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WOM: Just Don't Do It

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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.

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