A load of WOM-bull

As Uncle Bulgaria could have told you, it’s a lifetime’s work clearing up the rubbish that litters the marketing landscape. One of the current topics flapping annoyingly in the breeze is all the nonsense uttered about ‘word of mouth’, or WOM for short.

Most weeks you’ll find a story about some brand abandoning brand advertising and instead investing in a WOM strategy. Last year, I attended two conferences where the same speaker – a renowned expert in the social media space – put up a chart headed “Word of mouth is the new television”.

It’s difficult to know quite where to start with such a statement, but I’ll have a go.

It makes the frankly barking assumption that the ‘old’ television – i.e. real television – is being replaced; it thinks of media experiences as neat little silos that don’t overlap; and it fails to recognise that ‘word of mouth’ of any significance cannot exist in a vacuum and relies on the media it is apparently ‘replacing’ to provide the oxygen.

Part of the problem is that practitioners in this space see WOM as a new media channel, primarily via social media online. But WOM has existed since the dawn of language. It has always been part of the marketing ‘eco-system’ and it is indeed very important. At least we can agree on that.

New research from US WOM specialists Keller Fay puts the debate into focus. They have produced a WOM monitoring tool, based on the reported conversations of over 36,000 people. Not only does the research demonstrate the huge influence WOM has on our brand perceptions and experiences, it also highlights where these conversations are taking place and which brands they feature, as well as what causes them.

Only 6% of brand-related conversations take place online. A further 15% are conducted on the ‘phone, whilst over three quarters are conducted via our preferred social media platform: face-to-face.

Another sobering thought is that the conversations digerati might be having among themselves are not necessarily a reflection of the wider world. The top categories for brand-related conversations are food and dining, followed by media and entertainment. Technology is sixth on the list. Similarly, the top five talked about brands are Coke, Pepsi, Wal-Mart and two telecoms companies; not a Twitter or Apple amongst them.

But perhaps the most exciting finding for those of us in the marketing industry is that almost half of all consumer brand conversations refer directly to those brands’ marketing or media activity, and that the biggest single factor influencing those conversations is good old brand advertising.

If we bring into the mix TV’s ability to create talkability and ‘buzz’ around brands (as demonstrated by both the IPA ‘Marketing in the Era of Accountability’ study and YouGov’s Brand Index data) then we realise how much we need tools to identify and optimise these amplification effects.

Our recent research with Facebook started to explore the rich rewards available to brands which recognise and nurture the relationship between TV ads and facilitated WOM.

The good news is that the IPA Touchpoints study will be including metrics based around the Keller Fay findings in this year’s data. I’m looking forward to using it, not least to finally bin the ridiculous notion that TV and word of mouth are unrelated and replacements for each other, rather than the fabulously complementary phenomena that they are.

  • http://twitter.com/neoco Benn Achilleas

    Great post David and interesting read. Whilst you make some important observations, they are nothing new. Indeed, any true practicioner of WOM – especially in social media – will advocate how powerful it is as part of the mix. I don’t think any media can, will or should replace TV in the near future. I cannot speak for the ‘respected expert’ but in my daily experience with experts, whether inside my agency Neoco, with other WOM practitioners (WOMUK.net), our clients or even consumers, no-one talks about WOM as either something new (we all appreciate people have been talking since the dawn of humankind) or as a new ‘TV killer’.

    One of your other points about the small amount that happens online vs face-to-face is interesting when you look at the percentage, but like all ‘delivery channels’ there are many other factors to consider, such as reach, legacy, integrity, etc. An online conversation is going to reach substantially more people than a single face to face conversation. The online conversation also remains online for many more days, weeks, or even years, beyond the initial conversation – potentially influencing substantially more people again.

    At the end of the day, the ‘media’ used should always be relevant to the brand, audience and messaging and will only be as effective as the strategy and implementation behind the activity. There is enough room for everyone to work together without fear or need to cannibalise another media channel – see Rory Sutherland’s near recent talk at the IPA regarding agency R&D being able to access ‘new budgets’ – especially when working together.

  • David Brennan

    Thanks for you post Benn. I agree with your comments and accept the point that most practitioners in this space understand the integration of WOM within the marketing mix, especially its relationship with ‘water cooler’ TV content. That is why statements such as “WOM Is The New Television” feel so anachronistic and unhelpful; indeed our recent ‘TV Together’ research indicates the way TV influences word of mouth as well as how WOM is proving to be a fantastic promotional tool for the TV broadcasters themselves. I also accept that online – despite being the main delivery channel for only around 6% of brand-related conversations – is still a hugely important part of the mix. In fact, my main take on this is that it demonstrates the huge number of brand-related conversations that we have been unable to count for all of these years and how important advertising content is in sparking them; what we see online is the tip of the iceberg but without online we may never have known just how big that iceberg had become!

  • http://www.crowdsurfing.net Martin Thomas

    Word of mouth is an outcome … not a strategy … not a channel … not a discipline. TV has traditionally been great an generating WOM … social media is great at sustaining the conversation. As the meerkat would say, ‘simples’

  • . gotnoteef

    These droids have purchased a ticket already Mr Conductor…