Guest Post: Is Word of Mouth a Discipline or Just a Channel?

by John Bell

Rohit has invited a handful of folks to post on his blog while he manages his true key influencers – family (including the newest member!). It only seems fitting that each of us post on what we care about most. In my case, that’s word of mouth marketing.

My team uses digital marketing, social media and traditional strategy to amplify and activate word of mouth all to support our clients business objectives. While I love social media and it is a part of all of our work and personal digital lives, I must frame it as a set of techniques, methodologies and behavior geared towards motivating people to share, participate and even recommend products and services to their circle of friends, colleagues and family – their affinity groups. Why "must" I? At the end of the day, we have to measure. Social media is not a measurable unit. WOM is. To make WOM a reliable approach to marketing, it must be measured in a way that CMOs, Communications Officers and CEOs, can report its effectiveness to reaching their business goal. WOM can be measured and reported today. We do it. BzzAgent does it. Visible Technologies does it. In the near future, an industry standard for that measurement will arise. Social media drives WOM.   

I am fresh back from the Word of Mouth Marketing Summit 2007 in Vegas. I serve on the board of the organization so take any endorsements for the organization with that in mind. The quality of the experience was up there: good speakers, topics, brands, solid debate, some news. It reminded me of why I joined the organization. Still it wasn’t perfect. But that’s okay. I enjoy the naive enthusiasm we all have for creating a new discipline based upon the tenants of two-way conversation with people, authentic relationships and the value of advocates (or "promoters" in the Net Promoter Score framework).

Problem is – are we a discipline? An expertise? Or just another channel? Having spent last week with about 500 people from brands, agencies and start-ups who think word of mouth is important enough to travel to Vegas during the final budget-clampdown quarter of the year, here’s some points to consider:

Discipline or channel?
Discipline: Word of mouth marketing takes belief (based on understanding and knowledge) and discipline. There are no shortcuts. As Sean Driscoll from Microsoft points out , there is a ‘right model’ and a ‘wrong model’ of influencer marketing (which I interpret as a part of word of mouth marketing). The wrong model suggests that I can just tell people about the wonder of my brand and they will yak about it. The right model assumes a truly engaged conversation model where we listen as much as we talk. To do things "right" in Sean’s vernacular, it is very hard to just tack on some WOM-stuff to a large traditional marketing campaign and expect significant results. Like any discipline, word of mouth marketing requires certain procedures and conditions to succeed.

Channel: The media buying companies and some advertising agencies want to see WOM as a channel. They deal in channels. They want to fill up on the 360 degrees of our lives reaching us at home, at play, at work. They want a new channel to deliver messages. Preferably one that is as predictable as other channels ("if I spend $1 more on WOM it will deliver X"). That’s why BzzAgent’s current configuration has been so successful with media agencies. they can just buy 6000 agents in three markets for 12 weeks. Feels like media. While the agents will talk about the product, this is not two-way conversation. And the brand is renting those agents not building a long-term relationship. Still, it is a form of word of mouth.

Discipline: To deliver on the promise of social media, word of mouth marketing, influencer marketing, conversation marketing – whatever part of WOM you want to emphasize – we need a simple, shared approach to measurement that compares well to what brand managers are used to. Yes, that probably means some sort of ad equivalency. That approach – comparing to advertising – may be a trap. Look what happened to public relations. In most cases PR reports media "hits" as equal to ad impressions. Shouldn’t they be valued far north of simple paid impressions? And WOM, shouldn’t that be like 10X and ad impression (with a true "recommendation" even north of that)? WOMMA and other groups are working on an industry standard for measuring WOM. I think we will have a solid model in 2008 that will be a tipping point for the discipline.

Channel: Many ad-based marketers see viral video as the answer to their WOM aspirations. If they can just get enough views of a video, it starts to feel like traditional media. And if the mechanism for accummulating those views is people sharing and recommending amongst their friends then that, my friend, is social media. Within the Ogilvy family, we have the ultimate accomplishment/curse: the Dove Evolution video. With millions of views under its belt, it really deserves to be the poster child for viral video. Because those views grew from people recommending it to others, it is more valuable than TV impressions (pull vs. push) BUT, it is one dimensional and doesn’t fully utilize what is possible in word of mouth marketing. Still, many marketers will use this case as their compass for word of mouth and try to leverage the channel of video-sharing to meet their goals. Viral video leverages something that ad agencies are very good at: storytelling and filmmaking. That’s why branded entertainment is ad agencies’ social media technique of choice.

It’s a discipline

Word of mouth is a broad discipline like advertising or public relations. It requires technique and methodologies that are particularly relevant to do it well. It is possible to treat it like a channel by tacking on some WOM tactic to a larger advertising program, but it may not pay off in comparison to those more traditional marketing tactics.

Most WOM strategy is about engagement and building strong relationships with a core group. If it serves a "reach" purpose, it is through the long-term multiplier effect of one satisfied and engaged customer telling 3 friends who tell 3 friends and so on. If you want to reach millions with a product launch in January and have no existing set of WOM relationships, word of mouth marketing is probably not your first choice. BUT if you had those relationships in place – oh, what a launch it would be.

Now the next interesting question is whether word of mouth will be a stand-alone discipline or be integrated into either PR or ad firms or both. Think of account planning (or connections planning). More often than not, this is a discipline found inside ad agencies. Yet several firms like Naked have cropped up where account planning is the defining discipline of the firm. Will the same thing happen with Word of Mouth? Forward thinking communications/marketing firms will build or acquire the expertise for a true word of mouth discipline (not just channel experience). they will do this in droves once the measurement nut is cracked. Until then, you will have the visionary companies who believe that business objectives for many (not all) clients can be achieved well and efficiently using WOM – setting up a WOM shop. That’s where our team – 36
0 Digital Influence – comes in. I still believe that enlightened PR firms (i.e. more than ‘media relations’) shops) stand a better chance culturally of making these units work than traditional ad agencies.  Some specialty shops are already cropping up – Brains on Fire and Zocalo Group come to mind. Since WOM can be enhanced by advertising, PR, digital marketing, you name it, I prefer as much integration as possible.

Much has been written on the characteristics of the best word of mouth marketing. Suffice it to say that it is different than the discipline necessary for successful advertising campaigns.

John Bell runs the 360° Digital Influence team at Ogilvy and blogs at the Digital Influence Mapping Project

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