Brand Gossip: What Customers Say When You Leave the Room

“Idle gossip” is an oxymoron. Gossip actually plays an incredibly important role in society and is a primary means for people to trade valuable information. For example, did you hear what Brad did to Jennifer, right before he and Angelina….

Seriously, though. According to a recent “New York Times” article, some researchers have worked out a series of theories about gossip: why it happens, how it spreads, and what value it brings. Among their findings is that gossip is a critical way for societies to establish and maintain order. It provides newcomers with a fast, easy way to learn what to do and not to do. Telling stories about people within a group immediately communicates what behavior is accepted or rejected, who has respect and who lacks it. Gossip is the primary way people make a quick judgment about how to behave toward a certain person.

Gossiping About Brands

I spoke recently with an agency head about the shop’s search work. The agency was doing quite well with a series of keywords. Suddenly, conversions dropped through the floor. Clicks remained high, but no one was buying. One of the first thoughts was “Aha! Click fraud.” It wasn’t the case. After deeper review, the agency realized its landing page linked to consumer reviews of the product and someone had posted a negative review. Negative gossip. That’s all consumers need to determine whether to buy or not.

Worse, the bad-review cat was out of the bag. The gossip had transferred from the original writer to each consumer who landed on the page that day. Even if the story were pulled, the idea was out there, and it was destined to be spread. That’s part of what makes gossip so powerful: it spreads far more quickly than a simple broadcast model. Everyone’s familiar with the “she told two friends” model of message spread.

But gossip is even more complicated than that. When two people gossip, it’s rarely just a one-way information dump. Frequently, one person sharing some gossip prompts the other person to provide his own piece. In this case, every time a conversation turns to bad customer service, regardless of brand or service, there’s the strong possibility someone will say, “That’s nothing. I heard Gary’s House of Goods left someone on hold for nine months!”

Consumers See Gossip and Spread It

Gossip is a fact. Companies must deal with it. Online, though, the issue is close to the surface because of search. Brand-related searches are growing wildly. Consider Starbucks. For a while time now, if you search Google for “starbucks,” the number two result is an anti-Starbucks site. It advertises itself in the search listing as a “site with a guestbook for visitors to voice their opinions.” In August 2005, 3 percent of “Starbucks” searches went to the anti-corporate site, according to Hitwise. That’s a decent-sized number. Consider if 3 percent of searches on your brand converted. Good conversion rate, yes?

What can Starbucks do? I haven’t talked to the brand (though I’d welcome the chance to), but I notice something else now when I do the search. The fifth result is a site called “Starbuck’s Gossip,” a blog that gossips about Starbucks. One post about someone writing an authorized book about Starbucks. The post solicits stories about things the brand’s done well and requests positive experiences people have had. I’ve got one, and I’m sure several others do as well. According to Hitwise, the site got about 1.5 out of 100 clicks from a “Starbucks” search during the same period.

The Exchange Is Important

By eliciting and sharing these opinions, Starbucks (strategically or not, no way to tell) is ensuring there are also positive stories when that gossip exchange happens. Gossip is unique in word of mouth because it’s an exchange of information, not just a passing of it. Starbucks is putting latent word of mouth into place. Then, when the discussion turns to Starbucks or to good experiences in general, the information seed — that the brand helped or provided some value — is there in the consumer’s mind. The exchange can either counter the bad or even start the spread of good.

This week, I’ll be at the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s event in New York. If you’re there, please come up and share your ideas about this with me. Plus, I’ll tell you about this one time when Bruce and Demi were fighting….

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