For any offline or online social word-of-mouth initiative to be impactful with key stakeholders, financially and otherwise, there must first be full realization of what it can and can’t do, and what it is and what it isn’t.
Based on broad WOM program experience with b2b and b2c clients around the world, I’ve developed four general ‘rules’ for accomplishing this:
1. Be authentic, transparent, and honest. Saying that today’s consumers and employees are ‘savvy’ is only scratching the surface of their awareness, sophistication, and levels of discrimination in identifying what is real and what is fake. Informal communication programs can work, if and because both stakeholder groups feel they are getting information and advice from individuals and entities they know and trust. Messaging and positioning statements provided by companies must be upfront and credible because, if they are not (or perceived as not), the backlash results of negative word-of-mouth can be significant.
2. Be both strategic and tactical. Use of online and offline social communication media isn’t a replacement for advertising and other forms of stakeholder interchange, but it is an effective partner for succeeding with individual initiatives and long-term dialogue and inclusion. It must also be recognized that people and processes in a business model, representing ‘inside-out’ advocacy creation with customers and ambassadorship with employees, are a priority before effective word-of-mouth initiatives can, or should, be launched. Much of the evidence of tactical and strategic success of informal communication programs has been because companies were passionate about stakeholders in the first place, and made them feel like emotionally connected members of the family.
3. Seek to leverage and influence, not control. Up until electronic interaction – the Internet and wireless devices for accessing the web on a mobile basis – changed the character of communication and engagement forever, companies frequently deluded themselves that they were in control of the awareness and influence processes. While multi-media, mega-budget programs were extolling wonderful products and services (and social values) offered by corporations, product quality and service performance for customers, and evidence of a customer-centric culture for employees, was often in decline in the real world. Now, if experiences didn’t at least match the brand and promises made through these communication programs, stakeholders express their feelings and opinions to the world with a single mouse click; and companies had to pay attention or suffer the lasting consequences of negative word-of-mouth
4. Emphasize people and core emotional values over ‘corporate’ positioning. As noted above, stakeholders can subconsciously and emotionally sense when companies and are being honest and authentic, and when they’re not. It’s about hiring the most customer sensitive, proactive staff, training them to be customer focused, and making customer processes as friendly as possible. In other words, customer centricity must become a mantra, where optimum product value, provision of superior experiences at all touchpoints, offline and online word of mouth, and brand perception are critical elements of every decision. It is, finally, a recognition that word-of-mouth is what people (customers and employees) think and say about an organization, not what the organization believes and says about themselves.
To summarize, stakeholders now expect more from social media, and are using it more, and more effectively, than ever before. Organizations will need to move past the fear of change and experimentation which social media represents to many C-suite executives.
The fear, it must be acknowledged, is not baseless. Most social communities are minimally monitored or controlled. Quantifiable measurement is often a challenge. While much of the online social interaction is positive, there is definitely a ‘dark side’ too. Stakeholders can, and do, readily express their frustration and negativity over poor experiences. Channels such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook (and RipoffReport and ComplaintsBoard) are open forums for disaffected, even angry, groups with special interests. Many now know the story of Canadian musician Dave Carroll, whose music video, “United Breaks Guitars”, has been viewed millions of times on YouTube. Getting past the concerns associated with lack of direct control is the first stage of adoption, and companies, at minimum, should be actively monitoring the social communication environment to gauge the opportunities for application.
Once past the listening and monitoring stage, companies should move to engagement, brand favorability, and emotional bonding, getting beyond looking at social media as a traditional mass communication tool, and utilizing these channels as a set of approaches and opportunities to make messaging more meaningful.
One of the challenges here is coordinating social media selected with other communication channels, including communication by employees. Flexibility, and maintaining an approach that responds to changing stakeholder dynamics, is key. For instance, a 2009 social media use study by MarketingSherpa found that, among customers, learning about special offers and sales was a prime motivator for consumers to connect with companies through social media. Another factor was consumer interest in learning about new products and services from companies they were engaged with, indicating a desire for deeper, more strategic and personalized relationships.
Beyond the opportunity for engagement and relationship-building, a related challenge is identifying methods for collecting data produced through offline and online interaction, and driving intelligent decision-making and action. Studies indicate that many companies are now using social media in their communication efforts; however, most lack a consistent mechanism to measure the effect of their programs. This is where a framework like advocacy measurement is a tremendous advancement in understanding customer behavior, mirrored in ambassadorship measurement with employees. Whether getting stakeholder information online or offline, or communicating online or offline as a result of an experience, this type of research identifies the impact of perceived value on stakeholder actions. This is true, of course, in both b2b and b2c environments.
As concluded in a 2010 white paper by marketing software company Neolane:
“… with the right technology, skill sets, and C-level buy-in, social media provides an opportunity to take a more personalized and interactive approach to achieve true engagement… So, stop broadcasting, start engaging and put your social media intelligence to work.”
Word of mouth has long been proven to be a significant component of, and contributor to, downstream stakeholder behavior. It is a direct outcome of the subconscious, emotional, and memory elements of experience; and, following ‘rules’ such as I’ve outlined at the beginning of this piece, it must be baked-in to any communications initiative.