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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Word of Mouth Still Reigns

If you ask people with experience in advertising what the most effective medium is you will often find the graybeards smiling and answering “word of mouth.” Some do not say it in the presence of clients but most of us know both intuitively and through experience that nothing tops naturally occuring word of mouth. Why is it so strong? Well, word of mouth essentially means that you have hundreds or thousands and, in a few cases, millions of natural advocates for your brand. The message is perceived by many as both honest and natural. A great example to me is Vanguard Investments. They spend very little in terms of conventional advertising relative to their mutual fund peers. Yet, their rock bottom costs have over time made many of their index fund customers quite well off and they are enthusiastic ambassadors for the company.

Today, people often use word of mouth, viral and buzz marketing interchangeably. This is understandable given online and mobile activity but technically they are distinct avenues. Viral is a message that spreads quickly. It is quasi word of mouth augmented by technology. If it works it is great; if not, it is one more interruption in our busy days. Buzz marketing is something that garners publicity. It can be exciting but often lacks authenticity as companies often hire others to represent them with consumers without disclosing the relationship.

So, what separates word of mouth from viral, buzz and conventional advertising. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1) Strong word of mouth carries something of value (i.e., Vanguard great long term performance and ultra low costs) that has social or cultural significance.
2) The messages that do the best are ones that consumers create themselves. Vanguard has a hard core group of aficionados who meet regularly who call them themselves “Bogleheads” after Vanguard founder Jack Bogle.
3) All interests are disclosed upfront. There is no deception as there sometimes is with buzz marketing. Things are upfront and aboveboard.
4) In word of mouth the reach of a message is always overshadowed by the impact of results. So, if someone has a You Tube video that goes viral and reaches millions, companies often get very excited. The question to ask is what happened to sales or the companies image. Millions of people watching a consumer made or company crafted video are only good if there was some benefit. As David Ogilvy wrote some 55 years ago, “If it does not sell, it is not creative.”

Word of mouth was not front and center for many years. An occasional retailer might have said, “We do not have to advertise. We have great word of mouth.” Agencies did not discuss it much as you received no commission on it nor did it bubble up from creative departments. Sadly, few people baked it in to the evaluation mix let alone the media mix.

Today, with the explosive growth of social media, word of mouth may finally begin to be getting the recognition that it has long deserved. Young adults may be suspicious of conventional advertising but value their friends' opinions on movies, restaurants, clothing  stores and automobile models. Facebook has only accelerated this trend.

Capturing the effect of word of mouth is not easy but is well worth the effort. A research study, even a modest one, may tell you that your word of mouth is carrying you much farther than the millions that you spend on advertising. As it is often free or usually low cost, this is an avenue well worth pursuing for many marketers. And, of course, word of mouth marketing is now taking a form where it is not spontaneous as in the past. It is emanating from companies blurring the lines between word of mouth, viral and buzz.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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