Word of Mouth: The Real Deal

There was a huge silence in the Disney Resort meeting room. An audience member stood up, microphone in hand, poised to ask a question, and instead voiced his opinion to nearly 500 marketers, brand managers, agency folks, and business leaders attending the first Word of Mouth Basic Training Conference in Orlando.

The irritated man loudly grumbled something like, "No wi-fi in a convention place like this! Not a good way to build a connection to a business customer. They need to get a clue."

He was right. And just hearing his vent made my blood pressure rise, too. Minus 10 points for the brand experience, my brain quickly transmitted.

Later in my room while using the high-speed connection, I had a replay of that man's conviction. The technology in this place sucks. The IP service the hotel uses dropped off every 10 minutes or so, which was totally annoying. Minus another 10 points. And since I was on the phone while this was happening, I naturally whined to one of my officemates who was in a meeting with 10 other people and had me on speakerphone. "This place is stressing me out," I snarled.

"Where are you?" she asked.

"I'm in Orlando at some Disney property."

That would be classic word of mouth (WOM), the act of a consumer creating and/or distributing marketing-relevant information to another consumer. And that's just a small bite of what I digested at the excellent two-day conference last month.

For a long time, most of us have known word of mouth was a vital channel for building businesses and brands. Now, lucky for every business leader and brand person, this powerful means of connecting to consumers is an official business discipline and the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) is leading the charge.

It all started in 2004, when the CEOs of BuzzMetrics, BzzAgent, and Intelliseek kept running into each other while on the conference circuit. They were all talking about the same ideas — consumer control, buzz marketing, consumer-generated media, word of mouth — and found common ground. After a few informal meetings someone said, "We should form an association around this idea." The rest is history, and for a young organization, they have accomplished so much.

Where do I begin? This 48-hour, information-packed, intense data dump has my brain on a rush. Word of mouth is the real deal and those who don't embrace its profound power will be left depressed and in the dust.

To give you a better understanding of how it works, here are some top-line highlights I garnered from the event:

The basic principles of WOM apply to both consumer and B2B challenges.

  • A happy customer is the greatest endorsement
  • Give customers a voice
  • Listen to consumers
  • Engage the community

Getting started with WOM takes understanding how "WOMunits" or pieces of information can be transmitted. Here are few ways:

  • A conversation concerning a referral
  • A comment on a message board
  • A letter to the editor
  • A product or book review
  • An email
  • A post on a blog
  • After-talk about publicity

When you are designing programs, be honest and authentic. Research has proven that full disclosure actually aids in the success of a WOM marketing program.

Remember that, as Douglas Atkins (conference speaker and author of The Culting of Brands) proclaims, many brands are like cults. Their followers' behavior stems from believing and belonging with like members. This will not happen with deceptive marketing.

Don't even think about employing sleazy tactics. Ethics are a major platform with WOMMA and should be for you too. Stealth campaigns (deceiving consumers about a marketer's involvement), shilling (paying people to spread buzz about a brand without disclosing their affiliation), infiltration (using fake identities to post on blogs and message boards), lying, and spam in any fashion all smell like dead fish and will only harm your efforts in the long run.

Stick with this basic formula and you'll be on your way.

  1. Research: Listen, observe, monitor and mine your data.
  2. Customer relationships matter. Manage them: Provide consumers with tools to talk back, respond in a timely manner and personalize.
  3. Grassroots: Reach out and inform.
  4. Create evangelists: Find the influencers and build affiliate and direct marketing relationships.
  5. Paid and earned media: Mix up your media, buy it, and deserve earning it.

Buzz and viral initiatives are great methods to touch consumers and can support a WOM program. However, they are completely different animals than Word of Mouth and can backlash big time, harming positive Word of Mouth.

As Dave Balter (founder of BzzAgent and conference speaker) writes in his must read book, Grapevine: The New Art of Word-of-Mouth Marketing, the big key to successful WOM is moving from an "at you" approach to a "with you" mindset. Campaigns that are generated by both the consumer and marketer will have much stronger legs.

The WOMMA conference not only poured out mounds of meaningful content and ideas, but was an incredible network of talented and cool people. I polled a few of them to share their big takeaways, too:

Successful and long-lasting word of mouth marketing is not a tactic. It's a way of doing business every day. Businesses need to be interesting to get customers interested. It's no secret that remarkable things get remarked, yet too many businesses and their products are so unremarkable to the extent no one cares to remark about them.
—John Moore of Brandautopsy.com

WOM is gaining momentum and credibility among mainstream companies, across many industries, as evidenced by the attendance at the conference. It wasn’t just service providers, as in the past.

There was an increased emphasis on "listening" before "engaging" in WOM. It's vital to understand the context of how people are talking about your brands and products before you engage in a WOM campaign.
—Luci Sheehan, Vice President of Sales, Umbria, Inc.

My biggest takeaway is that marketers need to shift their thinking about WOM and take a much bigger approach. They need to think of word of mouth in a much broader sense than simply a replacement for advertising. Word of mouth may touch customers at many different points in their experience and interaction with a brand. WOM programs need to be integrated into many aspects of a company's operations, not just marketing — product development, marketing, customer support. The more integrated the programs, the more successful they will be.
—Maggie Colby, Leader, Intuit Marketing Best Practices

No matter what size organization you work with, if you are B2B or B2C, WOMMA and its programs are worth your time and money. The membership offers a lot of special benefits, but just signing up for the free weekly blast provides tremendous value. Building brands today takes fire on all cylinders. Make WOM a big engine.

Brand on!


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