Soft Sell Supports Word of Mouth

NEW YORK Marketers often make the mistake of pushing their brand’s message too hard when attempting to kick-start word-of-mouth campaigns. Pushing too hard can backfire, executives agreed here on Wednesday at an Advertising Week panel discussion.

“You don’t want the consumers to talk about the message—you want them to talk about things they are interested in talking about,” said Steve Knox, CEO of Procter & Gamble’s Tremor, a business unit created to generate word-of-mouth buzz for products.

In general, it is important to provide consumers with the proper message and tools to spread the word, according to Jim Nail, chief strategy and marketing officer at TNS Media Intelligence/Cymfony.

Even so, “you have to have a highly satisfied customer base for it to get started,” cautioned Ed Keller, CEO of the Keller Fay Group.

Reaching a scalable consumer network, through people who already feel connected by their interests and attitudes, is key.

Ryan Berger, ecd at Euro RSGC, offered an example from celebrity culture: “You don’t want Brad and Angelina [touting trends]—they want to be as far away from that as possible. What you want are the stylists who work with them, because those are the people you can’t get to shut up.”

The conversation must be encouraged rather than controlled in order to appeal to influencers who have an altruistic purpose in delivering a brand’s message. This group wants to help others by sharing knowledge or experience. The harder messages get pushed, the more these consumers will resist.

The panelists raised the issue of how the Internet figures into the equation: It’s a powerful medium where much of the negativity surrounding a brand lives. Also, the Internet offers anonymity and allows consumers to freely speak their minds.

Thus, advertisers should take negative responses to heart and act on recommendations for change. “The person you convert will be your most powerful advocate,” said Sean O’Driscoll, general manager of Community Support and MVP at Microsoft.

Duncan Watts, principal research scientist at Yahoo!, took the stance that it is often difficult to truly know who is influential.

“We really have no idea what the network looks like, what we want to know and who is influencing whom,” he said. Watts referred to “accidental influentials,” likening word of mouth to a forest fire spreading due to a dropped cigarette. “You need to understand what you are talking about before building useful strategies,” he said.