ends or if a regular student decides to quit working with you).

Active marketing methods like pay-per-click ads and organic marketing posts are channels where you have precise control over the message release schedule. You can run campaigns to find new students when the timing is optimal for you.

No control over customer expectations

Let’s say that you signed up a client on an “early bird” pricing offer. You were validating your niche and looking for early client feedback about your lesson offer. What if they tell their circle of friends about a pricing strategy that is no longer available?

In that scenario, your potential new students are coming to you with false expectations that you will need to recalibrate.

No way to measure message effectiveness

“What gets measured, gets managed” is the famous Peter Drucker quote. And what gets managed tends to improve over time.

The trouble with WOMM is that it is very hard to reliably measure and track.

Sure, we can look at metrics like the number of social media “shares” or email newsletter “forwards”. But are these really the best key performance indicators to focus on?

For example is a Facebook share by somebody with one hundred followers more valuable than a dinner table recommendation among close friends?

Traditional marketing channels like paid advertising and even organic social media messaging at least have the advantage of sophisticated analytics tools to measure their effectiveness.

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Have a Strategic WOMM Plan

So how can we maximize the potential advantages from WOMM? How can we take control of the way that students talk about our services and spread brand awareness?

Leverage user generated content

Encourage your students to share their success stories with you and include it in your content feeds (with their permission of course). Students are more likely to repost content which they had a hand in creating than content you created alone.

Podcasts, for example, can be a great way to get influencers and Facebook Group Admin “gatekeepers” to spread the word about you in those communities where your target student audiences congregate.

Encourage your former students to post “before and after” stories about how you have helped them improve their proficiency test scores or do better at work related tasks.

Testimonials and reviews

Positive written reviews by students are a huge asset to your business. Student video testimonials are even more powerful. You definitely want to include these on your landing pages, but you can also take the added step of sharing those testimonials directly across your social media channels.

Create shareable resources

Give your followers, fans and former students something to share within their circle of influence. It could be as simple as a worksheet, a PDF infographic, a “cheat sheet” or a short video which solves a common English learning “pain point”.

These all provide tangible examples of your skills and expertise which other people can then use to promote your business.

Create sharing incentives

Incentivize your connections to spread the word about you by offering discounts or prize rewards. For example if someone refers a friend who becomes your new student, give that first student a free “bonus” lesson. Be sure to include such arrangements in your terms of service, so it doesn’t backfire on you though.

The incentives don’t even need to accrue to the referrer. You could let your followers know that for every new student who comes to you via a friend referral you will make a charitable donation in their name.

Watch Wilco de Kreij talk about six “viral WOMM strategies” he has employed which could also work for any independent ESL teachers.

Show the love 💌 for your clients

Nothing builds a fanatical, evangelical fan base better than listening to your clients, responding to their comments and consistently doing your best to delight and exceed their expectations.

Nothing trashes that feeling faster than making your clients feel ignored, unappreciated or belittled. Respect your customers every time they offer you feedback. Even when you don’t agree with it.

Watch Professor Wolters talk about the Dos and Don’ts of successful word of mouth marketing.

Ask for referrals at the right time

Pick the optimum moment to ask your student if they have anyone whom they can put you in touch with as a referral. Just after the student has given you a great testimonial would be a terrific time. Have a strategy in place which makes asking for a referral a regular part of your sales funnel process, just like asking for that testimonial.

Watch marketing expert Antoine Dupont talk about how to create a set of business rules to create more consistency in your word of mouth strategy. Don’t rely on referrals to happen by accident.


Word of mouth marketing can be a great contributor to your business success. Having your followers, fans and former students refer new clients will save money, effort and time. Recommendations by acquaintances are effective persuaders in the client acquisition process.

There are strategies and processes which you can put in place that make word of mouth referrals an active part of your business plan, rather than just a lucky event.

However, keep in mind that word of mouth marketing ALONE might not always suit the immediate needs of your business. Client referrals often work best as the side dish to a well-thought-out marketing plan, not the main course itself.

Have you had any success with landing an amazing new student through a word of mouth referral? If so, please leave a comment below.

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