Late last week I had the chance to participate as a faculty member at WOMM-U, an engaging event put on by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (which my employer, Ogilvy PR, is a member of).  My role was somewhat unique among other speaking events that I have done – along with Jason Anello from Yahoo!, I was meant to lead six half hour sessions on the topic of "speed trials" of tools in the WOM and social media space.  It was a relatively open topic, discussed in round table formats, however the nice thing about it was that it really gave me a chance to spend some time individually with many of the attendees of the event in a way that I typically don’t get.  As a result, I came away extremely excited about the interest level in WOM among top marketers, as well as the common challenges that many of us face. 

As WOM emerges as a notable branch of marketing (and by most reports at WOMM-U, it has already done so with nearly a billion dollars expected to be spent on WOM this year alone), people start to take different approaches to defining it within their organization and to their peers. The most interesting thing for me from WOMM-U was that three core philosophies seemed to emerge for how people were defining word of mouth, and they each have some interesting lessons for you if you are planning to start a word of mouth effort or need to justify one to your boss:

  1. WOM is a channel. This is one of the most popular ways of looking at word of mouth marketing, promoted by groups such as BzzAgent and RepNation because of how easy it is to explain to traditional marketers.  When you treat WOM like a media channel, then you can buy and sell it just like you do for TV or Radio or Online Ads. This is a great way to describe it if your audience is people who understand traditional media planning and think in terms of impressions and CPCs. This also plays well to models like BzzAgent where you have a defined pool of people who are measurable because they represent a subset of an audience. It becomes tougher (but not impossible) when you focus on a wider pool of people.
  2. WOM is an outcome. A refrain heard from many people at WOMM-U, this was the broader view that WOM should be a core element of all your marketing.  Everything from your TV spots to your online community is driving people to share their experience with others.  Think of this not as "conversion-based marketing" but rather as "conversation-based marketing." When WOM is treated as an outcome of all your acitivities, you can start to think more broadly about what your marketing is doing.  Jeffrey Graham from the NY Times shared an interesting point that you need to think of your newspaper budget (for example) as a WOM budget. Once you do that, there is a whole difference lens you can use on your current marketing (without having to find new budget too!) aa
  3. WOM is viral/buzz. This is one of the most common perceptions about WOM, that it is all about having something go viral or building a buzz. At our round table, this question came up frequently. There are indeed some poeple who believe that WOM is all about viral marketing and it is a valid point of view. The way I usually describe the difference is through the importance of belief.  Viral or buzz marketing is all about having one person pass something along to someone else for any quality (not necessarily one that is around the brand). You may pass a viral video about Burger King onto someone else because it’s funny, not because you love Burger King. WOM on the other hand, typically involves some kind of belief.

Have you made word of mouth marketing a core element of your marketing strategy?  If so, which philosophy has worked for you to describe and position it within your organization?  And are there any others that are missing?