The Power of Word of Mouth

Gordon Wyner
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways
  • The tracking capabilities of social media make it feasible to measure effectiveness immediately at the consumer level.
  • Using social media, individuals can communicate with each other and share content, rather than just be the recipients of marketers’ content.
  • To achieve the potential of social media, marketers will have to understand better how it works in concert with offline word of mouth.

Social media is taking its place as an important part of the marketing toolkit. Each year, new platforms are introduced amid great enthusiasm for applications in marketing plans and expectations that they will deliver improved return on marketing investment. Huge numbers of people use them. New opportunities to engage consumers abound. The tracking capabilities of social media make it feasible to measure effectiveness immediately at the consumer level. It’s also feasible to use consumer information to target marketing communication in less wasteful ways. This all bodes well for the future of social media in marketing.

Offline and Online

The key distinguishing characteristic of social media is that it’s social. Individuals communicate with each other and share content, rather than just being recipients of marketers’ content. Marketers must tie into that information-spreading process in order to take advantage of its unique capabilities. Without the sharing element, this new media would be more like a broadcast medium, with content being sent from one person (or marketer) to a vast population. It might or might not be an effective way to get marketing messages to consumers. That would depend on whether it does a better job than, say, television or print.

An extensive fact base has been established by marketing researchers that reveals that the vast majority of sharing of information about brands is actually offline, rather than online. This has enormous implications for marketers about how they focus their energies and spending on social and other types of media. According to Ed Keller and Brad Fay, authors of The Face-to Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace, Americans engage in many conversations about brands every day and “more than two-thirds of those conversations involve a recommendation to buy, consider or avoid the brand.” Word-of-mouth communication is a critical part of the brand choice process. The data for this finding comes from large, representative, continuous tracking surveys that ask people to record their recent brand-related conversations. The startling finding is that only 8% of the conversations take place through social media, instant and text messages, and e-mail, while 90% of conversations are offline. The exact percentage may vary from time to time, but the consistent conclusion is that online is a small fraction of all brand conversations.

Could it be that even though online conversations constitute a small percentage, they still are “representative” of offline conversations and thus the concern about “missing” 90% of what’s being talked about is overdrawn? Other research on offline and online mentions of brands suggests that they are somewhat different universes. Online mentions skew heavily toward media and entertainment, technology and automotive categories. Relatively fewer mentions online are for household products, beverages, food and dining, according to “On Brands and Word of Mouth,” published in the Journal of Marketing Research in August 2013.

For some marketers, this skew will be just right. For others, the challenge will be to leverage offline brand mentions as a way to tap into word of mouth that they would otherwise miss out on. The overall issue is to select media that are most relevant to and used by your customer, not just the media that are available or generally popular at the moment.

Getting to Viral

One of the most exciting aspects of social media is the potential for content to “go viral.” The hope is that, for relatively little investment in content and no investment in traditional media exposure, massive numbers of consumers can be reached via the sharing that cascades from one consumer to another in a virtuous upward spiral. The success stories are now familiar to us—the Old Spice Man, Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, the Blendtec blender. However, here’s another instance in which the facts create a more complicated view.

Research done by Microsoft defines “going viral” as reaching a large audience, in multiple stages of spreading from one consumer to another and another, such that peer-to-peer sharing accounts for more of the information compared to the broadcasting of information from the original source. Looking across several different online domains (including Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo Voices and a social game), the researchers concluded that actually “very little content goes viral.” They report numbers in the range of less than 1%, as Microsoft’s Daniel Goldstein stated at the Marketing Science Institute’s Big Data conference in December 2012.

These analyses of actual social media data suggest that focusing on viral spreading as the primary goal may be overemphasized in marketing. It’s a rare phenomenon, which is nice when you achieve it but doesn’t justify spending a lot of resources to get it. There are some systematic ways to pursue and achieve viral spreading. However, these must be weighed against the feasibility of testing viral drivers and the associated cost of the investment, relative to traditional media and marketing channels.

Research lead by Duncan Watts of Microsoft and presented at MSI’s Social Media and Social Networks conference in December 2013 provides important insights into how social networks actually work, which can be applied to improve marketing effectiveness. If you want to achieve widespread influence in an efficient way, there seems to be no alternative than to address large numbers of people, each of whom has an average amount of influence. Trying to predict which URL or user will generate the largest cascades of information spreading is not reliable. Ideally, marketers would be able to find a proper combination of both mass and highly targeted marketing to achieve the best mix of viral and direct exposure.

Harnessing the power of word of mouth, both in social media and face-to- face, may call for turning to some of the basics of media. It’s not just who the audience is for your marketing message, but how different members of your target audience participate in receiving and passing along information about brands. How do traditional and social media interact with each other to create some type of in-market impact? For example, do social media amplify the effect of traditional media or do they have their own distinct impact, or both?

To achieve the potential of social media, marketers will have to understand better how it works in concert with offline word of mouth. The new research that is being conducted suggests that there are answers to this challenge, but they are not simple. It may require systematic processes for applying the learning from social networks to creative message and media development, analogous to what marketers have done historically with traditional media, to determine what works, and what does not.


This article was originally published in the March 2014 issue of Marketing News.


Author Bio:
Gordon Wyner
Gordon Wyner, vice president of client solutions at Millward Brown, is the contributing editor for Marketing News’ Marketing Management thought leadership content.
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