Is the mouse mightier than the mouth? That’s the debate that’s taking place in word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing circles. On the one hand, social media has altered the landscape of WOM, helping spread buzz faster and more efficiently than face-to-face communications. On the other, most conversations about products and brands still take place away from the Internet. Word-of-mouth marketing is based on the simple premise that a recommendation from a friend carries more weight than an ad message. But social media has blurred what that means. Is a “like” on Facebook as valuable as an unsolicited recommendation shared in person or on the phone? Are fans and followers as trustworthy as friends (the real-life kind)?
It’s not an either/or situation. When combined together, word of mouth and social media become a dynamic duo. Conversations begun online continue in person and recommendations spread more quickly, allowing communities built around brands to gain traction. Influencers have broader reach. That’s how a web-driven campaign such as U by Kotex (see page W12) could turn the brand into the leader in feminine care word of mouth among women 13 to 44. Or why Coca-Cola is turning to social media to turn up the volume on stories its customers will be sharing around the upcoming London Olympics.
“You start conversations in one channel, continue them in a second and finish them in a third,” says Karin Kane, vice president of client services for evolve24, a Maritz Research company, which uses business analytics and research to measure brand perception, reputation and risk. “When the communication is happening in so many channels, it becomes almost impossible to separate online and offline.”
Moreover, social media has given WOM marketers a clearer way to measure the impact of their campaigns. Certainly “likes” and tweets are a start. But social media can also help marketers see how far an influencer’s opinion spreads by analyzing retweets or shares. It also becomes easier to see if an influencer’s discussions are relevant and in line with positioning. Plus, all this can occur in real time.
Social media has done more than simply turbocharge word of mouth. It has also brought this “alternative” form of marketing into the mainstream. Brands, in their effort to engage users, now routinely use WOM tactics to bypass traditional ads and go directly to influencers and consumers. Public relations firms, once charged with focusing on pitching professional influencers in the media, are now spending as much time going directly to bloggers, tweeters, YouTubers and general consumers, who are becoming powerful brand advocates. Media buys and messaging can change quickly depending on what topics are trending at any moment.
With more brands recognizing the direct impact WOM has on brand image and product/service success, spending on buzz marketing has increased substantially over the past several years. For 2011, WOM spending in the U.S. is forecast to hit $2.48 billion, according to PQ Media, whose econometric models are used by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and media investment firm Veronis Suhler Stevenson. That’s a growth rate of 21.5 percent from 2010’s $2.04 billion. By 2015, spending on word-of-mouth marketing could hit $5.5 billion.
DEFINING A CONVERSATION
Social media chatter has become the bellwether of word-of-mouth engagement. Today, Facebook’s servers handle upwards of 50 million “likes” each day. Google indexes some 200 million tweets every 24 hours. Tweets and “likes” are being used as measures of marketing efficacy because they promise to go beyond mere followers; they are proof positive that a brand’s message is getting across.
But according to Keller Fay Group, whose TalkTrack has become a de facto standard in measuring brand conversations, the overwhelming majority of word of mouth still involves, well, a mouth. The New Jersey-based research firm continues to claim that more than 90 percent of brand-oriented conversations are held face-to-face or over the phone.
“It’s not that the online numbers are wrong or unimpressive in any way,” says Ed Keller, Keller Fay’s CEO. “It’s that the offline numbers are much, much bigger than most people realize.” With more than two billion brand impressions created by word-of-mouth every day, he says, “You can see that the 50 million Facebook ‘likes’ is indeed just a small percentage of that total.”
Not everyone is convinced. “I’ve been hearing that exact same percentage for the past 10 years,” says Pete Blackshaw, global head of digital and social media for Nestlé, “and it just doesn’t make sense in light of the explosive growth of social media conversations. I do agree offline plays a dominant role, but can we at least agree the online conversation owns a growing share of the mix?”
Delivering accurate WOM figures is still more art than science. Foremost, there’s the question of definition. For example, are brand-generated tweets really word of mouth just because they’re delivered through social media platforms or are they ad messages masquerading as conversation? What if that same tweet is retweeted by a consumer?
Kane of evolve24 goes a step further: “Is a ‘like’ really a conversation?”
Whereas marketers once worried about multitasking consumers, they now wrestle with multi-channelers. “An online newspaper article may influence a number of readers to discuss the brand online, to experience the product in a different way or to discuss it with their friends offline” says Kane. “The key to truly understanding brand perception is to recognize all of these—posts and comments, customer experiences, news stories—as important contributors, and measuring and weighting them all appropriately.”
The preponderance of online reviews and other customer-generated content further extends the concept of word of mouth. “User-generated content is insight-rich social data that enables analysis at every level of focus and all degrees of granularity,” says Erin Nelson, CMO of Bazaarvoice, which provides platforms for managing and analyzing customer reviews. “But these learnings are only as powerful as the actions they drive and the customer-centric choices they inform. The companies who can truly integrate their social insights across the business are the only ones who will fully capture the value of social data.”
In itself, data isn’t necessarily the challenge; never before has such highly granular analysis been so widely available to marketers. Chat Threads, for example, tracks consumers in real-time as they come into contact with brands; Keller Fay’s TalkTrack—which is based on interviews with a nationally representative sample of some 36,000 Americans each year—gives shape to nearly one trillion annual brand conversations. The issue for many is choosing the right metrics.
For Keller, large offline volume carries more weight than smaller online engagement. In the U.S. every month, he says, an estimated 860 million offline conversations involve Coca-Cola; about half (442 million) are active recommendations to buy or try products. Meanwhile, the brand boasts close to 36 million Facebook “likes” on its page, but only a relatively modest 56,000 are active Facebook fans, he says. “Which one sounds more like ‘word of mouth on steroids’?” he asks, referring to Facebook’s description of social media.
Blake Cahill, president of Banyan Branch, a Seattle-based social media agency, considers yet another variable. “While the number of offline brand conversations is likely still occurring, what has certainly changed is the nearly two hours per day that people are spending online in social platforms communicating with each other instead of face-to-face.”
Social platforms, he adds, “have made it easier for people to like, love and dislike brands at a more prolific rate.”
The real challenge for word-of-mouth marketers is finding and nurturing the right voices, online and off—whether they’re called advocates, evangelists or just passionate customers.
“There are many ways to identify influencers, both old-school approaches and new-school approaches,” says Nestlé’s Blackshaw. “Online, I pay lots of attention to who consistently indexes in search results. This tells me the influencer’s content is consistently shareable and worthy of links. Serious influencers often lurk in the first page of search results against a product query.”
But influencers are not always advocates—and vice versa. “True advocates might not have a huge following, have a high Klout score or be online much at all,” says Ekaterina Walter, a strategist at Intel’s Social Media Center of Excellence, “but they have the power to spread their passion and change people’s minds or rally them around an idea or a brand.” Many marketers, she says, mistakenly focus on “influencers” and “neutrals” when instead they “need to be focusing on those few who truly love your brand and are willing to share that love with everyone around them.”
Moreover, companies need to avoid segregating online advocates and real-world influencers. Instead, they may be better served by ignoring labels and focusing instead on common activities. “It comes down to audience and behavior,” says Kevin Sangsland, sales and marketing director of Airfoil Public Relations. “An online community isn’t different from the people offline. It’s a mistake to put people in these neat little boxes in terms of channels. You get a different company voice and that detracts from brand value.”
Once advocates are identified, they need to be cared for and retained. Crowdtap, for example, maintains a community of influencers that its clients can target with content, coupons or product samples for word-of-mouth engagement. It keeps members interested using Foursquare-like features such as badges and other rewards. “The key to the technology platform is game mechanics so that people have more fun,” says Brandon Evans, Crowdtap CEO.
Nurturing online advocates in advance of problems can also aid with damage control. Just as satisfied customers share their insights quickly, negative word of mouth now travels at light speed. Dissatisfied customers can become situational influencers, defined by Blackshaw as “consumers who gained influence or notoriety because they happened to be the first ones to test a product or discover a product defect that went viral.” Blackshaw wrote a book on the subject of negative WOM, Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000.
Despite the digital world’s reputation for unrelenting snark, there’s actually more positive than negative brand feedback online. “That said,” Blackshaw adds, “extreme levels of dissatisfaction or anger can trigger extraordinary levels of pass-along.” To manage damaging WOM, “We all need to re-script our rules of listening and responsiveness. Online community management is a must. We also need to rethink customer service [as] a top ‘talk driver’ of both offline and online conversation.”
Intel’s Walter agrees. She’s keenly aware that “every single person out there is an influencer to at least 50 to 300 other people offline.” The best strategy, she says, is to “provide the best customer service and real-time response—online and offline—and your WOM/sales will take care of themselves.”
Above all, brands shouldn’t panic when things go wrong. She points to a January 2011 Retail Consumer Report from Harris Interactive that indicated that of those consumers who were contacted by retailers after posting negative reviews online, 34 percent deleted their critiques, 33 percent wrote a positive review and nearly a fifth (18 percent) actually became loyal customers.
“Customers wouldn’t be reaching out to you if they wouldn’t want to have a relationship,” Walter says. Whether the WOM occurs online or off, there’s always opportunity for real-world conversion.
Brands may not have a choice for much longer. As Ann Jurmain, principal at Miami-based MagicBuz, which specializes in online conversations, explains, “The precision of search engines, coupled with the willingness of consumers to become review publishers in their own right, means that participating in word of mouth is now essential for all marketers.”