The Things People Talk About: How Not to Stand Out

As social media’s importance grows, the talk value of each impression you make as a marketer grows along with it. Think of social media as the basic connectedness of consumers and the resultant media-like power they wield when acting in small groups.

In traditional media and PR, messages are specifically crafted and largely controlled. Consumers then decide what to say. Social media, on the other hand, frees customers to speak their minds, not just react to your message. Deliver a great experience, and the good word will get around. Deliver a bad experience, and that will get around, too. What happens on the Internet stays on the Internet. Forever.

Consumers turn to social media and the collective experiences of their personal network to inform purchase decisions. Social media is giving rise to virtual sampling, that is, giving one consumer the ability to virtually try a product by learning from others’ experiences. These days, I hesitate to impulse-buy, not because it might dawn on me halfway home that I didn’t really need the item but because without doing some online research I don’t feel smart enough to make the purchase. I rely on the experiences of those around me when buying things I lack solid expertise about.

It follows, then, that experiences delivered in store, online, and after the sale all can impact word-of-mouth (WOM) reports. WOM mouth, in whatever form or forum it happens to occur, is generally regarded as the most trusted source of information. This extends across industry segments and age groups and applies equally in business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) marketing.

I was talking with a friend recently who relayed an experience that made me wonder just how much mainstream marketers really understand social media and WOM marketing. My friend was buying gifts for some upcoming weddings from different retailers through‘s online registry services.

One couple had registered with Williams-Sonoma, a retailer known for quality. This particular day, my friend encountered a problem with William-Sonoma’s online ordering process. In most cases, an online problem means a lost sale, but Williams-Sonoma had the foresight to post an phone number where it was easy to find and my friend called.

As she was concluding her order, the customer service rep asked if she wanted this gift wrapped, noting there’d be an extra charge for service. At first, she thought she misunderstood the question, wondering if a wedding gift had ever been delivered unwrapped. My friend then questioned the charge and pointed out that other gifts she purchased that day included gift-wrapping at no extra cost. The gentleman confirmed there was an extra charge for the service and asked again if she’d like the gift wrapped or simply delivered in a box. She responded (understand, I’ve left out some of the interchange’s more colorful aspects): “No, I do not want it wrapped. I want the gift from Williams-Sonoma delivered in a plain, brown shipping box, and I want it set right up there with all of the nicely wrapped ones. I want people to see the difference between buying a gift at Williams-Sonoma and buying gifts at all the other places I shopped today.” The gentleman asked if she was worried that she’d look bad. She replied, “Not at all. Though, frankly, if I were you, I’d be worried about how it’s going to make you look.”

From an apparent desire to save a few bucks, Williams-Sonoma has undercut the millions spent to get people to walk through its doors or click onto its Web site. This drives right back to the link between operations and marketing that’s essential to business success. A more reasonable solution, certainly once the salesperson realized this call was really going to conclude with a Williams-Sonoma-branded brown box displayed at a wedding, was to establish a policy ensuring complementary gift-wrapping when the situation demands it.

My guess is that somewhere inside Williams-Sonoma (and in countless otherwise well-run businesses), there are two competing silos. One, charged with sales, spends money to attract people like my friend and the couple who registered on the Williams-Sonoma site. The other is charged with watching the business, getting reps off calls quickly, and in general holding the line on expenses. When operations and marketing aren’t in sync, the results are predictable.

Say what you will, but my friend has a point: online shoppers should find more selection and convenience, as well amenities such as shipping and gift-wrapping, on par or better than the offline shopping experience. In today’s world, consumers can quickly get the word out and influence other potential customers.

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