Market shift opens door to word-of-mouth

David%20PattonGrey London’s decision to put word-of-mouth (WoM) marketing at the heart of its offering in a tie-up with Wildfire is a response to a seismic shift in the market, according to Grey’s recently appointed group chief executive David Patton. But others wonder whether WoM is just another bandwagon.

Patton is adamant it is not. “Consumers’ relationships with brands are hugely different to what they were even a year ago,” he says. “The traditional rules no longer apply in this very complicated environment. There has been massive growth in user-driven content, and word-of-mouth is an increasingly influential medium.” 

The interest in WoM has been largely driven by the explosion of social media and online networking. However, Wildfire managing partner Ivan Palmer says 90% of WoM is actually offline. He agrees, though, that events online have driven interest among advertisers and says more are embracing WoM.

“WoM works brilliantly for packaged goods brands and we’ve worked on brands that have seen a 400% uplift in sales,” says Palmer. “In the UK last year, there was no commitment to WoM, yet this year we’re seeing 5-10% of marketing budget being committed to WoM.” 

Antony Mayfield, head of the content and media division at digital agency Spannerworks, works with many brands on their WoM online. He says WoM is a buzzword and that too many agencies are jumping on a bandwagon they do not fully understand. “Things like Second Life and MySpace are the buzz of the week, tacked onto campaigns that are just business as usual,” adds Mayfield.

Mass media
“There are great opportunities with word-of-mouth but for traditional agencies the big issue is strategic. Their entire business model is built around channel marketing and based on models of mass media. There are entirely different rules now and they need to think about their role in online and offline communities. Any marketing needs to be useful for users, and if in doubt use pull rather than push techniques.” 

Mayfield believes that transparency is another potential pitfall for traditional shops: “Hiring actors to talk about a product on the bus, for instance, much like a fake blog, is unethical. Brands and their agencies must be transparent, otherwise consumers will trust them even less.” 

Palmer is at pains to point out: “Everything Wildfire and Grey do in WoM is transparent and honest. WoM fails when it is engineered.” 

Hijack warning
Julian Pullan, managing director at experiential agency Jack Morton, agrees. “You must be honest,” he says. “It is wrong to attempt to hijack social media or offline communities and it will ultimately backfire. You need to generate a genuine advocacy among the biggest influencers; people who are trusted. The best way to do this is to identify who those influencers are and allow them to experience the brand or product.” 

Patton argues the fact that Wildfire’s staff will sit within the main Grey office demonstrates the agency’s commitment to the medium. He says: “This runs through everything we do and will form part of every campaign we do. There is much more to come from the Grey group in this area.” 

Palmer adds: “We’ve developed methodologies that can measure effects on brand awareness and sales. It is very measurable and we can demonstrate return on investment.” 

His one fear is that WoM will “go the same way as e-mail”, which suffered the negative effects of spamming. He concludes: “Best practice is essential in the arena.” 

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