Word of mouth is an ever and ever powerful tool for the companies. Research from Nielsen carried out in 2007 showed that WOM is the most powerful selling tool available to marketers, with 78 per cent of customers trusting consumer recommendations above all other types of marketing.
The trust consumers place in WOM means it can change the way that brands are perceived, argues Harri Owen, buzz manager at Hyperlaunch. The biggest benefits come from increasing engagement and dialogue with the target audience.
Owen cites Dell’s “Idea Storm” (www.dellideastorm.com) initiative as a great example of WOM’s potential. By encouraging input from its target audience, Dell managed to shift customer perceptions of the brand away from an uncaring and remote image.
Caution and respect are indeed important watchwords, but, while they should be kept in mind, they shouldn’t preclude original and engaging communication. Smart brands are stimulating WOM in clever ways.
Over the Christmas period, retailer Borders ran a Facebook campaign in which it challenged the wider Facebook community to create a group of friends entitled “I want to win signed Quentin Blake artwork from www.borders.co.uk”.
The person who created the biggest group of friends won the signed prints. As a result, Borders attracted many new friends to its online community, creating a wider audience for marketing messaging.
Borders digital marketing manager Nick Atkinson describes WOM as “a bit of a minefield”. He feels that, even with recent changes to regulations, many marketers are still not as clear and upfront about their identity and intentions online as they should be.
But putting ethics to one side, Atkinson believes this kind of deceptive marketing is lacklustre.
“You get a much higher quality and more sustainable response when you interact with people in a clear and honest way because it gives them the chance to make a considered response to your marketing,” he explains.
“There are two important aspects to a successful online campaign, and these are often the hardest things to achieve,” he says. “One is to trigger a genuine emotional reaction in your target audience, and the second is to be the most price-competitive.”
Sometimes creativity is the way to drive that emotional reaction. American retailer JC Penney created a viral smash for itself in the festive season with its “Doghouse” video, which benefited from high production values and a genuinely funny script (http://bewareofthedoghouse.com).
A question of taste
Burger King recently delivered a WOM campaign in the US that attracted criticism as well as plaudits. The mechanic of the “Whopper Sacrifice” promotion, which ran on social networking site Facebook, involved consumers deleting 10 Facebook “friends” to receive a coupon entitling them to a free Whopper. The ex-friends, meanwhile, were notified as to what had been done and why. Participants could also send each other heavily branded “Angry-Grams”.
The Whopper Sacrifice idea took off. By the end of the promotion almost 234,000 friendships had been sacrificed. Friends joked online about sacrificing each other for the sake of a burger – and the norm was for friends to be reinstated on Facebook after free Whoppers had been claimed. Yet some observers expressed distaste, with at least one blogger going so far as to label Whopper Sacrifice as puerile and obnoxious.
Burger King’s irreverent approach works well with its target audience, but may be too risky for many brands. Mobile phone brand T-Mobile is more cautious with its UK WOM activity. It has created an “Advocate Panel” on an extranet site to create a buzz. T-Mobile market intelligence manager Gavin Sugden says that panel participants are offered rewards such as tickets to football matches to get them to participate, but that they also simply take pleasure in giving their views on products and services.
This co-creation approach is of huge benefit to the company, both in terms of new product development and seeding positive brand associations. T-Mobile is among a large number of businesses that seek to measure customer loyalty using the net promoter score as a metric, dividing consumers into those who rate products or services highly (promoters), at mid-level (passives) or poorly (detractors). Online discussion of products and services can give insight into net promoter scores.
The clout behind the online words of one individual or another is not equal. Paid services such as Brandwatch, Buzzmetrics and Onalytica offer an analysis of data and claim to be able to identify conversation influencers. Services such as Radian 6 and Sysomos offer a more do‑it‑yourself toolkit for conversation analysis.
Influence is not something marketers can always hope to command online, but respecting certain rules will gain marketers respect in turn. Marketing guru Seth Godin stresses the importance of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who want them. Spamming people with your message will not create a buzz.
Nor is WOM about labelling a medium with branding. Justin Kirby, chairman of online WOM opinion panel Yooster, says many marketers fail to realise that in social networks, the people themselves are the medium, not the site. He reminds marketers that a few negative consumer comments should never trigger a knee‑jerk change of strategy. “You could make some schoolboy errors by basing strategic decisions on the input of a handful of vocal disgruntled teenagers.”
It is vital, therefore, to build up a picture of who wields influence and who does not. With regard to the blogosphere, the specialist search engine Technorati produces a measure of authority for all the blogs it searches, using the inbound links to an individual blog to generate a measure of its influence.
For social networks, simple measures such as the number of “friends” an individual has attached to their profile can help to define influence, but this can also be a measure of an individual’s preoccupation with popularity, which is not the same as influence. Emerging tools such as Facebook Grader attempt to calculate an individual’s influence scientifically.
Twitter offers a more immediate measure of influence in terms of number of followers of an individual profile, but the number of others they interact with and how often their messages are passed on are also worth noting. Tools such as Twinfluence aim to deliver a picture of reach and authority on Twitter, although the company may soon begin charging companies for its brand‑tracking services.
“If you go to a WOM conference, 70 per cent of the presentations are about digital WOM, but 90 per cent of the conversations people have about brands happen offline,” says managing partner of agency Spring Research, Stephen Phillips.
“The difficulty you have with offline is that you can’t measure it,” he says. In other words, never forget that online is only part of the picture.
Foot in mouth
Wal-Mart ended up with egg on its face when its PR agency Edelman was shown to be behind a fake blog, or “flog”, that followed the progress of a supposedly impartial couple driving their motorhome to Wal-Mart car parks across America. (www.guardian.co.uk/technology/blog/2006/oct/16/whatsafloga)
A Facebook group of Tesco employees caused embarrassment to the retailer when comments were posted labelling customers as rude, smelly and stupid. (www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/20/michele-hanson-tesco-facebook)
In 2006, Sony was discovered to have hired a marketing company to create a sham fan site called All I Want For Christmas is a PSP, attracting plenty of negative comment on genuine games sites and blogs once the ruse was rumbled. (http://adweek.blogs.com/adfreak/2006/12/sony_gets_rippe.html)
Whole Foods CEO John Mackey spent a decade praising his company on Yahoo message boards under a pseudonym before his true identity was uncovered. (www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/05/23/rahodeb-returns-whole-foo_n_103244.html)
Burger King fired two executives in the US last summer after anonymous comments disparaging a farm-workers’ group were posted online.
Deliver to people who want to hear your message – spamming will not create a buzz