WOM: Just Don’t Do It

Much has been said about it. Much has been written about it. There is even an industry association for it. But “word-of-mouth marketing” isn’t something you can, should or need to do.

Even the words themselves are misleading because they imply that there are actions advertisers can take to generate “word of mouth” or “buzz.” Indeed, to brand advertisers who come from a long heritage of telling customers what their brand is, it’s music to their ears. “Wow, there’s a way to make people buzz about our brand — to make them the servile poultry to carry forth the brand to fellow consumers who have otherwise skipped our ads? Cool!”

So advertisers have jumped on the word-of-mouth bandwagon and charged their agencies and creative staff with making stuff that would generate buzz. In the resulting fits of creativity, we’ve seen a freakish, plastic-faced king tackle random people on the street and an enslaved chicken that users could remotely torture over the Internet. We’ve seen white boys rapping about spiked green tea, and the list goes on.

But, nothing could be further from the truth of word of mouth than these buzz-generating examples. Notice, I didn’t say “word-of-mouth marketing.”

Word of mouth is not something you do; it’s something that just happens naturally when you have an awesome product or service and your customers are so thrilled with it they want to tell their friends about it. People show off their iPhones or MacBook Airs to their friends because they want to. They tell friends about Facebook and invite them to join. They share Amazon Prime membership with family members. I articulate the different attributes of FreshDirect, an online grocery service in New York, to my friends to convince them to try it.

If an advertiser has something remarkable, the hope is that it’s the product or service itself — then users will talk about it. Modern users are too smart to be fooled by buzz created for the sake of buzz. They will do their own research and ask knowledgeable peers about it before they buy.

Andy Sernovitz, CEO of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, has it dead-on when he says: “It comes down to honesty: Provide fantastic service; make phenomenal products; people will talk.” But it’s understandable that he’s been fighting an uphill battle against misinterpretations of word of mouth and how to earn it.

Most buzz that’s generated for the sake of buzz has been about the ads themselves — too crazy, too racy, too controversial, too over-the-top, etc. — and has little to do with the brand or the product or service itself, let alone being able to measure impact on sales. Buzz typically overpromises while the product or service underdelivers. This guarantees the exact opposite of the advertisers’ desired outcome — actual sales. It’s not just about awareness anymore, people!

Advertisers who are used to shouting their message at customers even think they can pay (or bribe) “brand ambassadors” to do it for them. I liken this to someone breaking into your home during your dinner with friends and then shouting in your face that you should buy their digital camera. Not only will you not listen to the interruptor’s opinion about digital cameras, you are likely to kick him out of your house bodily. He hasn’t earned the right to have a conversation with you or your friends.

So how can word of mouth be beneficial to advertisers? Perhaps if it is thought of as an opportunity for advertisers to listen rather than tell. Think of word of mouth as an opportunity to listen for what’s important to your best customers, those who are passionate enough about your product to talk about it positively (or negatively) to their peers. The conversations that are occurring can give advertisers ideas about things to improve with their product or service, ideas for innovations they would never have thought of themselves, or simply affirm that they are doing a great job. And in the digital landscape, these conversations are transcripted online for advertisers to read, analyze and learn from. Listen to your customers and focus on making your product or service awesome. You may find that buzz is a natural byproduct.

So go forth and get some more word of mouth, by not doing “word-of-mouth marketing.” Instead, listen to your customers, make your product or service more awesome based on their input and feedback, and make “word of mouth” easy to spread through digital channels, where the conversation is also easier to listen to. Just don’t call this word-of-mouth marketing. OK?

Augustine Fou is svp, digital strategy, MRM Worldwide.