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To Leverage WOM, Listen First

Laurent Flores
To Leverage WOM, Listen First Laurent Flores

As the industry is moving full speed towards building, generating and leveraging word of mouth (WOM) for marketers and their brands, it is worth remembering that WOM does not work the same way that advertising does, and more importantly, that WOM is not planned and managed as traditional mass media advertising campaigns are. This may sound basic for most readers, of course, but the underlying reason may not be as obvious as one may think. Let me explain.

Marketers and advertising agencies alike are used to talking to consumers rather than listening and conversing with them. How many times, for example, when you plan a campaign, do you refer to the message or the brand or product positioning? You probably don't know, because you do it every day, and have been doing it for years. In fact, until the rise of the internet, marketing had been all about talking to consumers (or even worse, "shouting" at them, louder and louder, to get your message across) rather than conversing and engaging them.

Does this sound familiar? If it does, then you should think about marketing less in terms of talking and more in terms of listening. This is specifically important when it comes to word-of-mouth marketing. The implication is that marketing is no longer about planning and shaping the message for the brand -- or in other words marketing to consumers -- but rather marketing is now about understanding and better listening to what consumers say about the brand, moving towards marketing with consumers.

To paraphrase best seller author Seth Godin, marketing is all about permission, not interruption, and we should add that permission only happens when you listen to conversations. As the ClueTrain Manifesto reminds us "markets are conversations," and conversations drive WOM and build relationships. 

What does this mean for word-of-mouth marketing?
In essence this means that in order to drive WOM, listening to and leveraging what people say is essential. To this end, let the consumers shape the message, or at least involve them in evolving your message. Move away from the traditional advertising message planning practice that tends to impose messages rather than invite conversations. In other words, as we stated earlier, stop talking and start conversing by listening to consumers; learn from them and shape your message with them.

We can summarize the implications for WOM campaign planning in the following way:

First: Listen to conversations. Learn from consumers and leverage the words consumers "recognize themselves in": a message is about an idea, and the words that support it best.

Second: Listen and engage the consumers who matter in your category. Leadership is not universal, but category related. Look at natural touch-points with your customers, such as the brand website, to find the influencers who want to engage with their favorite brands.

Third: Test the words. As stated earlier, evolving the message with influencers is key. Indeed, rather than just testing the message idea, test the words consumers will recognize themselves in. Let them have a say with a simple online VIP vote, for example.

Fourth: Seed trials and give them the ability to spread. Engage influencers further in trying and testing your product during an exclusive special VIP invitation. Give them the means to spread the word by making samples and campaign materials available (that they actually developed themselves, remember), and they will drive sales for you.

Fifth: Continue listening and keep involving them. Because markets are conversations, continuous listening to consumers during and after the campaign is key. Listening will not only provide the necessary measurement to better manage WOM, but will also naturally boost consumer engagement and relationship with your brand for your next campaign.

In summary, our experience shows that the simple ability to listen, value and respect consumers is the best driver of WOM. Although the approach may sound simple, it calls for a complete mind change from marketers to move away from talking and into listening and conversing to engage consumers. The sooner you change, the better, because the internet is here to stay and consumer empowerment will only grow.

So are you ready to evolve by listening?

Know your tribe
Having a child is a life-changing event that forces soon-to-be parents to rethink everything. During this time, women tend to reconsider almost every category of goods and services. With a baby on the way, the two-door coupe and savings account with a measly one percent interest rate just won't cut it anymore. Even everyday things like cleaning products are re-evaluated to make sure they're safe for the newest family member. Naturally, women seek advice from other moms in the tribe, and they are happy to oblige with their advice and recommendations.

The study found close to one in five pregnant women and new moms were identified as word-of-mouth leaders based on their recommending behavior and size of social network. To put this into context, that's a whopping 60 percent more than women in general or the total public.  

Idle chatter? Bite your tongue.
In this age of citizen journalism and social media, we've all had to come to grips with the fact that all talk isn't necessarily positive talk. However, when it comes to pregnant women and new moms, 60 percent of their conversations carry with them a recommendation to buy, try or consider, and positive brand sentiment in those conversations outweighs the negative by a 10:1 margin. The even better news is that after hearing brand recommendations from other moms, 37 percent are motivated enough to seek out more information, and half say they're likely to purchase the recommended brand. In the shopping, retail and apparel category, it's even higher, with 69 percent likely to purchase based on what was passed along.

We've established that moms talk a lot, but what exactly are they talking about? A lot more than sippy cups and diapers. Half or more of all moms surveyed reported having at least one conversation per day about technology, financial services, health care, food/dining, media/entertainment, packaged goods, shopping and retail experiences. In fact, the majority of the most talked about brands listed in the study are not children's brands but rather big box retailers, consumer electronics and soft drink brands.

It's not surprising to find Target and Wal-Mart atop the list, and of course Pampers and Gerber as well. But it is interesting to see so much talk about telecom brands. The prominence of these brands, along with Apple, demonstrates the wide variety of things moms are discussing.

Among pregnant women and new moms, the internet is the No. 1 driver of word of mouth. While we found the majority of discussions about brands and products still take place in person, much of the talk is stimulated and informed by content that moms have been exposed to through the internet and other media channels. And the opportunity online is only growing.

By the end of this year, there will be 35mm U.S. moms online. We know from past research that the vast majority of moms use the internet to help them stay connected to their world and for support and guidance. The opportunity for them to share and receive advice is far greater today than it has ever been, making word of mouth even more powerful. Web 2.0 affords multiple avenues for mom-to-mom connections, making it even easier to find and compare notes via blogs, chats, message boards and social networks.

The most important thing to remember is that brand growth today starts with consumer conversation. Find ways to engage in dialogue with consumers and create opportunities for consumers to talk with each other. Moms, in particular, like to share, and they trust what they hear from their friends, family members and peers, so use that to your advantage. Here are a few tips to help you reach this valuable audience using word-of-mouth marketing:

  1. Give them something to talk about. Encourage word-of-mouth components within your brand briefs and marketing objectives. Leverage partnerships with sites with deep audience affinity, and gain strategic insights to hone in on what's going to resonate with the audience. According to a recent Booz Allen Hamilton study, consumer insights topped the list of the most important capabilities to marketers by 2010. But don't just gather them, use them.

  2. Encourage participation. Give consumers access to simple tools and applications like video and photo uploading to encourage collaboration and contribution. Make it easy for them to show their creativity and become part of the mosaic. Marketing today is becoming more about co-creating experiences with consumers than pushing messages. Arm your consumers with ways to pass along what they've heard. Think send-to-friend, IM and email.

  3. Enable sharing. It's imperative to make sure your technology is in sync with the digital ecosystem, so sharing activities are not only possible, but better yet, enabled by you! Encourage virality by allowing users to post to YouTube, Facebook and other social sites. Create sharing tools so people can easily send executions through Outlook or AIM. Also, don't forget to negotiate sharing rights into your contracts up front so there aren't any last minute surprises.

  4. Observe, listen and learn. Pay attention to and rely on the wisdom of crowds. Create a feedback loop and troll blogs to see how your brand, product and message resonate -- which leads us to tip No. 5…

  5. Iterate. Iterate. Iterate. Make your campaign and creative flexible. Use your feedback loop to refine creative to better serve the needs of your audience.

At the end of the day, regardless of what audience you're trying to reach, the insights generated from your research are arguably the most valuable form of media today. These findings not only help shape your media and marketing plans, but they can also be extremely effective when developing creative execution, and even product decisions.

Tina Sharkey is chairman and global president of BabyCenter, the largest online resource for expectant and new parents around the world.


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