Although even tempered, some debates get me wound up - the gun lobby claiming constitutional rights to carry an M-16 in the U.S., governments denying the effects of global warming, denying the rights of crime victims, the ineffectiveness of health care and legal systems, the differential treatment for alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana regulation...there are too many one-sided debates on the agenda to get involved in all of them.
One I do quarrel with and face everyday enthusiastically - orchestrating word of mouth doesn't work?
I've spent the better part of a decade convincing, motivating, cajoling and debating a breed of Canadian marketers and communications people to the contrary.
My simple ethos - word of mouth works, it's getting more powerful, it's becoming more accepted and requires marketers leadership and involvement as one of the ways to get back proximity to the customer and attention at the boardroom table.
The impetus of this post was a simple response to Tamera Kremer's Post at 3i that:
- a) I somehow couldn't leave as a comment on her blog
- b) which given that frustration, lead to a much longer post here noting some important questions about word of mouth that need to be clarified for the community and industry at large
Tamera's post "Viral vs. Word of Mouth - what’s the difference?" inadvertently raises at least 6 debates surrounding the word of mouth question (not bad for a short post).
1) The Material Word of Mouth Debate:
It has been my experience as head of Agent Wildfire - Canada's Word of Mouth Expert... that the old agency guard, enthusiastic new media and product-centric brand owners believe unabashedly in "mass TV creative", "online social media" and "pursuit of brand loyalty" as marketer's most noble pursuits.
Although I believe these all play key roles, there is a much broader set of non-traditional tactics (online and offline) at play with successful brands and that we'll also see in the future, brand loyalty ceding way to brand advocacy/involvement/evangelism/word of mouth as the highest order of possible marketing benefit generated.
Some firms, media and bloggers say that all word of mouth touched by companies is evil - it needs to always somehow spontaneously generate and can never be influenced predicted. Media buyers dismiss it as niche or inherently unmeasurable. Advertisers and marketers claim it can be chaos and always leads to negative spin and thus is too risky and uncontrollable. Some practitioners even claim that only their type of word of mouth practice is true word of mouth; others types are somehow secondary or inferior. Most of this is complete bunk.
The reality - Word of mouth is marketer's oldest tool and it's 50% more important than 25 years ago because of 3 shortfalls - consumer trust, time and attention and 3 abundances - product choices, media clutter and consumer connectedness. Unlike its critics, people really do want to engage in it and are seeking companies to lend them that grapevine of engagement... and unlike some of its advocates, there are many ways to orchestrate it.
Just because we see high profile and rather predictable mistakes made by large companies exposed and discredited for "faking word of mouth" is not a good reason to avoid progressive peer-to-peer tactics. In fact it's one of the key reasons why you should participate more.
Job #1 is getting educated on what WOM is, how WOM works and what types exist to avoid the pitfalls.
2) The Ethical Debate:
There is no disagreement here - the idea of straight up paying for word of mouth is wrong. It's called shill or roach-bait marketing and not only erodes pillars of trust but it also casts an awfully long shadow on your brand (file under Edelman/Walmart, Sony Ericcson cameras phones). Most word of mouth marketers do not work this way, or if they have, have given up given their mistakes.
There are sketchy areas on this question where I'll admit the line blurs:
...I believe Amazon's affiliate referral program leads to huge word of mouth but also pays its participants a commission on sales...is this word of mouth? (it is by my definition), is it unethical? Some would argue this, but I think it's on the right side vs. a majority of MLM and Ponzi schemes which cross the line.
---on various crowdsourcing and user collaborative initiatives where you are enlisting the content development, insight, feedback and potentially word of mouth of participants (i.e. amateur hobbyists building for and evangelizing about Lego Mindstorms), I think the ethical imperative is to compensate with intrinsic or extrinsic rewards - not because of the word of mouth, but more because of to the tremendous value of the consumer-generated ideas, feedback and involvement.
3) The Semantic Debate
Word of mouth tends to be a word used cavalierly by marketers, media and even its practitioners. It's become a little bit like "Web 2.0" - a short form "buzzword" to describe a new branch of marketing many people don't fully understand but might like.
I can't account for all the ways the term is used and abused but the way Agent Wildfire uses the term "word of mouth" means "the authentic communication and advocacy from one person to one or a number of other people about a particular product, brand, service or idea"....it's less "the tactic" and more "the result" delivered from a menu of possible tactics.
It is a distinct "marketing and meaningful benefit" you can generate much like ads drive brand awareness, in-store POS may drive interest, sampling will drive trial, investment in CRM will drive loyalty and increasingly in a networked world - a number of different new tactics drive word of mouth.
In one of my recent posts, I summarize the 12 key principal tactics that comprise word of mouth marketing.
I guess the big semantic clarity - viral marketing is a tactic, influencer marketing is a tactic, social media is a tactic, social networking is a tactic, cause marketing is a tactic, brand community building is a tactic ----most of these associated business-building benefits lead to the end game - word of mouth.
So word of mouth is what "results" from either:
- the effective practice of the orchestrated tactics
- the intrinsic qualities of a great product/design...etc.
4) On the Temporal or Stage Debate
I don't see a handoff from word of mouth to viral as it grows bigger and spreads as argued in Tamera's post.
I don't think something has to build mass to be viral i.e. a local restaurant can pack a 200 seat establishment through a small viral effort that started with 3 employees. I believe viral is anything that spreads rapidly or broadly relative to the initial force applied.
Conversely, word of mouth doesn't stop at a point when something becomes viral or big - much like a normal distribution adoption curve. Although word of mouth almost always starts small and when effective gets seeded with the grassroots first, successful WOM continues as it crosses the chasm from influencer to mainstream, it's just brokered by a different set of advocates as it passes through each part of the grapevine curve - check out the wavy Alexa curve for "Crocs" to notice this prolonged effect.
5) The Organic vs. Orchestrated Debate
Word of mouth can spread organically AND in an orchestrated way.
Much as I believe Blackberry's device/software, BMW's engineering and Tide's cleaning power have delivered waves of organic word of mouth advocacy rooted in product superiority or differentiation, I would argue Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty, Ebay Powersellers, Harley Davidson Rider Clubs, Maker's Mark Brand Ambassador program and Mentos/Coke YouTube Geysers are equally effective, orchestrated WOM efforts that deliver brand success with very little organic product-based WOM ingredients.
We should avoid devaluing the impact of word of mouth because it may not be directly attached to the features of a product and perhaps... egads, even orchestrated by the marketers.
I find it ironic that critics of word of mouth marketing practices will rant about the way its generated through the human channel of conversation and yet simultaneously, be comfortable with other paid forms of communications - watching TV inconvenienced by ad interruption, being sampled in retailers or on the street by hired promotion teams or direct mailed to death at their doorstep.
For my money, I'd much rather be marketed to in a customized manner, that I personally enjoy, that treats me like an individual, allows me to dialogue with people I trust and know and doesn't cause cultural, environmental and media clutter. Perhaps the critics are railing against word of mouth, because unlike a lot of other forms of established marketing, it actually works.
6) The Small vs. Big Debate
Given how a majority of marketers are still not yet practicing a palette of tactics that drive genuine customer & influencer advocacy and evangelism, this conversation needs to move on.
Denying word of mouth and all of its grassroots vehicles a seat at the adult table based on semantics, tradition or bad practitioners is an old and/or small debate. It a little like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Isn't the bigger conversation "how do we change the paradigm of our industry from blunt force marketing hunter (look at me I'm great, buy me, here's a coupon, another feature, we'll let you know when we'd like to speak to you) to engaging marketing gatherer (heh, let's have a conversation, a customized brand experience, a collaborative effort, something we can build together and if you like me or the experience, could you please also tell your friends)?
If we get halfway there in answering that question, quibbling over what to call it and what form is best will seem quite insignificant.
Cheers...and spread the word (however you may want to do it).