Listening Technologies and Word of Mouth

Word of mouth has long been regarded as a marketer’s dream, even before the Internet. Getting your target audience to talk positively among themselves about your brand, and possibly even recommend it to their friends, is tremendously effective. There’s no secret as to why it works. People are inclined to trust their friends and community more readily than they trust biased commercial messages.

Digital channels create new versions of this strategy: social media, social networking, CGM (define), user-generated content, viral marketing, word of mouse, and the like. All tend to bleed together and overlap heavily. But whichever version you use, leveraging the online community’s power and the ease with which digital content can be shared can be incredibly powerful. They can amplify what word of mouth can accomplish in analog channels. Suddenly, people discussing your product have a public forum accessible to the entire online population.

This amplification is a double-edged sword, of course. Uncontrolled distribution is powerful and terrifyingly unpredictable. Word-of-mouth campaigns can take off like a rocket or slowly fester, worming their way through niche communities but never into the collective consciousness. They can be powerfully persuasive or result in astonishing backlash.

Online communities are fickle and may not always be receptive to your message, particularly if you don’t come from a place of authenticity. They can smell spam a mile away and defend their turf from unwanted messages and communications that seem unfairly biased toward a particular marketer’s products. If your tone’s off by the slightest degree, it can haunt you in horrific and near-unstoppable ways.

How do you approach this tricky tactic? First, listen. It can be tempting to rush into a campaign by developing something that seems like it ought to go viral and drop it on an unsuspecting world. This temptation is fueled by top-of-mind campaigns that seem to be so easily and cheaply produced. Their success couldn’t be attributed to anything other than dumb luck.

Digital media provide rich analytics, rapid feedback, and, often, the opportunity to optimize. Some digital marketers suggest these characteristics mean digital is easy and you can get away with a shotgun approach. Crank out a whole mess of cheap banners, buy up a bunch of random placements, and optimize your way to a successful campaign. Although it may be possible to achieve some level of success with this approach, I don’t recommend it. To take that approach with a word-of-mouth campaign is downright dangerous.

Instead, carefully research your audience and understand how they behave online. Get to know what they’re saying about your brand and how they discuss it. Be prepared. What you hear from the source may be very different from what you hear from other consumer research channels. Only after listening should you craft a strategic approach and message based on what you learned and determine how best to launch.

The online community (e.g., blogs, message boards, opinion sites, and other public forums) often appears chaotic and unstructured. Services like Umbria and Nielsen’s BuzzMetrics can help sort through the chaos. They can transform a tremendous volume of noise into digestible data leading to valuable consumer insights.

Knowing what your customers are thinking and saying about your brand in the real world, as opposed to an artificial environment like focus groups or research labs, is a tremendous opportunity.

Each company has a slightly different approach, but the basic idea of listening technology is to mine the blogosphere to capture what people are saying in an anonymous way (so privacy guidelines aren’t violated). Umbria’s technology sorts through it all using pattern recognition and other methodology to anonymously profile authors and create a rich data set that can be sorted and filtered to create audience-segmented data sets. It even uses proprietary technology to filter out splog posts that would otherwise skew results.

Once you’ve listened, there’s a litany of best practices to follow (it’d easily fill another column). So I’ll just reiterate that the marketplace is tricky. Intelligence gathered through a tool from an Umbria or a BuzzMetrics can help you down the path, but a strategy must consider tactics.

These services provide rich consumer insights that can reveal hidden opportunities and help answer business questions. Listen first, and use this technology to your advantage. Respect the consumer. Understand the larger community. Then you’re equipped to develop a word-of-mouth strategy.

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