It’s nil by mouth for marketers as consumers hold the power

Word of mouth has become very trendy, but before jumping aboard, marketers should realise it is driven by consumers’ needs, not by PR

This week sees the launch of WOMUK, the UK’s word-of-mouth marketing industry association. This is a welcome development. Word-of-mouth marketing, in its many forms – viral marketing campaigns, blogs, the encouragement and dissemination of consumer-generated brand-related content, the generation of “buzz” through paid agents – has been growing exponentially over the past few years and (thanks to the new technologies that make it possible) it’s here to stay.

The economic case for it is compelling. Why pay media owners a fortune to spread your message when you can get individuals to do it free? What’s more, consumers are far more likely to trust stuff coming from friends and family than from ads, so, as well as being cheaper, it’s likely to be far more effective too.

Now, with industry bodies such as WOMUK being formed, any potential abuses of these new approaches can hopefully be nipped in the bud. A code of ethics based on honesty of relationship (say who you’re speaking for), honesty of opinion (say what you believe) and honesty of identity (never obscure who you are) should avoid scandals such as professional PR people pretending to be consumer-advocate bloggers.

But most marketers still have to work out how to incorporate word of mouth into their marketing strategies. Here is one suggestion – don’t go overboard quite yet. Word-of-mouth marketing’s current and future influence is often greatly exaggerated. The biggest pitfall is to conflate the marketing effects of word of mouth – the conversations that happen naturally between individuals – with the effects of word-of-mouth marketing as a discipline.

Along with personal experience, the marketing effects of natural conversations between individuals are huge. But they always have been. The only difference today is that these effects are slightly more visible and slightly more measurable (if they are online), and slightly more open to influence. But the key word in each case is “slightly”.

One common error is to misunderstand the real nature of word of mouth. Bamboozled by dodgy theories of “consumer advocacy”, it is sometimes claimed that marketers can get large numbers of consumers acting as their enthusiastic (and unpaid) marketing agents. In reality, most word of mouth operates according to a completely different dynamic. A friend asks a question, and the consumer replies according to his or her own experience. Word of mouth is not driven by advocates’ enthusiasm, it’s driven from the other side – by people in search of value and the questions they ask.

Converting the masses?
A related error is the usually vain hope that if we can climb the mythical advocacy ladder, then we can get consumers so delighted by our product or service that they turn into constantly-active proselytisers. In fact, research by Robert East shows that the small amount of proselytising that does take place happens very close in time to the purchase of a new product, when the new product is very much top of mind. The longer the customer remains a customer, the less likely he or she is to advocate the brand in an unprompted way, simply because the “relationship” has become a part of day-to-day normality and is no longer top of mind.

This means there is a huge difference between unprompted and genuine advocacy by consumers and artificially-created, word-of-mouth marketing campaigns, which have their own characteristics and dynamics.

, we need to chart our way very carefully. It’s often said, for example, that in the new environment of technology-enabled, peer-to-peer communication, brands have lost control of their marketing messages, and that, therefore, word-of-mouth marketing is the way forward. Brands no longer have a monopoly control over the information that’s put out there, but much of the information consumers are now turning to – such as price comparison and product review services – are not driven by word of mouth. They are a new type of professional information service, of which consumer word of mouth is just one small part.

Word of mouth enthusiasts also make much of the way messages can spread virally like wild fire. There are plenty of examples to prove this, but the proportion of messages that do is vanishingly small. Like all viruses, word of mouth is only truly virulent at the extremes. If a company does something gob-smackingly bad or awe-inspiringly good, the online world can spread the news across the globe in a matter of hours. This is something new and important, and marketers should always bear it in mind. But, in reality, most news doesn’t fall into this category – it spreads much more slowly to far fewer people. In fact, most online “chat” takes place between small groups of people and most of the content of this chat never even leaks beyond this circle. Sure, it is word of mouth and it can be tracked by sophisticated technologies, but its real market influence is tiny.

Finally, there’s the myth that word of mouth is “a more trusted medium”. This is rubbish. There is no such thing as a trusted medium, only trusted people. Conversations between friends and family are trusted because each person knows that the person they are talking to has their best interests at heart. As soon as you try to insert commercial influencing into this process, you crowd out this trust because other considerations take its place.

Overcoming barriers
Marketers have to work very hard to overcome these natural barriers if they want to turn word of mouth into a marketing tool. One weapon is humour. People like telling jokes, so if something is incredibly funny it will spread. That’s great, but it’s not new and, as every comedian knows, it’s incredibly difficult being funny as a strategy.

Another weapon is creating special offers that consumers can’t refuse. News about them also spreads like wild fire, but here, “word of mouth” is just a fancy word for sales promotions. And it’s prey to all the same debates about easily measurable, short-term effects and hard-to-value (and often commercially damaging) long-term brand effects.

None of this is to say that marketers shouldn’t experiment with word-of-mouth marketing: only to suggest a word of caution. Ironically, the long-term effect of today’s word-of-mouth bandwagon will probably be to reinforce age-old basics. Consumers naturally talk about brands worth talking about: brands which follow their value agenda by delivering outstanding service, brilliant innovations, excellent quality and fantastic prices. Yes, the new online environment does amplify the power of word of mouth, but it doesn’t change what people talk about. 

Alan Mitchell,

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