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Is Word of Mouth a Long-Term Strategy?

  |  October 4, 2005   |  Comments

Does word-of-mouth marketing work only in the short term?

Is word-of-mouth marketing a short- or long-term strategy?

This is a critically important question for marketers. After all, everyone's jumping on the word-of-mouth bandwagon. The Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), for instance, just hit the 200-member mark -- and the promise of it all seems enormous, enticing, almost irresistible.

But which path should the bandwagon take? Are we following the Oregon trail or the Donner Party?

Add Water and Buzz?

If you take at face value what many agencies and buzz-marketing firms say, you'd conclude buzz is a quick-fix strategy that can be plucked off the shelf and put to immediate use. You might also conclude it's possible to jump rudely into someone else's conversation and reroute the dialogue in the direction of the marketing pitch. After all, results are what matter, right?

There's something to be said for immediate, quick-fire buzz-generation tactics borne of wickedly funny, creative, and memorable ideas, or even some doses of mystery or mystique. But that approach only works if it comes in doses, not "open the fire hydrant" torrents. If every Tom, Dick, and Harry start pulling these tricks out of their hats, things will get messy. Consumers will revolt.

We must be realistic and cautious about the reliability and sustainability of short-term buzz methods, especially against a backdrop of endless marketing buzz around accountability.

Word of Mouth Is a Long-Term Strategy

Word of mouth is and must be a long-term strategy. Positive, enthusiastic, and permanently archived, consumer-generated media (CGM) is the generous reward for doing this right.

"Creating WOM [word of mouth] should be a company's long-term strategy, not just a marketing tactic. Unfortunately, there has been so much hype about WOM being about buzz, viral emails, and publicity stunts that most people are not seeing the strategic value of WOM," said Jackie Huba of Creating Customer Evangelists

Huba cites such companies as Intuit, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and SAP as using word-of-mouth metrics as strategic drivers of their business.

"We need to help folks understand how WOM needs to be designed into all aspects of the business, from customer support/consumer affairs to product design to marketing," she added.

The Accountability Scorecard

The Internet plays a major role in reinforcing word of mouth's importance as a long-term strategy. Think of the Web as a consumer-controlled accountability scorecard. Each archived opinion, recommendation, rant, rave, and testimonial represent a de facto credit or debit for specific business processes or marketing practices.

Subject these vast reservoirs of content to in-depth, advanced data mining, and you'll find a high percentage of this brand residue traces to some obvious stimuli: product performance, product features, advertising, customer service, employees, and even site performance.

These are core building blocks for word-of-mouth behavior, and we're powerless to change them overnight. Great products require word-class product development and aggressive management of consumer pain points. Great customer service requires a highly sensitized, well-planned architecture around consumer feedback. Great sites take time to think through and build.

"Without hesitation, word of mouth is a long-term effort," Dave Evans, of Digital Voodoo, explained to me. "The issue is not so much getting people to talk, but in being responsive when they do. This necessarily pulls in consumer affairs, right along with product management and operations, since it's generally impossible to respond to a customer without some impact to one of these stakeholders." Evans brings unique authority to his commentary, having cut his teeth in advertising at Austin-based GSD&M, which through work with clients such as Southwest, has redefined the nature of "talk value."

The implication of what Evans suggests is huge. Few marketers treat consumer affairs as central to the marketing proposition. Is it any surprise that few if any representatives of consumer affairs were present at last week's WOMMA conference?

Backyard Case Study

Recently my firm's received a decent amount of buzz. But it hasn't come easily, and I never take it for granted. Early on, we struggled with customer satisfaction and renewal rates. It was pretty tough to convince clients to offer positive word-of-mouth testimonials, endorsements, or favorable media interviews.

At the end of the day, the only thing that mattered was building a foundation to get customer satisfaction and renewal rates well north of 80 percent. Our products needed to sing, and the quality of our technology, consulting, and recommendations had to be relevant and actionable. As we've marched toward those goals, our ability to reap the word-of-mouth dividends of referral value increased dramatically.

This made my CMO job much easier. Thanks to a heightened client propensity to recommend our services, I'm simply not spending as much on business-to-business (B2B) marketing activities, whether sponsoring, exhibiting at conferences, or buying targeted ads. We're getting a ton of free speaking opportunities, aided in part by the fact we can bring satisfied clients to the table to share their stories. Thanks to the proliferation of B2B bloggers, the good news is often amplified in ways I never would have imagined several years ago.

Final Thoughts

Developing a long-term word-of-mouth mindset isn't easy, but there's good reason to be optimistic. Though new-father responsibilities forced me to miss last week's WOMMA conference, I carefully monitored the buzz it generated. One of the most commonly played-back themes, drawing from Seth Godin's well-received keynote speech, is that meaningful word of mouth requires your brand, product, or service to be truly "remarkable."

That's the starting point of wisdom.

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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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