Hits and Misses: Addressing Challenges of Blending Informal WOM Into the Overall Communication Program


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“Word-of-mouth and evangelism are gifts that customers give you, but you must first earn them, for money doesn’t buy goodwill.” – Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba, Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force

The roots of today’s worldwide social networking growth, particularly online, have been well-documented. Networking is the confluence of several factors, one of which is the rise in use of the Internet, and the mobile devices to access it. Another is societal. In books like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000), the isolation of individuals, and the desire for community (through technological means) was thoroughly chronicled. Putnam identified this as the decline of ‘social capital’ found through community activities, and connections in general, and asked how it could be rebuilt. Shortly after Putnam’s book was published, embryonic online communities such as iVillage began to gain recognition.

In addition to these communities of interest, very progressive companies also paid attention to the networking phenomenon; and organizations like Amazon began building customer communities. So began, online, what we know as the ‘network effect’, better understood as viral communication or word-of-mouth.

Now, consumers could give positive and negative voice to their feelings, attitudes, and opinions. For marketers, the challenge became how to harness and use these social networks and the mountains of available consumer information to best effect. There are many books, including Andy Sernovitz’ Word of Mouth Marketing (Kaplan, 2009) which do an excellent job of offering global ‘how-to’ guidance on ideas, tools, and methods for creating more active word of mouth, such as his Five T’s model (Talkers, Topics, Tools, Taking Part and Tracking).

Here is some of what companies should be doing to engage with, have dialogue between, and create customer advocates, both online and offline:

– Online social platforms – blogs, chat rooms, instant messaging, message boards/forums, video-sharing webi sites, social networking web sites (Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Digg, YouTube); mini-blog sites, such as Twitter
– Review sites
– Wikis
– Texting
– Promotional and demonstration events: dealerships, retailers, high-tech and telecom companies, etc.

Increasingly, organizations have been applying online and offline social communication to build business and customer relationships. For example, Lenovo leveraged its $120 million Olympic sponsorship in 2008 by recruiting 100 Olympic athletes, offering each a free technology solution, and asking them to blog live from Beijing. The athletes recruited weren’t ‘names’ from major sports who would draw high media attention, so this was not typical paid endorsement. The Lenovo campaign, offering an insider’s view of the Olympics, was a tremendous, clutter-breaking success. More recently, Disney developed an online viral campaign that invited people to apply for their ‘dream Disney character job’, and this resulted in an overwhelming response which the company used to build overall and individual engagement with both current customers and the traveling public.

Major companies, such as Proctor and Gamble, Kraft, Walmart, Heinz, Texas Instruments, McDonald’s, Pepsico and Dell have actively moved into online social media in recent years. Some programs have been more successful than others. General Motors, for instance, has invested over $1.5 billion in social media, while maintaining a substantial (though somewhat reduced) budget for mainstream advertising. Pepsico learned that they couldn’t replace Super Bowl advertising and, at the same time, increase sales volume through online social programs such as Project Refresh.

Moving away from traditional ‘broadside’, boil-the-ocean type advertising and promotion doesn’t mean that, going forward, advertising can’t be an effective part of an overall marketing program. It does mean, however, that new, less controlled, approaches need to be incorporated into any communication strategy and their impact (or lack of same) well researched.. Generating more purchase-driving social word-of-mouth, through informal offline and online peer-to-peer communication, will mean increased customer-related proaction on the part of companies: engaging in face-to-face and two-way dialogue (especially for b2b), creating positive, authentic and engaging experiences, and leveraging/creating more efficiency from traditional, awareness and discovery-type communication approaches such as brochures, demonstration events and conferences, and print/electronic advertising.

There are unfortunate examples, such as Borders, of where major companies completely failed to recognize the power of changing communication and customer experience dynamics. The organization didn’t include the need to build a meaningful brand and sales presence on the Internet. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, over the past decade, there had been a significant decline in Borders’ bricks-and-mortar book sales in favor of e-books and online marketing which, for the company, was a late, me-too merchandising strategy behind Amazon.

Beginning in the early ’70’s, Borders grew from a small, family run bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to a major national superstore chain by the 1990’s. Though it had created a web site along the way, the company didn’t anticipate or comprehend the changing consumer book purchasing and communication habits, principally the move to digital dialogue and greater convenience; and, in 2001, Borders sold its unprofitable Internet site to Amazon. By the time Borders relaunched its own web site seven years later, Amazon was very well-entrenched, with a well-documented history of both online marketing and customer experience innovation and stable, mature customer relationships. The Internet book retailing and communication ship had sailed, and Borders, for one, was not a passenger.

There is a strong argument to be made for combining advertising with informal communication for greater net leveraging impact. According to statistics generated by Keller Fay, there are 3.3 billion brand impressions created each day in the U.S. through informal online and offline consumer conversations. Further, 20% of these conversations are stimulated by advertising, representing 680 million brand-related conversations each day.

Loyalty behavior is rapidly becoming more a function of engagement than marketing. One of the new realities of sales, branding, customer experience management, and building long-term relationships is collaborative online and offline communication, interaction, and real engagement between vendor and customer. When organizations think ‘media mix’, the term must now be expanded to actively include non-traditional channels and techniques.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.


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