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Talk Amongst Yourselves

  |  March 14, 2003   |  Comments

Customer opinion is the single greatest influence on other customers' purchases. Help customers make their feelings known.

Talking with non-industry friends at brunch the other day, the subject of the Internet arose. One of the guys is new to the Web. Another began waxing rhapsodic about the wonders of this new medium. It got me thinking... what is so great about the Internet, anyway? Has it changed people's lives in any qualitative way?

If I were the one waxing rhapsodic, here's what I'd praise: consumer empowerment. The Internet has become critical to any number of purchase decisions. Marketers know this. Web sites and email newsletters are now essential.

A recent DoubleClick study found Web sites and online marketing play an important role in helping people make purchase decisions, especially when they're learning more about products and deciding what to buy. This holds true for categories such as automotive, electronics, mortgage/insurance, prescription drugs, travel, and telecom. For the most part, these are high-consideration purchases, which usually means high prices (and high stakes for marketers).

More influential than online marketing, according to the study, was another key driver of purchase decisions. This element has "more impact than any paid marketing in building awareness of products" and "ranks for [the] further learning and purchase decision" stages. What's this mysterious influencer? Word of mouth.

Word of mouth is nothing new, of course. Marketers have been trying to tap into it since marketing began. As the Internet and people's methods of using it for communication have matured, opportunities for marketers have grown.

The first step in word-of-mouth marketing is to have a good, solid product or service. There's no way you can ensure talk about your company will all be positive. We've all heard the adage about how quickly (and widely) people spread the word about a bad experience. Once you have a good product and happy customers, you can employ word of mouth to get more. Here are some ways to do that.

Epinions.com and Other "Customer Comments"/ "Customer Reviews"

  • The forum: On independent sites or in a section on your own e-commerce site, customers with experience with a certain product share their knowledge with those considering a purchase.

  • How you can influence: If you're an e-tailer, include comment areas on your own site. Judgments of other customers can help allay fears of those considering a purchase or help direct people toward products that more appropriately meet their needs.

    Amazon.com now offers "Our Customers' Advice." It presents users' recommendations of alternatives to the product described on the page. For example: "1 person recommended SMC Networks SMC7004AWBR 3-Port 10/100 Mbps-Wireless Cable instead of Linksys BEFW11S4 Wireless 4-Port Cable/DSL Router." If your profit margin is the same, as a retailer you don't care which product customers buy, just so they buy something and are happy with it. Such a feature immensely improves your credibility, too.

    If you're a manufacturer, use your site to deep link to your product's page on Epinions.com. Encourage people to sound off about your products. Epinions, which this week announced its acquisition by DealTime, says about 30 percent of their traffic comes from this type of link.

    Check out the reviewers' profiles on Epinions. If you can identify someone likely to use your product or who's knowledgeable about your subject area, you could cultivate a relationship. The company says many of its movie reviewers regularly receive free passes from distributors eager to drum up positive word of mouth about new releases. (Note: Receipt of free passes is disclosed in reviews, which adds to the trust level these folks have developed with their readers.)

Product-Oriented E-Mail Discussion Lists

  • The forum: Your average email discussion list, with a twist -- it's focused around products and oriented toward helping people make a purchase decision. An excellent example is the Yahoo Groups list about Toyota's hybrid vehicle, the Prius.

  • How you can influence: A light touch is best. Blatant shilling is easily spotted in this kind of environment. Manufacturer's representatives can certainly play a role that boosts brand image by answering questions, providing insight, and the like. The opportunity to see your customers interact with one another and talk about your product is invaluable. On the Prius list archive, you can view poll results on such subjects as: "If you could order Prius accessories or merchandise easily online, what would you order? You can vote for more than one item." What marketer wouldn't like to know the answer to a question like that?


  • The forum: Individuals post their occasional musings on any subject of their choosing. Strong opinions are encouraged.

  • How you can influence: Blogs' highly personal nature means they're given a high degree of credibility by readers, at least, as much credibility as the person originating the blog. Again, a light touch is important. Find out who's blogging about subjects related to your product or service. Get to know them -- in a personal, not corporate, way.

    Whatever you do, don't make the mistake Dr Pepper made trying to flog a new milk-based beverage by tapping into the blogging network. The company reportedly flew six young bloggers to corporate headquarters to introduce them to the new product, then encouraged them to spout off. Instead, they succeeded in generating blogging behavior around the product -- mostly ridiculing the marketing scheme.

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Pamela Parker

Pamela Parker is a former managing editor of ClickZ News, Features, and Experts. She's been covering interactive advertising and marketing since the boom days of 1999, chronicling the dot-com crash and the subsequent rise of the medium. Before working at ClickZ, Parker was associate editor at @NY, a pioneering Web site and e-mail newsletter covering New York new media start-ups. Parker received a master's degree in journalism, with a concentration in new media, from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

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