The Future Is Digital, but Most Marketers Overlook the Value in Human Connection

84% of consumers trust word-of-mouth recommendations the most

A combination of online and offline will help your brand grow. Getty Images
Headshot of Brian Salzman

As marketers, we know the oldest, most basic form of brand marketing is also the most powerful: word of mouth. In spite of highly advanced digital marketing tools, massive amounts of data and infinite ways to connect directly with our audiences, it’s more important than ever for brands to endemically infiltrate the conversations of consumers in 2018.

That’s because word of mouth is still the most trusted source of information for consumers who are increasingly suspicious and avoidant of the marketing messages they’re bombarded with day after day. According to Nielsen, 84 percent of consumers reported trusting recommendations from influencers, friends, family members and peer networks above all other kinds of marketing. Tellingly, when it comes to the coveted millennial market, a recent study by the McCarthy Group shows that 84 percent of them don’t like traditional advertising, nor do they trust it.

Given that the fundamentals of marketing rely on building trusting relationships with consumers, today’s marketing landscape is in dire need of transformation. Despite rapidly increased budgets for influencer marketing, the practice isn’t delivering what it was meant to. To regain that consumer attention and confidence, it’s time for marketers to put their faith back in word of mouth.

Here are some tips on how to get your brand on the tips of tongues via authentic, trustworthy, person-to-person messaging in an era when digital interactions have too often taken their place.

Understand the value of offline human networks

Digital marketing is an incredible gift to brands of all sizes. It can communicate so much about consumers, including what they want in real time and how they feel about our brand at any particular time. But it’s not a complete replacement for the human networks that have always driven commerce.

What happens online, especially on social media, is often just a pale reflection of what’s happening offline, where real influencers—friends, families and co-workers—are sharing information, showcasing products and offering advice in a much more valuable, tangible way. Marketers often ignore the importance of these interactions because they’re so much harder to measure and report back up the chain. As a result, they move forward with marketing strategies that lean too hard on inauthentic digital relationships, and they end up ignored by consumers themselves.

Incorporate online and offline influencers

There were influencers before the internet, and they are still around today. It’s time to recognize that influencers don’t just exist in the digital space. Social media partnerships are great when the relationship is natural and authentic, but the strategy can’t begin and end there.

Brands need to leverage word of mouth by including offline influencers, people of impact and expertise that might not have huge social followings or household name recognition but command strong, influential networks in “real life.” You can measure the value of someone’s impact sphere by understanding how many other influencers could be reached if activated.

For example, let’s take a senior partner at a talent agency with no digital footprint. On a daily basis, she’s interacting with her clients, her business partners, producers, directors and so on. That’s a powerful voice to be associated with.

Other people, like activists, entertainment executives, artists and startup founders, have the same offline clout. These kinds of people are respected by their peers, who look to them for expertise and advice. By partnering with people that wield this kind of authentic power offline, brands can build tangible word-of-mouth networks with much more weight than those we see from manufactured relationships with social media stars, many of whom may not have offline influence.

Determine your own system of measurement for word of mouth 

Everyone knows how important word of mouth is for a brand, but it often falls into the background because it’s hard to quantify. When judging the effectiveness of a marketing strategy, it’s much easier to look to Nielsen ratings, media impressions or social media likes to analyze budget effectiveness. Measuring word of mouth has been tricky, if not impossible, until recently.

By rating the value of a relationship based on key factors like breadth of social circle, expertise, authority, thought leadership, social impact and more, brands can development their own system of measurement, turning influence driven by word of mouth into something that can be predicted and later credited for resulting successes. Instead of throwing money at the next hot celebrity and hoping word of mouth is happening on its own, brands need to recognize it as a channel that deserves its own plan, strategy and system of measurement. Only then can brands and marketers be deliberate and, again, authentic in building real influencer relationships. This level of control allows for the same kind of valuable measurement that marketers leverage in all other forms of marketing.

Technology keeps moving forward faster and faster, but humans essentially remain the same at their core. They want to connect on a real level with people they trust. They want advice from those they see as knowledgeable and respected. Whatever form digital marketing takes next, and whatever new platforms emerge, the real human connection is always going to hold its value.

@LASalzman Brian Salzman is founder and CEO of relationship marketing agency RQ.