Ruling the Roost: Word of Mouth, Part 1

Word of mouth has always had strutted around the modern marketing yard, but now it rules the roost.

When “Gigli” was released in the fall of 2003, Americans’ fascination with Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez was at its peak. Everyone was talking about the duo, their mugs and hugs were on every magazine cover. The movie studio was banking on that hype to buy the box office.

Then, the movie hit the theaters.

Within minutes after the first showing, word of mouth began spreading via cell phones, IM, and online reviews. Coast to coast the word got out: “Don’t go see ‘Gigli.’ This movie isn’t worth the hype it rode in on.”

“Gigli” flopped. In fact, the film had the largest week-to-week drop in the history of the box office, thanks to word of mouth.

Word of mouth had finally taken over the marketing-effectiveness roost.

Many have tried to ignore it to their peril. Many have tried to control it and been bitten.

Word of mouth is a powerful animal that doesn’t submit to your business concerns. It’s a communal watchdog that looks out only for your patrons.

Why Word of Mouth Is King

Roy H. Williams sees the emerging generation as more community minded. In his influential piece, “Marketing in 2005 and Beyond,” he writes:

Baby Boomers believed in big dreams, reaching for the stars, personal freedom, “be all that you can be.” Today’s generation believes in small actions, getting your head out of the clouds, social obligation, “do your part….”

Baby Boomers were diplomatic and sought the approval of others. The emerging generation feels it’s more honest to be blunt, and they really don’t care if you approve or not.

No wonder word of mouth has become so powerful; the consumer landscape is daunting. Consumers are bombarded with too many choices. Marketing exposure is out of control. Everywhere you look, online and off-, there’s an ad. The average consumer is forced to endure thousands of ad impressions a day.

We shouldn’t be surprised to see the emerging generation do their part by reviewing products in forums and blogs and by any other means technology allows. “The Internet is becoming mainstream and customers have easier access to each other than ever before, so people look to each other when making buying decisions,” said word-of-mouth guru and Bazaarvoice‘s VP of marketing, Sam Decker. “There is more of a community mindedness today than 10 years ago.”

Decker cited an Edelman study that states consumers’ trust in “a person like me” zoomed from 20 percent in 2003 to 68 percent today. “Customers just don’t believe companies anymore. But the good news is that 62 percent of word of mouth is positive,” he said. “People are looking to each other to justify and validate their product experiences. So the best way a company can traverse the word-of-mouth marketing universe is to be more transparent.”

You Can’t Put Lipstick on a Pig

Now more than ever, the consumer’s actual experiences, good and bad, belong to the public domain. If your product is bad, no amount of spin, marketing, or branding will fix it. It also means if your product experience is average, good, or great, the word will get out.

If word of mouth can’t be controlled, what’s a company to do?

Nothing’s more effective than actually creating a product or service experience that people want to tell others about. If you have such an experience, there are many tactics you can use to cultivate the soil for a transparent dialogue amongst your customers.

Next, I’ll describe the only three factors that contribute to word of mouth and give you a few practical tips for making the most of what your customers are already saying about you.

Meet Bryan at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose, August 7-10, 2006, at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.

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