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Clarifying Word of Mouth

  |  December 12, 2006   |  Comments

What is word of mouth, exactly?

What exactly is word of mouth (WOM)? Is it the same thing we thought it was five years ago? A year ago? Is it even the right term to describe what's really happening today with consumer-to-consumer conversation?

I found myself repeatedly asking these questions after reading last week's "Advertising Age" op-ed, "Word-of-Mouth: The real action is offline." The piece was written by Ed Keller and Jon Berry, two individuals I deeply whom respect and whose book, "The Influentials," has inspired a great deal of my thinking about marketing's future.

The column cites, among other things, research suggesting 90 percent of WOM conversations occur face to face and only 7 percent online.

Intuitively this is hard to accept, unless you adopt a very narrow definition of WOM centered on face-to-face conversations. What about the effect of 90 million MySpace pages, 100 million blogs (China included), billions of YouTube views, and other sources of active and viral consumer conversation, all of which continue to grow at a staggering clip? Never mind some of the year's most celebrated (or damaging) viral campaigns: Coke, Mentos, Dove Evolution, Comcast, AOL, Nike Joga, Firefox, and Wii. Can we possibly squeeze all this high-impact buzz into a 7 percent figure?

Of course not. We're at a definition crossroads. The problem is compounded by a growing list of terms that are creating new meanings of WOM: consumer-generated media (CGM), user-generated content, social media, blog conversations, word of mouse, peer to peer, and even social networking. On top of this, we have new blended definitions, such as co-creation and, more odious, pay-to-say marketing, which involves overt monetary compensation for making recommendations.

It's confusing, and we risk sending the wrong messages and conclusions to our fellow marketers. Clarity always trumps confusion.

Foundational Roots

My passion for WOM took root while I was at Procter & Gamble in the '90s. That friends, relatives, and coworkers talk, promote, and share about brands was beyond question. I eagerly put that belief into practice with Hispanic marketing programs and targeted sample and trial programs against conversation-rich entry points. This is intimate WOM, and it's close to how Wikipedia describes WOM: "the passing of information by verbal means, especially recommendations, but also general information, in an informal, person-to-person manner."

Since my P&G tenure, many major WOM players have brought more science and precision behind such targeting, whether starting the process with so-called influencers, key cohort groups, or even self-selected hand-raisers willing to record and document their conversations on behalf of marketers.

From WOM to CGM

But as consumer attention has migrated online, powerful new dynamics have emerged that affect how conversations shape awareness, trial, and purchase behavior. Even while I was at P&G, this trend became obvious. In 1998, I helped monitor negative brand rumors, usually grounded in bad information, that found exponential traction, reach, and impact via online community and e-mail networks, often spilling over to the eager ears of offline influencers, such as traditional media.

The nature of the message, sourced primarily from believable opinion, spread among well-intentioned people who, for all intents and purposes, didn't really know one another. More important, the rumors often spread because they were easily discoverable via search engines. This disproportionately rewarded activist groups (an influencer category) that understood that offline word of mouth, while effective, is somewhat ephemeral and fleeting, whereas online conversation leaves a digital trail that keeps a message alive in perpetuity.

Early, active online conversations by PETA, for example, have resulted in a 50 percent share of shelf on Google's top search results for the past six years for "Iams." With millions of pet owners using search engines monthly, the messaging and its effect never stop.

More recently, search discovery has powered much of the blogosphere buzz. The most folks who have subscribed to my personal blog stumbled onto it via search.

Although I'm a co-founder of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), I tend to embrace the term "consumer-generated media" because it better describes WOM's foundational triggers. The impressions and content created by consumers --- on YouTube, blogs, message boards, and the like -- act like media. Brands are often implicated in that media, usually indirectly, and the ensuing impressions find reach with other consumers, many of whom are considering or researching products for the first time.

Moreover, these consumers often have little to no relationship or familiarity with the message sender. The 90 percent of car buyers who diligently research reviews or testimonials on auto enthusiast sites don't know the author of the original view or opinion.

Against this backdrop, the sheer explosion of CGM and content on the Web puts the offline action argument in a new light. Moreover, the offline versus online argument may, in fact, be a false dichotomy. Online feeds offline, and vice versa. We're often talking about the same people. Most of the conversation about YouTube probably takes place offline, but it finds root and exposure (like media) online. Camera phones capture disasters before the media reports on them, and that in turn shapes offline coverage. Faults in Kryptonite's U-shaped bike locks were publicized online but discussed off.

Indeed, WOM is often the result of CGM, but it's not the catalyst or starting point.

Buzzing Ahead

All marketers are served by clarifying our definitions. At the end of the day, we share a common interest in educating fellow marketers about the shape, size, velocity, and effect of today's empowered, vocal consumer, and we all lose if we trip over our definitions. This is just the right topic to pick up, as everyone assembles this week in Washington, DC, for WOMMA's annual conference.

What do you think?

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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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