I think we need to get serious about word of mouth.
Word of mouth isn't just people talking anymore. It's a massive wave of consumer-driven discussion about our products. And, frankly, it's a heck of a lot more important than any other marketing we're doing.
You heard it here first: We are risking our brand and reputation if we don't take an active role in managing word of mouth about our company.
Three math problems
Like all marketers, we are metrics-obsessed these days, so let's do some math (actually, some story problems):
Problem #1: We just spent $100,000 on search-engine advertising. Our ad pops up next to three competitors' ads next to the search results. But, the second and seventh search results deliver posts from some 14-year-old's blog with the headline "Your Brand Screwed Me."
What is the cost to our acquisition campaign? How much did we waste?
Problem #2: We spend $5 million to develop and launch a new product. Two grouchy customers post negative reviews on Amazon.com. Amazon links visitors to competitors' more popular products. The same grouch posts negative reviews on three other sites. Customers never show up. Check out this example.
What is the value of lost sales? What do we do when Wal-Mart takes consumer reviews (and posts them in the stores)?
Problem #3: We pay for an email campaign to one million opt-in (we hope) email addresses. We get one percent clickthroughs, and close 10 percent of them, giving us 1,000 new customers. However, 10,000 people don't remember opting in. So they get angry and decide never to buy from us again. And they each tell five friends that we spammed them.
How many prospects do we lose forever? Was the potential lifetime value of these customers greater than the new accounts we acquired? What is the lost revenue from current customers who left because they hear we are spamming? What happens when people start blogging that we spammed them, and that starts showing up next to our search campaigns?
Three things that changed
Positive word of mouth was always a nice thing for companies to have, but it was never a big deal. What has changed that suddenly makes this a pressing concern for us?
1. Consumer opinions have big distribution. A few years ago, an angry customer told a few friends, and that was it. On the internet, opinions reach massive audiences (without much effort).
Online review sites give regular people the same reach as professional reviewers. Ecommerce companies, especially Amazon.com, have attached consumer-written reviews right to the products. One lonely poster is now guaranteed to reach every single Amazon customer, right at the moment they are ready to buy. Most marketers can only dream about equal point-of-purchase message distribution.
2. Consumers are publishers. It's amazing how easy it is for consumers to publish content. You can set up a blog, for free, in five minutes. That blog gets linked to, read and indexed by the search engines. But blogs aren't all of it. Non-bloggers also have amazing publishing tools. Email, discussion boards, wikis, IM, chat rooms, et cetera.
Word of mouth that used to get shared with a few offline friends is now emailed to dozens of email buddies. The millions of blogs on Blogger.com get more hits every day than the New York Times' website. (And you might mention to our PR people that the great article they got in the Times is invisible online because readers have to register to get it, and it doesn't show up in search engines.)
3. Everything lives forever on the internet. Word of mouth used to have a brief life. You told people something, maybe they repeated it, and then it was done. Web pages last for a very long time. Bloggers love to archive. Every Usenet post ever shows up in Google. What used to be a one-time customer complaint is now a permanent negative ad about our brand.
Three new realities
Now is time for a cliché: "Marketers that ignore this are in big trouble." I know, I know, we talked about this during the dotcom boom.
But we need to recognize that something has changed, very suddenly, and it's not going away.
New reality #1: People are already talking about us. Are we going to join the conversation?
I know we've talked about the risk of engaging with consumers: "What if they say something bad? Will our PR department lose control?" There's no choice here. Ignore word of mouth and take the hits, or engage and turn it in our favor. The train has left the station.
New reality #2: Advertising can't cover for bad products and services. People talk about us because they like or don't like what we do. We used to be able to cover our mistakes with a bombardment of high-power advertising. But the balance has tipped. The weight of consumer-shared opinion is greater than our advertising power. We need to make sure that customer opinion is positive.
New reality #3: This is easy to do well. We need to talk to our customers. Respond to their concerns. Participate in the conversation. Keep people happy (something we should be doing anyway). It's uncomfortable, but not difficult. Really, it's just about better customer service.
Let's get excited about this.
Andy Sernovitz is CEO of WOMMA, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and blogs at GasPedal. WOMMA is a non-profit association that is building a word of mouth marketing industry based on ethics, measurable ROI and best practices. More than 175 companies have joined the organization this year. Learn more about how you can master word of mouth at womma.org.