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Do marketers know enough to manage their businesses' word of mouth strategy?

Justin Kirby
Do marketers know enough to manage their businesses' word of mouth strategy? Justin Kirby

Many marketers believe, mistakenly, that word of mouth (WOM) cannot be created. My recent research elicited a lot of feedback claiming that marketers can neither create nor manage WOM.

Yet managing and avoiding negative word of mouth (NWOM), online and offline, is becoming an increasingly important area for businesses. (By "managing" I refer not to "controlling" WOM but rather to monitoring it then planning and implementing a business’s response - rapidly if necessary.)

As Dr. Alain Samson, consumer and social psychology consultant at the London School of Economics, hypothesises: "Negative word of mouth is a better predictor of business growth than positive word of mouth, particularly in industries that have few players and for brands with goods and services we usually stick with for a while, such as banks, mobile networks and cars."

Marketers tasked with generating and managing WOM need to get to grips with how WOM works a lot faster than they seem to be.

First, let’s deal with the issue about whether or not creating WOM is possible. One has only to look at the worlds of political spin and religious dogma to realise that stories can be created, believed, and spread far and wide regardless of their factual accuracy. There’s a difference between being able to create WOM and whether or not WOM should be created by a business - it’s fair to say that trying to create WOM out of thin air is likely to be counterproductive, particularly in the long term.

As for managing WOM, and particularly avoiding NWOM, the online monitoring of consumer conversations is already an important part of reputation management and crisis PR. This ‘buzz monitoring’ enables businesses and their communication partners to identify escalating NWOM quickly in order to respond rapidly and appropriately. Response often involves simply getting the business’s side of the story out to key online influencers that they have both identified and developed relationships with, pouring water on the flames of negative rumour, which would have otherwise been fanned by an information vacuum.

There are signs that buzz monitoring is moving beyond reputation management and crisis PR. Examples include online conversation analysis being used in order to measure a brand’s online prominence, connectedness, reach, clarity, resonance, authority and approval among consumers; and to benchmark a brand or campaign against what’s being said about competitive brands. There are also a lot more holistic and proactive – rather than simply reactive – uses of buzz monitoring and analysis within a wider business remit. It’s all part of an ongoing process to build and safeguard a brand and its customer assets through mutually beneficial relationships with customers and consumers.

Doug Grisaffe, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Texas, sums up the process: "The best protection from a company perspective is to fulfill the brand promise, to serve customers with excellence, minimally meeting and ideally exceeding customer expectations with competitively differentiated and value-producing experiences. The huge threats of not doing so are (a) negative word of mouth, from (b) customers who are likely to end the relationship, who (c) also create negative downstream impact on other customers and prospects, (d) driving them away from your offering both psychologically and behaviorally."

Fundamentally, marketers are charged with adopting WOM strategies to help businesses deliver on their promises. If WOM is as predictive of business health as it’s claimed to be, those who fail will find themselves on a sinking ship.

Justin Kirby is Managing Director of connected marketing specialists Digital Media Communications, and joint editor and author of ‘Connected Marketing: The Viral, Buzz and Word of Mouth Revolution’


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