The conversations that consumers have with one another online -- in message boards, blogs, email listservs and product review sites -- represent the largest collection of word-of-mouth data that has ever existed. BuzzMetrics, a research and intelligence company, was created to mine these conversations and uncover market insight. We talked with Jonathan Carson, president and CEO of BuzzMetrics, to learn more about how marketers can leverage the word-of-mouth channel.
iMediaConnection: You're calling it word-of-mouth. We've been using the term consumer-generated publishing or marketing. Are we talking about the same thing -- blogs, discussion lists, and so on? What else is included in this category?
Carson: When we are talking about word-of-mouth, we are talking about the conversations and commentary that consumers create. It is the person-to-person spreading of ideas. Specifically, BuzzMetrics focuses on all of the online dialogue consumers engage in, including message boards, blogs, email lists, product review sites, chats, corporate gripe sites and personal home pages among other things. These are the traditional forms of content, but there are other very exciting types on the horizon. Huge numbers of individuals are posting photographs online, which is kind of an extension of the old Web cams. Social networking sites have added a whole new element of communication, and they introduce personal reputation systems and rankings on a global scale. These could have huge ramifications for marketers.
iMediaConnection: How is consumer-generated publishing affecting marketing efforts?
Carson: Already, this content is having a huge impact on certain vertical sectors, whether marketers are engaged in it or not. It has been well documented that the entertainment industry is largely driven by this chatter, and so online buzz campaigns have become a standard part of its marketing mix. Nobody doubts the power of this channel in the political world, either.
But we also see tremendous levels of shopping research occurring through these channels. Users read the recommendations that other users post to help them research their purchase decisions. Perhaps more exciting is the direct engagement that takes place as part of the shopping process, which we see all the time. For example, someone goes into a forum and asks for recommendations for a product purchase, and existing owners come out of the woodwork to endorse or slam the product. If you are trying to decide which $3,000 plasma TV to buy, who are you going to trust -- the 20-year-old sales clerk at Circuit City or an online super consumer whose passion in life is to track the high-end home-theatre market? These influencers are closing big deals every day.
One of our clients is a large brand of home durables, and they have just come to realize that, in aggregate, these online interactions are probably more powerful to their market than Consumer Reports magazine. This is an industry that has spent the last three decades building products to the specifications of the editors of one magazine. They didn’t care what consumers wanted. All that mattered was that they got their Consumer Reports recommendation. So for them to have that sort of realization is a huge breakthrough. And frankly, it’s a wonderful development for consumers. Why haven’t these companies been listening to what their customers want?
We also do a lot of work in healthcare, and there is no question word-of-mouth is revolutionizing that industry. Consumers are taking a far more active role in their treatment decisions, but they have a difficult time finding information. For example, their doctors don’t have time to explain anything to them because they rush them in and out of the office so quickly, and the drug companies aren’t allowed to interact with them because of FDA regulations. So they are going to online patient-support groups to talk with other folks who are going through the same things they are. This is an incredibly powerful concept. Manhattan Research just reported that over half of Americans with multiple sclerosis actively post to online patient-support groups -- that’s half of the market. And if half are posting, then it’s likely nearly the entire market is reading. This channel can make or break a drug or treatment.
iMediaConnection: Word-of-mouth has always been an important element of marketing/selling/branding. How does what's happening now differ from what went on before and why should marketers embrace it?
Carson: We spend a lot of time educating brand marketers on the fact that BuzzMetrics and online word-of-mouth is not an “Internet thing.” People have always had these conversations, but there was never a way to track them before. But the Internet has radically changed the paradigm in three ways.
First, it increases the impact of word-of-mouth recommendations. Ten years ago, an MS patient may have struggled to find other MS patients to communicate with. The Internet solves that problem by offering an infrastructure for people with similar interests to find one another. It’s not a coincidence that all of these reports are coming out showing that word-of-mouth is becoming more and more important to consumers; it's because the Internet has made word-of-mouth work better.
Second, the concept of the influential consumer has taken on a whole new level of importance. The consumer influencer used to have a network of a few friends and family, maybe a couple dozen. Now, any individual with an interesting perspective on any issue can become an influencer with minimal effort. Influencers don’t have to build a network, because people looking for advice on that topic will seek them out.
Third, and most important to marketers, word-of-mouth no longer dissipates as it often does when a traditional water-cooler or over-the-fence discussion ends. You can now study it. You can find the people driving it. You can participate in it. This is a revolutionary idea.
These three things coming together at once have created a “perfect storm” -- and that is why you are seeing so much attention being placed on word-of-mouth right now.
iMediaConnection: How can marketers take advantage of it?
Carson: Marketers can absolutely participate in this channel. They can influence the way people talk about them, they can impact their word of mouth or create buzz.
But this is a free space, so you can’t buy messages. It’s an open and self-policed space, so there is no one to complain to if someone says something mean about you. It’s a conversation space, so you have to be engaged in actual dialogue. This is a new concept for marketers; companies don’t typically put customer service in the marketing department. And it’s a space built on sharing, so you have to bring something of value to the table. If marketers are going to leverage this channel, they have to accept these cultural underpinnings and play by the rules.
Monday: Why marketers can't ignore word-of-mouth, despite the challenges involved with tapping into it.
While more and more readers are turning to other outlets including cable television, online news sites, blogs and news aggregators like Google and Yahoo News, newspapers are still a profitable business, though much of that profit is in danger thanks to factors that are not relevant to interactive, such as the rising cost of fuel, labor, ink and paper.
Today, as the newspaper industry struggles to compete with the very portals it feeds, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain profit levels of 15-20 percent without implementing cost-cutting measures like the massive layoffs at numerous respected newspapers across the country.
Of course, publicly owned newspapers are beholden to the demands of Wall Street, where investors measure their value based on how much money they make and how much money they will make in the future. Nearly 3,000 full-time newspaper jobs have been lost so far this decade, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Other newspapers have shut down press rooms and closed overseas bureaus. Many of these jobs have moved to news-gathering organizations online, and in many cases, with the same mastheads.
When do newspaper websites catch up?
Thanks in part to companies that provide services and one-stop shopping for all local online publishers through technology platforms, online revenue at newspapers continues to grow at an average rate of more than 30 percent a year.
When you pick up your local newspaper, the majority of the national ads you see were all placed through national buying services, and until only recently, those same national advertisers had no simple way to reach those digital newspapers. But that's changing and the newspaper industry is competing once again and gaining serious ground, as evidenced by its renewed growth, increased technological innovation and investments in online editions.
Take a look at the fantastic Frontline special to learn more about the industry's challenges and more about what will drive interactive in the years to come. Newspapers aren't going anywhere, but the portals that have skimmed so many ad dollars from the top at the expense of newspapers, their brands and many of the journalists that create that brand may be in for a surprise in the years to some.
As networks proliferate, their stratification and controversies -- like the Ann Coulter site situation when blind networks saw their branded clients become furious about where their ads ran -- will only drive more business back to where the content was derived: newspapers.
It's not going to happen this week or this year, but it will happen.
Shawn Riegsecker is CEO of Centro, a provider of platforms and services to help agencies easily and effectively buy local online media. Read full bio.
We had approximately two weeks to come up with ideas and create visuals for the campaign. The rollout timeline was supposed to occur over two months, driving awareness and interest, and ultimately getting people to tune in to the show.
The primary target for the show and campaign was teens, youths, and families. Our placements were designed to go after the teens and young adults, hitting them in areas they are already familiar with. This is the most connected generation in history. The web and mobile devices aren't simply tools to these people -- they are a part of how they live. Also, we felt the need to engage viewers of the show in real time to compete with time-slot competitors "Dancing With the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance" -- two shows that offer (limited) interactivity through viewer voting.
If we had to reduce our strategy to a single word, it would be "access;" nearly every aspect of the lead-up campaign was designed to provide it to viewers -- access to content, the show, the people, the fans, and more. The web has empowered people to enjoy entertainment like never before and to share their experience. The goal with our pitch was to get out of people's way and let them engage with the show in every possible way.
This was achieved by taking advantage of existing tools, and by creating a few of our own. We wanted virtually every piece of content created for the show to be available on multiple platforms, bringing it to potential viewers and fans where they already are, whether it's YouTube, their own RSS readers, or their mobile devices.
The aesthetics combined the fun of the CW with the grit of a traditional western in an effort to appeal to the network's core audience, while bringing in fans of the genre, who have been without a true TV western since "Deadwood".
Our awareness media plan included placements on sites frequented by the key demographics. These included YouTube and Cosmogirl.com.
The initial banners were relatively simple, designed to tease the show and its all-star cast. Subsequent executions upped the ante, using rich media placements to allow for some fun interaction. Late-stage banners used SMS gathering to collect phone numbers. The goal with these was to send users a reminder to tune in on the night of the broadcast, as well as send a direct link to our iPhone application for iPhone users to download.
Other awareness and interest drivers included a remix contest for the classic "Bonanza" theme song and a series of choose-your-own-adventure-style webisodes. These would also help set the tone for the show by telling small stories for each of the show's main characters. Filmed in multiple segments, when a viewer watched part one of any series on YouTube, they would be prompted to make a choice. Different choices would link to different videos continuing the story with multiple outcomes.
The main website was designed to feature all of the essentials -- video trailers, cast bios, character profiles, etc. In addition to this site, we also developed a production blog that would be updated regularly leading up to and after the show's premiere. This blog would offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the making of "Bonanza" through video diaries, photos, production journals from the cast and crew, and more. Content posted to the blog would also be available through various social media sites, such as Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, and MySpace. Audio/visual content would be pushed to a podcast and, of course, all posts would be available through RSS and Twitter. To engage users further, comments and questions on the blog would be answered by the cast and crew, and all the content generated would be made available under a Creative Commons license, allowing fans to reuse it on their own blogs, sites, and social media profiles.
Taking content out of the browser, we also aimed to develop an iPhone application. This app would feature a fun and easy "Quick Draw" game and allow new audio, video, photos, and text to be pushed to users on their device.
The ultimate goal of this exercise was to get people to engage with the show in real time. To help encourage people to tune in, we came up with a few innovative ideas for interaction.
Our first idea was to allow people to actually influence a scene in the premiere episode. Leading up to and during the broadcast, viewers would be asked to vote on potential guest stars. To help cross promote within the CW family, and help capture viewers from existing shows, we decided to allow people to vote on a guest appearance by cast members from "Smallville," "Gossip Girl," or "90210." Multiple versions of a scene would be shot featuring actors from each. The winning scene would be aired during the premiere broadcast.
We also wanted to give viewers the chance to interact with each other. In essence, we wanted to create time-zone specific premiere parties, letting viewers connect and chat online or on their mobile devices during the show. As an added bonus, members of the cast and crew would also participate in the chat. We would also push trivia questions about the show (and, perhaps, its advertisers) to users throughout the broadcast. At the end of the episode, a winner would be selected and their name would be displayed on screen.
In the end, we feel our comprehensive plan would engage viewers on a level unlike any other show on television. People would truly be a part of bringing "Bonanza" back to television, experiencing both the fiction of the show and the reality of creating it.
Again, the key theme here is access. It's smart business to give people access to all the content they want. More importantly, it's essential to let them access that content the way they want, in a fun and easy manner. That's the most effective way to turn potential viewers into viewers into fans and advocates, who in turn extend your overall marketing reach simply because they want to and you've given them the tools.
As for the Shoot-out itself, we'd like to extend our sincerest thanks to everyone involved with iMedia, the judges, the audience, and The Visionaire Group. We appreciate the opportunity to participate in this fun and exciting creative exercise.
Editor's note: If you are interested in seeing the full presentation and media plan, click here.
On Twitter? Follow iMediaConnection at @iMediaTweet.
Remember who you're working for
Mark Naples, Managing Partner, WIT Strategy:
We've worked with hundreds of companies over the years, and I can count on one hand the number of senior executives who were fully honed and ready to speak with top reporters at the onset of our engagement. Amazingly, some of the most successful executives -- some of whom had enjoyed tremendous exits and notoriety -- have been among the least savvy when it came to dealing with reporters.
Whenever I encounter clients who make me worry along these lines, I try to get them thinking about the value exchange in any media setting. It starts with the title notion of this segment -- that the reason reporters are interviewing anyone is for their purposes, not for the client's. If a brand marketer doesn't understand or accept this, the entire interview idiom becomes corrupted and dangerous. Corrupted from the perspective of the reporter, who is highly unlikely to care what the objective of the interviewee is, and dangerous from the perspective of the client, because if the client regards the interview as a chance to spew corporate messaging or speak directly from prepared bullets without context, or basically, do what all too many marketers do in interviews, the client will fail.
Clients might fail by finding themselves left out of an article they were hoping to be included in. Or they might fail by alienating a reporter they wanted to get closer to. Or worst of all, they might step in it with the reporter, and either alienate the reporter or worse -- say something they shouldn't have. That's why the people who help brand marketers with this will always insist on being on the call or in the briefing. The only chance to get something removed from the record is when it is said. It's too late when the client calls an hour later to see if something can be expunged.
If marketers remember throughout that they are participating in an interview at the behest of a reporter and then act accordingly, the chances of a favorable outcome go up substantially -- both short term and long term. We tell clients all the time that while they pay us, of course, we ultimately work for the people who cover their industry and business as a whole. This is why we make sure clients are prepared to add value to a reporter before any interview or briefing occurs. That core idiom -- adding value for the reporter, not about a given company, but about a given industry segment, in the context a reporter seeks -- has created dozens of strong, mutually beneficial relationships over the years.
Set the ground rules first
Rich Cherecwich, Senior Associate, WIT Strategy:
Many brand executives (CEOs, CMOs, general managers) earned their titles by being smart, confident strategists. Yet despite careers full of careful planning and tactical approaches, some executives get intimidated when sitting down with a reporter. They jabber away nervously, only to realize that what they're saying might actually hurt their business or their reputation. They frantically call the reporter asking for certain parts of the conversation struck from the record, undoing any good will they just built.
What many brand executives don't understand is that any time they sit down with a reporter, they have a great deal of control, and they're capable of setting a few ground rules before the conversation begins in earnest.
Don't spend the first 10 minutes detailing every possible scenario. Instead, ask about the story the reporter is working on, and establish whether the conversation will be on the record, off the record, or on background. On the record means the reporter may quote you freely, of course. If you can help with the story but would rather not be quoted, ask the reporter if you can go on background. This means they can use what you say, but can't attribute anything directly to you. Off the record is more hush-hush and can't be published. Brands should go off the record when discussing sensitive business or talking about potential deals and acquisitions. You can go off the record to help reporters confirm facts (the old "yes, but you didn't hear it from me") or point the reporter in a direction that will help with the story. If it helps, picture yourself as Deep Throat in "All The President's Men."
Rules don't have to dictate the entire conversation. If there's a question you're not comfortable sharing for public consumption, ask the reporter if you can go off the record for a moment. The important thing is to always be clear about this each and every time, and to do so before you answer.
While brand executives acting as media sources have a lot of control, it's only up to a certain point. Never go back and ask a reporter to strike something from the record. This scenario happens more than you'd expect, with a brand blithely saying something on the record and then frantically calling their PR agency to make sure that comment isn't published.
Reporters will not backtrack simply because you ask. Once it's on the record, it's on the record. Merely asking a reporter to go back and strike something diminishes the quality and integrity of the conversation, greatly decreasing the chances you'll be called for comment in the future.
The most important thing for executives to remember is to stay relaxed and answer questions thoughtfully. If there's a question and you don't know the answer, it's smarter to admit you don't know than to make up an answer. By all means, take your time! Consider every question and answer thoughtfully. If you're uncomfortable, ask to go off the record. Some reporters might say they don't go off the record. If that's the case, it's OK to not answer. There is no law that says anyone needs to answer all of a reporter's questions.
Connect on a human level
Diane Anderson, Senior Associate, WIT Strategy:
When you are first meeting a writer, this is first and foremost a human interaction. Neither of you is a robot. Rather, you are living breathing human individuals with families, lives, interests, hobbies, and passions.
It's great to know something about the person in advance if possible. If they like baseball, break the ice by talking about the World Series. But you need not know their entire C.V., and the conversation need not be forced. You can meet a complete stranger and find that you connect by talking about the weather or current events. Instead of jumping in on your precious talking points right away, find a way to talk about something other than your company. The more you seem like you have an agenda that you are trying to force on a reporter, the more annoyed that person will be. The more you show interest in what's going on for that person, the more they will relax and trust you. Are they stressed and on deadline? Looking forward to a tropical vacation? Worried about an ailing relative? Then they will be better able to listen and take in your message.
So instead of doing all the talking, ask at least one question so that you get to know this reporter. It is sure to come in handy for future conversations and follow-up emails.
Do your homework (aka know their work)
Try to read a few stories the writer has written so that you can talk about it in a friendly way. You don't have to agree with everything this person wrote, but being able to say one positive thing about it or being able to ask one question -- either about what went into the reporting or what its reception has been -- goes a long way.
Reporters don't work for the big bucks. We've met some who work primarily to get their names in print. They bask in knowing readers have seen their stuff, and they love talking about their work. So this is one way to start the conversation off on a friendly footing.
If the reporter mentions other stories he or she is currently working on, offer your insight into the subject matter and think of those in your network who might be valuable sources to this writer. If you are able to help a writer out -- and not just to promote yourself -- you are suddenly someone this person will respect and think of when the reporter needs a quick take on news. You then get quoted in stories, which helps your brand image.
Let the conversation evolve naturally
Your job isn't to impress them about your company -- yet. Be genuine. Don't lie. Never, ever lie. Don't say you don't have competitors -- a very common mistake made by entrepreneurs. Rather, point out how you differentiate your company.
When you meet for coffee, don't go into the meeting expecting coverage. Rather, approach this as a chance to get to know people and to help them do their jobs better and know the industry more in depth. If you have news, talk about that of course (see "Set the Ground Rules" and know who has the exclusive and do not violate those sacred agreements). When you are talking about your news, be sure to go into how it plays into the broader arena. The more a reporter sees you as an industry expert and not just an expert on your own company, the more likely he or she is to call you back in the future for analysis and perspective.
Dealing with danger
Kendall Allen, Senior Associate, WIT Strategy:
How to get on top of the tough stuff when engaging media
As all industry executives know, engaging the media can meaningfully sway the perception of your business in both positive and negative ways. But what too few executives truly understand is that for briefings, interviews, or meet-and-greets of any stake or consequence, you need an actual game plan and talking points. More troubling still is that these executives also fail to see that talking points don't just cover company facts, point of view, and product features and benefits. You also must know from the get-go exactly how you will speak to the truly tough questions when they come up. This advance knowledge and dexterity on the spot enables you to deflect danger and do yourself and your company no harm in the process.
When it comes to dealing with danger, the key is intentionality -- having a focused, purposeful approach to talking about competition, the state of your business, and any sensitive market issues that could potentially cast you in a poor light. This comes down to tone, a specific way of speaking to each danger point, and the ability to redirect the conversation somewhat. Let's take the area of competition to illustrate how to be intentional in your approach when things get sticky.
One of your competitors has just done a major deal (before your company has been able to close a similar, and in fact larger, contract) and is getting some press for it that is potentially creating the false perception that this company is ahead. Based on the marketplace buzz, the reporter you are meeting is certain to ask you to explain the significance of this deal, and why you were not first. You are not ready to disclose the fact that you are in the process of closing a comparable or superior deal, but you need to position yourself well. What tack should you take when it comes up?
- Above all, do not disparage the competition.
- If you are able, quickly position the deal on a factual basis for what it is and move along, without spending a lot of time on these points.
- Encourage a look at the broader landscape and the context for this deal.
- Positively state your own market position and value, elaborating on your own competitive virtues, sharing a few indicators that speak for themselves. Make it obvious (again, without disparagement) to the reporter why you are doing just fine and just might be ahead in the game after all. You are planting just the right seed to make the reporter ask tougher questions of your competitors next time.
No matter the nature of the danger -- a competitive issue, a scandal, or an unfavorable trend -- you might have limited time to prepare. It could be an ongoing danger or something you find out the night before you meet the reporter, or even in the cab ride over. In any case, you must have a manner and tone in these situations that is civil, fact-based, and positive, redirecting the conversation and encouraging a closer look. In fact, if you do this right, you are helping this reporter do better and deliver more informed coverage as a journalist. You are now a resource. And that's always what you want.
Make it matter. It's not all about you.
Alex Levy, Partner, WIT Strategy:
Sure, you're excited about your brand and all the nifty things you're doing with it. But why should other marketers care about what you're doing? Don't they have their own brands to pay attention to? A reporter doesn't just want to know what you're most excited about, the reporter wants to hear about things that will resonate with the marketplace. The press wants to be a channel to educate others about marketplace innovation, the new products you've launched, and the trends you've observed. What are you testing? What have you learned? In order to best position your message and maximize awareness and receptivity, you need to relate your message and your product to current marketplace dynamics. To do that, you need to take into account marketplace themes, create context, and move the conversation forward by offering new insights to the market.
What's the best way to do that? Stay up to speed on the stories and trends in the marketplace. Understand what the key customer challenges are for a particular product set or platform. Understand what your competitors have been trying to do to solve the challenges. Read the trades, opinion pieces, and bylines, and follow social media. Most importantly, be current on the conversation.
Here's an example: You launch a new product. You think it's a game changer. What's the customer problem you're trying to solve, and what have you done to solve for it? Why will others relate to and appreciate what you're doing? Always keep the audience -- your competitors, partners, and customers -- in mind when speaking to the reporter.
The more you appreciate the reporter's point of view, the more your message will be relevant and memorable to the marketplace -- and the press.
Talk only when it makes sense (but it probably does more than you think)
Bill Brazell, Partner, WIT Strategy:
As often as not, a brand should avoid talking to the press, especially about its relationships with technology suppliers or other "vendors." Many brands refrain from doing so for competitive reasons -- for example, if you're getting good results from a vendor and talking about those results publicly would tip your competitors off to a technique or partner they might not otherwise know about.
Some brands avoid the press in such situations because they want to keep the peace: They say that if they endorse one vendor, all of their other vendors will ask them to do so too. To avoid disappointing some, they disappoint all. That argument can't avoid sounding weak. Does saying "yes" to one or two vendors magically remove a brand's ability to say "no" to others? Hearing that explanation, one doubts a brand's willpower in other parts of its business.
It's almost always easier and sometimes wiser to say "no" than it is to say "yes." Yet judicial interaction with the press can benefit a brand in many ways.
It makes sense to talk with the press when doing so can help a brand achieve its objectives. However fashionable it is to bash the press, the public knows that a favorable mention by a reporter is usually worth far more than an ad. And if your brand is already paying to advertise -- and even if it's not -- why not stay open to favorable mentions that won't cost a penny?
Even a neutral mention in an article about an innovative business practice associates your brand with innovation. If reporters use your brand to validate a new technique, you won't have to tell people that you're not selling their father's Oldsmobile -- readers will know that you're up to speed and looking ahead.
It doesn't even matter if the innovation is core to your business. Appearing in an article about innovation will do more for your brand than a million ads could ever do. Readers know the difference between stories and ads, and they listen harder when an objective reporter is telling them what's happening.
People rarely go looking for ads. Many times a day, though, they go looking for news. And when they're looking and learning, you want them to find your brand instead of another brand.
One other consideration: If you think you may want a reporter's attention at some future time, the time to lay the groundwork is now. Getting to know reporters as people, helping them get the information they need -- even if you decide to stay out of a particular story -- will pay dividends when you want a little attention of your own. If you don't build that relationship on the reporter's terms first, you'll have nothing to draw on later. Give a little now, and you can start building the kind of relationship that pays off when you need it. That kind of equity doesn't fade as quickly as you might guess. After all, reporters make a living recalling such things. You may reap benefit from it sooner than you think or years down the road.
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"Photo of a news broadcaster" image via Shutterstock.