Word-of-mouth marketing is often considered one of the oldest and most powerful forms of advertising. In fact, most businesspeople understand that it works--they just don't know how it works.

Some people think word-of-mouth is something that just "happens"--like the weather--and they let it take its own course. But if you want to be successful at developing word-of-mouth for your business, you should be as organized and thoughtful about it as you are about other types of advertising and marketing. In fact, if you take this approach, eventually, you can get almost 100 percent of your business exclusively through word-of-mouth! The key to creating a successful word-of-mouth program lies in developing a formal plan for systematically meeting people and cultivating relationships with them. Here are 11 ways for you, or the salespeople who work for you, to get your own word-of-mouth marketing program off the ground.

1. Don't be a cave dweller. Get out and meet people. Start by setting a goal for the number of appointments you'll establish with people you wish to develop networking relationships with every week.

2. Know how to ask for the referral. There are specific techniques you can learn and develop that will help you hone your ability to ask for the referrals you want. One such technique is to ask "Who do you know who...?" You would then list several types of people you can help, such as someone who is new to the area, someone recently married or someone who has just started a business.

3. Consciously select at least three different business or networking groups to join in the next three months. These groups might include chambers of commerce, community service groups and trade associations. When joining various organizations, make sure you select a well-rounded mix of business groups in which to participate. Try to avoid being in more than one group per category (i.e., two chambers of commerce), as this will divide your loyalties and put you in a position where you'll be making promises to too many people.

4. Develop a creative incentive to encourage people to send referrals your way. A music store owner, for instance, sends music tickets to people who refer business to him. Another example is the chiropractor who posts thank-yous on a bulletin board in his waiting area to all his patients who referred patients to him the previous month.

5. When attending meetings and other networking events, bring the right networking tools with you. These include: an informative name badge, business cards and a business card carrying case to hold others' cards.

6. Spend time developing your networking skills. Read books and articles on networking, listen to tapes, and talk to people who network well. Networking is an acquired skill.

7. When attending a business mixer, act like a host, not a guest. You are wasting your time at mixers if you stand around visiting with coworkers or others you already know rather than meeting new contacts and introducing them around. These events offer a great way to increase your visibility! If appropriate, ask to be the ambassador or visitor host in the organizations to which you belong. As such, it will be your official duty to meet people and introduce them to others.

8. Invest time in developing a 60-second message about your business that explains what you do. Try to think of a "memory hook"--a brief, ear-catching phrase that so vividly describes what you do that people will be able to visualize it with their eyes. For example, a travel agent uses this to describe his services to a large audience: "Ninety percent of all accidents happen in the home...so travel!" When you introduce yourself to groups of people, use your memory hook. Chances are, this will help them remember you and what you do.

9. When you meet someone and exchange cards, take a few moments to flip the card over and jot down some information about them or their business that will help you remember them and refer business their way. If a new contact sees you actively doing something that will benefit them, they are more likely to take your need for referrals seriously. Let them know as you are writing your notes that you will keep them in mind if you find someone who needs their product or services. This is a very simple, yet powerful, way to make a great first impression that can be developed into a mutually beneficial networking partnership.

10. Talk less and listen more. Remember that a good networker has two ears and one mouth and uses them accordingly.

11. Connect with people outside of business meetings whenever possible. Drop notes, letters and articles that might be of interest to them in the mail. Call to check in with them or invite them to events you may be attending that might be of interest.

You are potentially linked to a vast network beyond your own sphere. By implementing the tactics above, you will receive benefits from that network. Maximize your opportunities to cultivate networking relationships with others, and you will see just how effective word-of-mouth marketing can be!