Within the soft science of social media marketing touchy-feely concepts often arrive package as metrics. There's "awareness," "buzz," "chatter," "conversation," "engagement," "influence" and "influencers," "reputation," "reach," "sharing," and "trust." Throw in "peer pressure," and you'd have terminology a child psychologist might use to describe your average Sweet Sixteen party.
Nevertheless, brands and businesses of any size finally have a way to skip the purchase of lackluster, often annoying banner ads, but still get attention from the right consumers online. A bevy of social media marketing firms are selling them "word of mouth" (or "word of mouse") campaigns, using social platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
Combined, Facebook and Twitter count almost three-quarters of a billion users. Many of them spend inordinate amounts of time updating and perusing news feeds, sharing links, chatting, broadcasting and wading through thought nuggets there, each day. Get these social media users to spread positive words about your brand throughout their networks, and you have a cost-effective way to amplify your message.
Word of mouth campaigns are far cheaper than buying TV time, and if done correctly, can be more effective than traditional online advertising. (I have long argued  that online banner ads should be expunged.)
The question is how do these brands and agencies measure the effectiveness of their word-of-mouth endeavors ? To find out, I asked three social media marketing firms--Klout , Wildfire  and Mr Youth --to walk me through their most successful campaigns, what were they and why did they work.
Here are the marketers, and the campaigns they touted...
The Marketers: Today, Klout-- backed with $10 million in venture capital-- is edging toward 80 million users in its database. Each Klout user receives a score based on the number of people he or she reaches over Twitter and Facebook, and how much "amplification" his or her messages receive. Klout identifies "influencers" (people passionate about a given topic) and on behalf of their clients, sends the influencers freebies like tickets to a movie, packets of instant coffee, or a new kind of snack food, in hopes they will sing a product's praises over social media. Klout then tracks, sifts and interprets the resulting online chatter.
Money quote: "We are counting on measurable, scalable 'word of mouth.'" —Joe Fernandez, CEO and cofounder
Clients: Audi, HP, Nike, Popchips, Starbucks, Universal Pictures.
Campaign: To seed enthusiasm for last November's premiere of Disney's Tangled, Klout provided "advance screening kits" consisting of toys, T-shirts, and free tickets to 1,217 mommy bloggers, dads with a bent for media and entertainment, and animated film buffs. The kits and advance screenings raised awareness of the movie, and the 412 "influencers" who participated spread the word over Twitter, averaging 7.9 tweets each. This snowballed into 8,384 contributors providing more than 15,000 endorsements of the film. One mother tweeted, "Headed to a screening of Tangled. Kids are so excited." A dad wrote: "If you have kids, be sure to put 'Tangled' in your movies to see list during the holidays! We loved it!" The company reports that 95% of the tweets were, like these, positive, but even the 1,674 neutral tweets helped raise awareness. The campaign was designed for Twitter but there was the inevitable spillover to Facebook, generating an additional 340 "shares," 450 "likes," and 608 comments. Meanwhile bloggers weighed in with 19 posts related to Tangled; some even posted videos. In the end, Klout estimates that these 412 original influencers reached more than 1.3 million people and generated close to 40 million impressions. Since the campaign cost $50,000, that works out to about $1.25 CPM (cost per thousand), which is pretty cheap.
The Marketers: Victoria Ransom was running an adventure travel business with Alain Chuard in November 2007 when Facebook launched fan pages. Seeing opportunity, they built their own application to promote a free mountain bike trip to Turkey, then messaged all their customers. This led to thousands of people engaging with the campaign and a large number of inquiries about other trips they offered. When other companies inquired about using their application they decided to hitch their wagon to social media campaigns and founded Wildfire Interactive Inc., in 2008. Today, Wildfire sells a software application that enables companies to create and run their own promotions--contests, giveaways, sweepstakes--via Facebook. The promotions help companies drive sales, and grow their fanbase online.
Money quote: "Scarcity, urgency and ecommerce work very well together."--Victoria Ransom, cofounder and CEO
Clients: Kayak.com, PepsiCo, Red Bull, Sony Pictures, Unilever, Universal Music, Zappos.com.
Campaign: Haute Look, recently acquired by Nordstrom, wished to increase its online fan base and turn fans into paying customers, so Wildfire pitched a coupon "instant win" game. Entrants had to become fans on Facebook to receive a special coupon--anything from 5% off, $10 off a $50 purchase, free shipping or in some rare cases $100 toward a $200 shopping spree. The campaign lasted just 48 hours and users had to redeem their coupon within two weeks. "This was a great way to create urgency," Ransom says. After they crunched the numbers, they found that 20% of the people who bought something through the campaign were first-time buyers, while an additional 20% were dormant buyers--people who hadn't purchased anything for a long time. The campaign, Ransom adds, generated a 300% return on investment for Haute Look.
The Marketers: Founded in 2002 by then 27-year-old marketer Matt Britton (the New York Post would later dub him "a modern day Don Draper"), Mr Youth started out peddling word of mouth, social interactive, and experiential marketing campaigns targeted to young people. Today Mr Youth, which made Fast Company's 2010 Top 10 Most Innovative Companies list , eschews a one-size-fits-all approach to social marketing. "Objectives vary," explains chief growth officer at Mr Youth, Matt McRoberts. "A client just getting into social media might just want to get 100,000 to come to a page and like it. Then it's about getting them to do something." Or it might, he adds, involve coupons to drive a promotion or "face gating," which requires a user to visit a page to unlock the key to a reward.
Money quote: "It used to be about getting people engaged in community. Now it's about mobilization, getting people to do something."--Matt McRoberts, Chief of Brand Development
Clients: Dunkin' Donuts, General Motors, JetBlue, Microsoft, P&G, T-Mobile, Victoria's Secret.
Campaign: Why use Microsoft's Bing  when Google is probably already your default search engine? Well, one reason could be social--to see what your friends are up to--which Microsoft tried to build into its engine from the ground up. Last holiday season Mr Youth created a campaign it hoped would show how Bing helps consumers make better, faster shopping decisions. A user entered two products she thought she might buy into two Bing search bars and the results were compiled side by side. Then a shopping squad, made up of shop-savvy friends, could weigh in with their opinions on which item she should buy. Each day she shared a search with friends, she was entered into a sweepstakes to win a $5,000 weekly drawing. According to the company, the Bing Holiday Shopping application generated more than 1.6 million visits, 3.4 million page views, and 126,944 people were asked to be part of a shopping squad on the Bing application. The average time on the app holiday application was 1.27 minutes and led to 4.2 million new searches through Bing.