But things aren't always as simple as they look. This fixation on connected consumers has created a darker side to social networks: the "adder" industry. Never heard of it? Many MySpace users have. Companies have created suites of online tools that let people automatically add lots of others to their network (check out this example). Of course, these automated communities are held together by the loosest of ties. There is virtually no relationship between and among most members. The result is obvious: the size of someone's social network becomes meaningless in delivering effective results for marketers.
The drawbacks of tapping into artificially stimulated communities are most significant in word-of-mouth marketing, an industry in which the size of one's "buddy list" has been considered as a value mechanism to the brand. But in reality -- even outside of those artificially growing their networks -- the breadth of one's network is a poor indicator of the individual's capacity to spread effective word of mouth. Personal connections may have high social value on MySpace or LinkedIn (or even to that guy in the office who constantly name drops), but when it comes to being a great evangelist, get this: size doesn't matter.
But all is not lost. There actually are much better ways to identify which consumers will make the best brand evangelists. The criteria have nothing to do with how many people a marketer thinks a consumer knows. Rather, this simple set of guidelines will help marketers to select potential evangelists according to each individual's interests, preferences and values. It goes something like this:
- Category Appreciation: Does the individual care about your product or service-- or could the person learn to value what you offer? Would it make sense for that consumer to discuss your product with others?
- Curiosity Quotient: Word-of-mouth success is not based on how many people with whom a consumer talks, but rather whether the product complements the person's lifestyle. This is a huge distinction that many marketers overlook. Don't evaluate your campaign participants based on how positive they will be, choose them instead because of their personal interest in the item.
- Channel Usage: As media continues to fragment, the need to integrate the broadest spectrum of "customer evangelism" media -- blogs, personal videos, at-home events, et cetera -- becomes critical. A high impact word-of-mouth program encourages individuals to share their opinions in the places that are appropriate and natural for them.
So how would a marketer put these recommendations into practice? Let's consider a recent word-of-mouth program for Duraflame Quick Coals. Left to his own devices, one volunteer evangelist, Christopher Penn, took the time to shoot a personal video in which he tested whether or not the coals would actually be cooking-ready in six minutes or less. This skeptical but curious consumer recorded the entire cooking process, from coal-lighting to impatient waiting to chicken-grilling, then put the video up on YouTube and sent it around to a bunch of friends (you can see it here). The result is a compelling look at how one cautious consumer can be turned into a believer, then leverage new media to make believers of the rest of us.
While Chris may not know the most BBQuers on the planet or belong to the Julia Child's Greatest Cooks of America Club, he did raise his hand as someone who enjoys grilling, uses coals often, and is willing to share his opinion with others. That's all it took to create some user-generated content and put his real opinion on record for others to see.
So you might think it a bright idea to head on over to MySpace and track down all those folks with huge networks so they can check out your latest promotion. But the end result won't get you much farther than inflaming a bad case buddy-list-ego. Focus instead on the passions of honest individuals-- whether they have one or 500 friends, their message will truly be heard.
Dave Balter is the founder and CEO of BzzAgent, Inc., one of the advertising industry's most recognized word-of-mouth marketing and media firms. He launched BzzAgent in 2002, and since that time the company has established itself as the leading provider of word-of-mouth services for the world's most esteemed brands, including Anheuser-Busch, Levi Strauss and Ralph Lauren. Under Balter's leadership, BzzAgent has been featured in The New York Times Sunday Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. In January of 2006, the company closed a groundbreaking $14MM round of institutional financing.
Balter is an international speaker on the topic of word-of-mouth marketing. He has presented for corporations, associations and non-profit groups throughout the United States and Europe. He co-authored Grapevine: The New Art of Word-of-Mouth Marketing, which has become the industry's seminal business title. Dubbed a "serial entrepreneur" by The Boston Globe, Balter built and sold two promotional agencies prior to forming BzzAgent. He was named to the "40 under 40" by the Advertising Specialty Institute in 2001 and "Top 7 Individuals Changing the Face of Beauty" by Women's Wear Daily. Balter earned a B.A. in Psychology from Skidmore College.