What’s Wrong with Word of Mouth Marketing

August 17, 2009

It’s common knowledge that word of mouth (WOM) by people you know is the most effective advertising. Research corroborates this:

Word of Mouth -- High Impact But Low Spending: Why ?
Word of Mouth — High Impact But Low Spending: Why ?

Yet, most Marketing organizations don’t behave as if it’s very important. According to PQ Media, 2008 WOM spending was $1.7B, +10% over the previous year. Estimated U.S. Marketing spending ranges from ~$500B all the way up to $1 trillion; WOM represents only 2-4% of total spend. So, why the impact vs. spending disparity ?  The answer, I think, is two-fold:

  • Word of mouth remains a black box for most Marketers — it’s really hard to figure out and even harder to do well.
  • It hasn’t been easily scalable–either within a persons social network or beyond.

Word of Mouth vs. Viral Marketing

Some people differentiate between WOM and viral. WOM is described as one to few, viral as one to many; as well, viral includes sharing and resharing–usually via the web. I think this distinction is largely false as WOM can become viral–e.g. the recent United Airlines guitar video (4.9M views).

Word Of Mouth Marketing
Word Of Mouth Marketing

WOM should build your brand. The mainstream media love to report on highly creative viral videos–e.g. the T-Mobile sing-a-long in Trafalgar Square, etc. These videos do generate incredible amounts of viewing, but are they really building the brand ? Do they engage consumers to better understand how and why the brand is better than alternatives ?

Word Of Mouth — More Scalable in Two Directions

WOM is changing as the web enables two simultaneous phenomenon:

  • Vertical Scalability — The web continues to enable new ways for consumers to share information  both within their social circle and beyond. Sharing opinions and ideas through blogs, Twitter, YouTube, Social Networking sites, etc. has vastly increased the scalability of WOM, as one person can now reach most people within their social network instantly and of course, people well beyond.
  • Horizontal Scalability — The rise of social networks and OpenID, Facebook Connect and similar services will enable personal network portability. This means that friends and families–and their opinions–will be able to flow with consumers as they traverse the web and interact with products and services. So, WOM from your social network will now become available in places it wasn’t before.

Basic Elements of Word of Mouth

Given the rising importance of WOM, how can you harness this powerful opportunity for your brand ?

1) Define Who’s Talking — Within your brand users, there’s almost always a group of 10-15% of users who are “amplifiers.” These consumers have unusually large social networks and form part of their self-identity from sharing new information with friends and family. Similarly, there are important non-users who need to be identified as well — bloggers, heavy Twitter users, etc. who can disproportionately impact your brand.

2) Define What They’re Talking About — Amplifiers don’t just randomly talk about your brand. In fact, they tend not to talk about your core mainstream messaging. Why ? Because everyone already knows about it; they get no psychic reward because there’s nothing new. They tend to talk about and share things that are important to them and also new and surprising about your brand–positively or negatively. Conduct research among amplifiers to understand the main themes they are talking about.

3) Determine Which Mediums They’re Using — Where are amplifiers talking about or sharing your brand ? Off-line in casual conversations ? On-line via Facebook ? Understanding which mediums amplifiers are using to talk about your brand gives you insight into how to facilitate or enable these conversations. Do research to find out.

4) Understand What Receivers Are Doing Next — Understanding receivers is just as important as understanding amplifiers. Without a receiver there’s no WOM. Most important is to understand what receivers do after hearing a theme. Do they visit the store ? Search on line ? Visit the web site ? Consult another friend ? Share via Twitter ?

5) Test and Qualify WOM Stimuli — If we know who is sharing, what they’re talking about, in which channels, and what receivers are doing after the conversation, then what ? Using WOM themes, develop a range of stimuli — e.g. customer experience “moments of truth,” white paper/special user content, tips/how-to’s, personalized web micro-sites, etc. to help drive accelerated word of mouth. Run a small test versus control. Did you get more people to talk or share your stimuli ? What did listeners do afterwards ? Did you build your brand equities ? Increase consideration and purchase of your brand ? Which stimuli worked best ?

WOM is hard work. Like most Marketing, it starts with really understanding your consumer. But the consumer understanding work is not well understood. And WOM is even harder to drive in a systematic and disciplined way. As WOM becomes more important, it becomes increasingly important for Marketing organizations to increase their WOM capabilities and most have a long way to go. What’s your Marketing organizations WOM IQ ?

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