The Power to Influence Consumer Decisions: Important New Offline and Online Word-of-Mouth Impact Research Findings

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According to Nielsen, word-of-mouth is the most trusted source of decision-influencing and decision-making information for consumers around the world. Having often addressed the power of informal communication in brand studies, books, white papers, and blogs (http://www.customerthink.com/blog/word_of_mouth_and_brand_bonding_puts_consumers_in_the_marketing_drivers_seat), it’s always gratifying to have confirmation of the importance of this communication element by respected research and consulting organizations.

Though word-of-mouth and the pervasive use of social media are acknowledged as significant marketplace forces, it is (too) often assumed that ‘social media’ and ‘word-of-mouth’ are identical concepts. What is acknowledged, however, is that social voice drives product decision-making. Research by KellerFay Group (Ed Keller and Brad Fay are the authors of The Face-to-Face Book, Free Press, 2012) has shown that only 10% of product, service, and brand dialogue actually takes place online, with the rest occurring at home, work, or in social gatherings.

New consumer motivation research (“On Brands and Word of Mouth”, Journal of Marketing Research, August, 2013), conducted by several professors at U.S. and Israeli business schools, represents large data sets covering online word-of-mouth, offline word-of-mouth, brand equity, and customer brand studies. Over 600 of the most talked-about U.S. brands, covering 16 product categories, were analyzed during the period from 2007 to 2010. Here are two of the most significant findings (as reported by Ed Keller in a recent KellerFay Group blog):

– The primary drivers of online word-of-mouth are, in order: a. Social (sending expressions which reflect a desire to socialize or belong), b. Functional (supplying or providing information), and c. Emotional (sharing positive or negative feelings about brands). Online word-of-mouth is principally broadcasting, i.e. what is described as ‘social signaling.’ Offline conversations, mostly in one-on-one settings, allowing people to share emotions, such as excitement, anger, joy, etc.

– Brand categories talked about online differ widely from those talked about offline. Media, autos, sports and technology dominate online word-of-mouth activity, because there is ‘social currency’ in discussing what is new, interesting, and worth sharing with others. Other categories – beverages, food and dining, travel, financial services, beauty products, health products and services – are much more likely to be communicated in offline conversations, as consumers share their stories and the emotion behind them.

Understanding, and leveraging, these important communication differences – what motivates consumers to convey information – is essential for every enterprise. Online social media will be, as summarized by Ed Keller, most effective for a new product or new message worthy of sharing by consumers. However, offline word-of-mouth will be most valuable for tapping into the emotions associated with brand experience or exposure to advertising and promotional content.

The bottom line is that offline and online informal communication represent very different media channels, necessitating different strategic applications; and organizations will be well-advised to take a holistic approach with brand word-of-mouth.

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