We have long known the value of word-of-mouth. While word-of-mouth has always been done the same way since we’ve learned to talk and socialize in such forms as a person-to-conversations as in the city square’s since forever, or over-the-phone interactions since 1961, the internet has provided a much faster way to share our opinions about the stories from people or brands that touches our emotions, needs or demand. However: even today offline Word-of-Mouth consists of more than 90 % of all conversations.
The rise of social media where people are sharing their opinions and others’ opinions the agree or disagree with, or are inspired by, in close-knit communities is changing the context of word-of-mouth from the primary social interaction between two people who knows each other well and trust each other, to engagement between total strangers, or between people who only know each other online.
However, I don’t personally regard the online and offline word-of-mouth as an either/or situation – even though only a dismal 10% are happening online, this is where a lot of my work is done and inspiration found. And those 10 % gives an extremely good outlook for the remaining 90 % (business talk: enormously large focus-group anyone ?) I have always regarded the digital world as an extension of the real world. Each complements the other. You hear from a friend about this product holding great promise and then you read reviews of it online before you make your purchase. Or someone from your social network forwards you a great viral advert and you showed it to your hubby over dinner. Or you walk into a clothing store, find a great pair of sneakers and go home and buy them online. Yeah that happens a lot these days.
I think the only reason why this online vs. offline debate continues to linger is because online word-of-mouth is much easier to measure than the offline. We’ve got tools to track brand mentions from brand conversations to following word-of-mouth on social networks so companies can gauge consumer sentiments – whether positive or negative – on 24/7 basis. On the other hand, offline measurement of word-of-mouth is so much harder to obtain and, it usually relies on asking people to remember conversations on a certain brand they have had, a costly and time-consuming endeavor within the time-compressed virtual world..
Given the inherent advantage of measuring online word-of-mouth as opposed to the overwhelming dominance of offline word-of-mouth in terms of sales, I have tried to tame the tiger and identified three forms of word-of-mouth that business leaders should understand in order to have a fighting chance – experiential, consequential, and intentional.
I think the most powerful and common form of word-of-mouth is the experiential as it results from consumers’ direct experience from brands. It is worth noting that people rarely complain or praise a brand for performing what’s expected but will go out of their way when the experience deviates from the expected. Criticisms when airlines lose luggage are classic instances of experiential word-of-mouth (United breaks guitars anyone ?) negatively affecting brand sentiment and reducing the effect of positive word-of-mouth from other sources. Of course, positive word-of-mouth resulting from exceptional service will generate windfalls for the brand.
But marketing activities can also trigger word-of-mouth, the most common of which is the consequential word-of-mouth. It occurs when people are exposed to traditional marketing campaigns, such as t.v., pass on messages about the ads or the brand they broadcast. The impact of these handed down messages is often more compelling than the direct effect of the advert as marketing campaigns that trigger positive word-of-mouth have relatively higher campaign reach and influence.
And the least common form of word-of-mouth is intentional as when business use celebrity endorsements to generate excitement around the brand. Before the advent of social media, only a few brands ever invest in intentional word-of-mouth because its effects and execution are hard to measure. Today, however, the shift of power from the brand to the increasingly opinionated consumer has forced the companies to look for brand advocates to amplify the brand within a given community.
At the end of the day, the vast expanse of opportunities that brands have to connect with their peers to boost awareness, appreciation and conversation with the goal of increasing sales doesn’t occur in the online world as many marketing pundits would have us believe. I like to emphasize that, sure, online is also important. But where the real sales are created – that’s offline. It’s where real stories are created and lived because that’s where we live and breathe.