We have long known the value of word-of-mouth. Information spread through word-of-mouth ever since we’ve learned how to talk and socialize. It comes in the form of person-to-person conversations i.e. in the city squares and over-the-phone interactions since 1961. The internet has provided much faster ways to share our opinions about people or brands that touch our emotions and meets our demands.
However, even today, personal word-of-mouth consists of more than 90% of all conversations.
The rise of social media encouraged people to share their opinions with others. It became a place where they can express their agreement and disagreement. In close-knit communities, contexts of word-of-mouth can be changed depending on how well people know each other. Social interactions differ between people who trust each other, total strangers, and those 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 where my inspiration is found. And that 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 one 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 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.
Word-of-Mouth Online and Offline
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 offline. We’ve got tools to track brand mentions from conversations and by following word-of-mouth on social networks. Companies gauge consumer sentiments, whether it be positive or negative, 24/7.
On the other hand, offline measurement of word-of-mouth is so much harder to obtain. It usually relies on asking people to remember conversations on a certain brand they’ve had. It is a costly and time-consuming endeavor within the time-compressed virtual world.
The inherent advantage of measuring online word-of-mouth is a given. However, the dominance of offline word-of-mouth in terms of sales is overwhelming. 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, they should understand these three forms: experiential, consequential, and intentional.
I think the most powerful and common form of word-of-mouth is the experiential
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 they 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?). It negatively affects brand sentiment and reduces 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.
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. Campaigns such as television ads on brands they broadcast. The impact of these handed down messages is often more compelling than direct advertising. It is a higher form of campaign that triggers positive word-of-mouth due to its wider reach and influence.
And the least common form is intentional word-of-mouth. It occurs when businesses use celebrity endorsements to generate excitement about 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.