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Passionate Faces in the Conversational Crowd

  |  September 18, 2007   |  Comments

Mapping the word-of-mouth landscape.

Board meetings and advisory groups are usually pretty boring.

But not last Wednesday! No way, José!

After an all-day quarterly meeting of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), I felt strangely rejuvenated, refreshed, and reinvigorated. It was like the net effect of drinking a Red Bull and a two-pounds-of-veggies-in-one-gulp wheatgrass shot. I didn't exactly have wings, but I felt elevated.

I'm a sucker for conversation, and we had a darn good, if not downright spirited, one. In addition to doing to usual board stuff -- defining objectives, setting goals, planning our big November conference, giving direction to the staff -- we tackled meaty topics like change, adapting to exciting forms of consumer behavior and expression (of which the list never seems to end), and adjusting to new membership verticals and stakeholders who've discovered word of mouth's (WOM's) potential.

We also reasserted our resolve to advancing a future of credible WOM marketing, a point that catalyzed the now-350 member group into action over three years ago. As a cofounder of the group, I found this particularly meaningful.

Even since my Procter & Gamble days, I've felt if we force or overexert ourselves into the consumer-to-consumer conversation, we spoil or destroy the conversation. Everyone loses if we have another tragedy of the commons.

Repitching the WOM and Conversational Tent

At one point in the meeting, we read aloud and debated Wikipedia's ever-evolving definition of "word of mouth." While traditional notions of WOM center on offline person-to-person recommendations, Wikipedia now includes "text messages sent via SMS and web dialogue, such as online profile pages, blog posts, message board threads, instant messages and emails." We reflected on all the terms used to describe key dimensions -- "social media," "conversational media," "people-generated media," and "user-generated content."

This incredibly potent consumer-powered space continues to unfold and expand, which in turn raises fresh, practical, and executional questions about if, how, and when to enter the conversation. Most marketers, we concluded, are eager to enter the conversation but have little idea on where to start.

The People and the Passion

That was just half the excitement. Part of what's so fascinating about the WOM industry, and particularly this board, is it brings together an unusual mix of stakeholders -- PR agencies, measurement firms, traditional agencies, traditional marketers, and more, all committed to shaping something fundamentally new in marketing. This rich tapestry of experience is both fascinating and humbling, and in some respects the group represents a microcosm of marketing's future.

Ed Keller, WOMMA's board president, wrote a book called "The Influentials," which basically argues that "one American in ten tells the other nine how to vote, where to eat, and what to buy." He started at Roper, which then became the GFK Group. He eventually hung up his own shingle, the Keller Fay Group.

Vice president Paul Rand is recently of Ketchum, where he helped establish a WOM beachhead. He ultimately convinced Omnicom to fund an entirely new WOM spinoff called the ZÓcalo Group. Now the agency holding companies see WOM as so strategic to marketing communications' future that they're carving out unique opportunities.

Board member Laura Schuler hails from Jack Morton, an "experiential marketing agency." Her presence underscores the symbiotic relationship between great brand experiences and conversation. Gotta admit, the connection was clear after walking around her NY office.

Board member and fellow blogger John Bell leads 360° Digital Influence, part of the Ogilvy network. In his participation, I see communication redefined into a hybrid of PR, digital strategy, and traditional marketing, all centered around the consumer. If you read his blog, you'll see what I mean. Rick Murray, head of Edelman's me2Revolution practice, to whom über bloggers like Steve Rubel report, is similarly shaping a new vision and practice from a PR foundation.

Jamie Tedford also comes from a traditional agency background, Arnold Worldwide, but he too recently started creating his own technology-enabled WOM services. His neighbor, Dave Balter, CEO of BzzAgent, not only cofounded WOMMA but also created a de facto media channel for driving WOM. Balter's vision keeps it simple. Everyone, not just influentials, create buzz. Virginia Miracle, Dell's first WOM manager, now works for Brains on Fire, helping shape WOM programs for clients.

Sam Decker, formerly of Dell Computer as well, now works for Austin-based Bazaarvoice, helping the company leverage the power of WOM and consumer-generated media in its own ratings and reviews.

Idil Çakim of GolinHarris had her foot in this space long before many of us, initially starting at Burston-Marsteller, helping it establish its e-fluentials initiative. She brings critical measurement acumen to the business, which always enriches the discussion. Julie Wittes Schlack of fast-growing Communispace is tackling the topic from the power and potential of brand-sponsored online communities. And Scott Wilder of Intuit, also brings unique perspective to the table as the general managers of one of the Web's most powerful brand-sponsored online communities. Since its inception, Intuit has been all over WOM, a point underscored by founder Scott Cook at last week's Conversational Media summit.

Cymfony's Jim Nail landed on the board sharing the common concern of getting measurements right and ensuring the space remains credible. Nail and I co-chair the WOMMA ethics committee and share a passion to protect the space's integrity. The third ethics co-chair, Gary Spangler of Dupont, brings the rich diversity of a B2B-centered business to the table.

The Common Bond

It's hard to overstate the power of getting smart, passionate people with diverse experiences into a room to talk about marketing's future. Great things happen. Energy you never expected erupts. Every brand, every organization, every agency should find its "inner WOMMA board," lock themselves in a room for the day, and, with the consumer as a compass, chart out the new space.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pete Blackshaw

Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."

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