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Media Maze: Talk, Talk, Talk: WOM

Media Maze: Talk, Talk, Talk: WOM Jim Meskauskas

In today’s massively advertised environment, Word of Mouth, or WOM, marketing has become a popular phrase used to describe the phenomenon of consumers influencing other consumers to engage products or services. In an age where people are beset on all sides by the near-tyranny of perennial marketing, the din of advertising has inured audiences to the messages being presented to them. Because of this, advertisers are looking to the advertised to serve as their most potent vehicle for carrying those messages.

I can easily ignore a marketing message, either by skipping over it with my DVR, blocking pop-ups with software, or just plain ignoring it out of hand. But it is a lot harder to ignore my friend who advocates a product or service and, being my friend, knows my likes and dislikes better than the many companies that seek to gain my attention and pique my interests. My friend's advocacy thereby lends greater credence to the endorsement of that product or service than a message from the purveyor of that product or service.

But what constitutes word of mouth marketing is more than just my buddy telling me about how great he thinks the iPod Nano is. It is also the collective influence of like-minded persons with similar interests that can spread information, both positive and negative, about people, places and things being marketed.

This dissemination of opinion is made possible through the miracle of modern media technology and the phenomenon of consumer-generated content that it has enabled. Word of mouth has long been, in a non-technical sense, the way that many people come to know and eventually engage a product or service. The difference between WOM in 2005 and my Grandmother’s neighbor sharing with her home remedies for treating poison oak with Witch Hazel and oatmeal is that, today, passions for a product or service -- be they positive or negative -- can be shared with several multitudes more people at once through the use of the internet.

Word of mouth marketing is really word of mouse marketing. And advertisers are trying their best at getting a handle on how to turn this kind of communication into a tool that they can use to their advantage.

WOM can also mean ‘Word of Mouse’

The talk of the town for some time has been blogs and blogging. These personal websites and their often consumer-generated content have come to serve as the hub for what most marketers are now calling word of mouth marketing. According to the latest figures from the blog-watching outfit, Technorati, there are now some 18.7 million sites identified as blogs. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, five percent, or 4.1 million people, read a blog at least once a day (these numbers are from a survey done in the winter of this year; no doubt these figures are going up every day).

After search, the blog has quickly become a source for all manner of information, be it news, alternative points of political view or product details. Blogs have become a phalanx of information on the internet. Marketers know this and want to harness the power blogs have demonstrated as the embodiment of the notion that, as the Cluetrain Manifesto claimed, “markets are conversations.”

The marketer must talk back

At last week's Word of Mouth Marketing Association event, David Balter, founder and president of BzzAgent, talked about an experience he had with a P&G product, a new kind of single-serve coffee maker that uses disposable packets of coffee.

For those of you who don’t know, BzzAgent has a panel of over 100,000 people (these people are not compensated) who are at liberty to choose from a number of campaigns BzzAgent conducts on a client’s behalf. Those who opt in receive a kit typically including a sample of the product. They then post their opinions about the product to the BzzAgent blog.

For reasons unexplained, these coffee makers were suddenly bursting into flames. Though relatively small, given the number of customers versus the number of those customers who are regular users of online media, a “blogstorm” -- or “buzzstorm” -- ensued on the BzzAgent board (it may be hard to believe, but there is also a blog out there titled Single Serve Coffee.

Being a savvy marketer that is coming to understand the notion of markets as conversations, P&G responded to these panelists and their other customers and had those original machines replaced. By doing so, they created a small group of brand advocates who, feeling positive about the company’s response, would now protect the brand against negative WOM.

As Jonathan Carson, CEO of BuzzMetrics, pointed out, the traditional instinctive response of a marketer is that when something bad happens, or bad news emerges, the company “squashes it.” As we learned from Watergate, it is better to open the kimono in the face of accusation than to cover up the errant or misdeed. 

Andrew Nibley, chairman of Marsteller, a full-service agency sibling of Burson-Marsteller, in a later panel made the point that a new blog is created every second. With so much consumer-created content out there, marketers need to do whatever they can to encourage people to commit some of this content to telling positive stories about their product.

Aside from themselves, people love to talk about two things: what they love and what they hate. By creating a strong product, a desirable brand, and maintaining open conversations with your base of consumers even if what they say about you is negative, you will be creating a class of influential brand advocates.

Paul Rand, partner and managing director of Ketchum Chicago, summed this point up very succinctly albeit hysterically, when he said that if you ignore the “Hear Me’s” they will become “reputation terrorists.” In contrast, a marketer addresses their concerns and even if the problem can’t be fixed the fire in the belly may be quelled and the potential for negative WOM curtailed.

ROI for WOM?

Bless the soul of the woman who, during the Q&A period after one of the panels, got up and asked what kind of accountability can be attributed to WOM marketing?

For a moment, I could hear crickets in the distance and tumbleweeds blowing across the plains.

Gary Stein, a senior analyst for Jupiter and moderator of the panel quickly followed the ensuing silence by noting how one mentions “ROI and everyone scatters.”

And that really is one of the most important points to raise about WOM marketing, isn’t it? It’s interesting that what we are seeing in the media universe is both a growing insistence on the accountability of media and a widening quest for non-traditional advertising.

Experiential marketing, WOM and branded entertainment are more popular than ever before. Yet, there is a greater call for attribution of results to the media being employed than there has ever been in the history of advertising.

Needless to say, the crowd laughed and the panelists looked uncomfortably at one another. David Balter offered a possibility for measuring WOM, by suggesting that we tie WOM efforts to something that is measurable, for instance online content developed specifically as part of a WOM campaign and track actions taken as a direct result of contact with that content.

Instant messenger and email are also devices that can be used to affect word of mouth, given their inherently viral nature, and actions taken in relation to them can be tracked to some degree beyond the word of mouth that happens in a random, open environment.

On a later panel, Dave Evans of Digital Voodoo suggested that WOM brings a different dimension to an analysis of the profitable versus unprofitable consumer, pointing out that you may have what looks like an unprofitable consumer whose influence on other consumers may render him or her profitable by virtue of his or her ability to affect action on the part of other people. But actually tracking this effect is far more difficult to do than assuming that there is one.

Word of mouth marketing as a practice is in no small part a reliance on word of mouse activity. People exchanging their thoughts and ideas about brands -- with audiences larger than their own personal interactions can allow -- is possible only through the use of the web as the means for transmitting those thoughts and ideas.

It seems that planned word of mouth campaigns only really begin with word of mouse.

Jim Meskauskas is the media strategies editor for iMedia Connection.

Social media is not as ubiquitous as you think

Everyone is on social media, right? I mean, come on -- your grandmother just friended you on Facebook.

In fact, Pew Internet found that more than 50 percent of internet users either don't use any social networks or use only one. These numbers are probably not in line with the blanket "everybody" penetration rate you've been touting to your CMO. On the upside, it also means that the social media opportunity is far from saturated. On the downside, your social strategy still can't necessarily be your only strategy.

Consumers expect immediate results from social media

According to the American Express OPEN Forum, 25 percent of consumers who complain about products on Facebook and Twitter expect a response to their gripes within one hour. Dang. That's a lot of pressure. Are you on top of it?

Most certainly, some larger brands are, with their dedicated social customer service teams and robust monitoring tools. But for a lot of brands, the always-on resources for social media listening still just aren't there. How often are you letting already-peeved customers fester in their disgruntlement due to your lack of reply?

It's true -- the kids just don't care about Facebook

More than 11 million young people have abandoned Facebook since 2011. That breaks down as more than 4 million fewer high school students and nearly 7 million fewer college-aged students. Most marketers realize that Facebook isn't the place for the kids these days. But most also don't know where they should be finding them. In some cases, we're happy to dismiss the Facebook aversion of the youth since they have yet to become the ones with disposable income to blow. But if you subscribe to Whitney Houston's belief that "the children are our future," you better start looking down the line. Because those children who are our future just aren't interested in the platform where marketers are currently pouring most of their efforts.

Consumers won't protect their own privacy on social networks

Despite widely touted privacy concerns, only 25 percent of Facebook users use their privacy settings.

"So what?" a marketer might ask. Well, if you don't care about consumer privacy habits, you should. Online privacy is becoming increasingly legislated. And when those fat cats in Washington realize that consumers won't protect themselves, then they'll step in and do it for them -- likely with burdensome and rash legislation that will stall (if not squash) portions of our industry.

There's still a fake Twitter user problem

Italian researchers recently claimed that at least 10 percent of Twitter accounts are fake, and the estimated cost to buy 1,000 followers is only $11. Granted, marketers shouldn't be hanging their hats solely on follower numbers anymore. But still -- that's a lot of fraud, uncertainty, and loose dealings in a network that is serious business for many brands.

Facebook doesn't really care if your brand stays on Facebook

Most marketers who have played in the social space for any amount of time have realized that dealing with Facebook can be a little -- well, tricky. But deep down, we like to think that the company gives at least half a crap about brands because -- hey -- they're ultimately footing the bill.

That's why it was a little disheartening to see Facebook's response to Eat24, a food app with 70,000 Facebook followers that penned a snarky breakup letter to Facebook out of frustration over its promoted posts policies. Eat24 contended that Facebook's news feed algorithm is unfair and rewards only page owners who pay to have their posts promoted. Rather than try to smooth things over or address the concern, Facebook's communications director retorted with the equivalent of "don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out."

Even the "free" part of social media is no longer free

We used to bitch about CMOs who assumed social media was free. Yes, getting on the platforms was, but maintaining presences there, in terms of manpower and producing content, surely was not. But now, increasingly even having a meaningful presence on a network is going to cost you. More and more, advertising on Facebook is the only way to ensure eyeballs, even those of your biggest fans. In fact, a recent study found that, as of February, companies' posts typically reach only 6 percent of their followers, versus 12 percent in October.

Social ad ROI depends heavily on your user's mobile OS

Late last year, a study found that Facebook mobile ads on iPhones generate a 1,790 percent higher return on investment than ads on Android. At that time, the study pointed out that advertising on Android actually costs more than it returns. The study didn't speculate as to the reasons for the disparity. But as iPhone sales continue to wane and Android takes its place as the world's dominant smartphone platform, that's a finding that should raise a few anxious eyebrows.

Companies still don't have social measurement figured out

As of late last year, 44 percent of companies still weren't measuring social's value in their organizations. Perhaps even more worrisome, nearly a fifth of the companies that had measured its value determined that it was yielding a negative ROI.

First off, how can social marketing truly venture into its mature years if we're still not quantifying its value? And secondly -- uh oh. What if its assumed value turns out to not be what we'd hoped when it comes to the bottom line? 

Many senior social marketers are dissatisfied with results on social media and are stepping back

Building off the previous point, a recent survey of 1,700 U.S. and Canada-based businesses (detailed here on iMedia Connection) found that satisfaction levels with existing social marketing campaigns are quite low among senior marketers. In fact, only about 8 percent of respondents were truly happy with results, while a whopping 21 percent labeled themselves as "dissatisfied" with social marketing.

While social media is indeed accepted and an assumed part of any marketing strategy, many of the above points remind us that the channel still has a ways to go to alleviate concerns. And it remains to be seen how social will succeed or fail to live up to its promised marketing potential.

Drew Hubbard is a social media and content marketing strategist and owner of L.A. Foodie.

On Twitter? Follow Hubbard at @LAFoodie. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Male in bed browsing the internet" image via Shutterstock.

Jim Meskauskas is a Partner and Co-Founder of Media Darwin, Inc., providing comprehensive media strategy and planning.  Prior to that, Jim was the SVP of Online Media at ICON International, an Omnicom Company, where he spent nearly five years.

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