WOMMA Summit: More Questions Than Answers

Way back in 1998, I had the unique privilege of organizing and attending the Procter & Gamble-sponsored Future of Advertising Stakeholders’ (FAST) summit. The conference aimed to jumpstart the World Wide Web as an effective advertising vehicle by bringing together key advertising stakeholders: advertisers, agencies, technology enablers, measurement firms, and industry associations.

The dominant theme revolved around building, shaping, and nurturing effective and trusted advertising models rooted in the new dynamics of consumer control and acceptance. We didn’t meet all our objectives. Much of FAST’s important “shape the industry” momentum was lost in the wake of the dot-com crash, which sent many participating advertisers into hibernation as far as interactive was concerned. Yet the summit had an unmistakable energy, passion even. For many, the event left an indelible “consumer imprint” on our thinking about the market.

In the years since, I’ve attended over 50 industry conferences or forums, often preaching the gospel of listening to the consumer or managing around new rules of consumer-generated media. I’d yet to find the same level of enthusiasm and idealism we had at the FAST Summit… until last week.


Nearly 350 practitioners and brands in the broadly defined field of word-of-mouth marketing assembled in Chicago for the first-ever Word of Mouth Marketing (WOMMA) summit. (Full disclosure: I cofounded WOMMA with Dave Balter of BzzAgent and Jonathan Carson of BuzzMetrics.)

Attendance was nearly triple what we expected. A surprising diversity of ad agencies, word-of-mouth firms and consultants, PR agencies, measurement firms, and many of the nation’s top brands (including Dell, Intuit, Clorox, and General Mills) were present to discuss word-of-mouth marketing’s current and future potential.

Root Causes

Why so much interest and buzz? Much of the credit goes to WOMMA CEO Andy Sernovitz and his team for their leadership and organization. But, more was at work in driving conference demand.

Folks seemed drawn to the conference by the recognition marketing is undergoing a major change, and power truly is shifting to the consumer. The landscape is rapidly shifting. Media are fragmenting, consumer attention is elusive, and new tools empower them to easily skip, screen, filter, or delete ads. With fewer options at hand, advertisers aggressively push new techniques and platforms to capture and exploit what remains of consumer attention. They’re using product placement, branded entertainment, and even more intrusive, interruptive forms of online advertising. Last week, we learned McDonald’s is paying songwriters to embed the term “Big Mac” in hip-hop lyrics.

Trust is the problem. It’s eroding in both traditional and emerging forms of marketer-sponsored messaging. This point was underscored in multiple presentations at the WOMMA conference by NOP World, Edelman, Forrester, Burson-Marsteller, and others.

Meanwhile, consumer confidence in the opinions and recommendations of their fellow consumers is growing. This form of consumer-generated media is TiVo-resistant. It presents powerful, long-lasting sources of consumer influence. We simply can’t afford to ignore it.

As marketers, we take plenty of liberties with the terms such as “respect,” “control,” and “empowerment.” But there’s no question the whole essence of word-of-mouth marketing, when done correctly, is putting consumers in the center of the equation.

Who’s Really in Control?

The word “control” comes in many shades. Is the consumer really in control, or are we just repurposing notions of marketing control and manipulation? Some speakers presented word-of-mouth case studies suggesting re-applicable solutions for building and generating buzz; others were far more skeptical about how much we could really control this, particularly in the short term.

“Word of mouth is not a way to regain control,” Forrester Research’s Jim Nail repeatedly emphasized in his talk. Jackie Huba of Creating Customer Evangelists reinforced this notion by reminding us “word of mouth is a long-term strategy.” This speaks abundantly to nurturing great product experiences and high levels of customer satisfaction.

Still others asked difficult questions about the new environment’s effects on certain constituencies. Are kids really in control of the message, for instance? Blois Olson of the National Institute on Media and the Family asked attendees whether marketers are working hard enough to protect children in this new environment.

The right way to build word of mouth are still an unsolved issue. “We didn’t get a clear consensus on that point,” explained summit attendee and popular marketing blogger Keith Bates. “Some felt that enabling WOM [word of mouth] didn’t really fit or was off to the side. Others felt that enabling should be at the root. In other words, a single or small group of evangelists (perhaps product managers) within the company, who then rally the folks around them who put the word-of-mouth process in motion.”


You can’t harvest insight until you ask the right questions. The WOMMA Summit started the critical process of asking the right questions about the future of advertising. Marketers, especially CMOs, need to do much more of this. We must address the potential and the perils of our emerging practices with equal deference.

This appeal extends beyond word-of-mouth marketers. Just last week, Bob Liodice, president of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), wrote a blog entry entitled, “The Most Socially Responsible Industry in America – Advertising.” The topic is a truly debatable, especially against the backdrop of consumer distrust toward advertising reaching an all-time high. Maybe ANA, as well as the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA), Direct Marketing Association (DMA), and Advertising Research Foundation (ARF), should have its own confab on such critical questions. Let’s not leave it to a blog entry.

The WOMMA Summit helped rekindled a long-dormant discussion initiated at the 1998 FAST Summit. It was just a beginning in what should be a much longer reflection on the future of advertising — by all stakeholders.

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