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Word of mouth in the digital world

April 9, 2009

Marketing can promote trial. (This isn’t anything new, but bear with me, because sometimes the basics of marketing are ignored for shiny new things.)

It’s almost never marketing’s job to promote retrial (the exception is when a product is repositioned, as in the classic case of Baking Soda). It’s the role of the product or service to promote retrial. Think about it: if an ad tells you about a new restaurant, and you go, but the food makes you sick and the service makes you think you’re in prison, then no amount of advertising will get you back. Ditto for a bad product experience.

That’s just simple. Advertising will actually hurt a bad product, because it will promote trial, and it will promote negative word of mouth:

“I tried that new restaurant. It sucks.”

If the product isn’t any good, then no amount of advertising will convince someone to try it again. And more people will complain because people love to share their opinions about bad things.

Before all these web 2.0 shiny things came along, it worked like this. People talked to people about the things they liked. In the advertising industry, we called this word of mouth, and ignored it. It was cute, but seriously, who cared?

The exception is the venerable Super Bowl ad (as it so often is). Part of the coolness of the Super Bowl Ad is the associated word of mouth. It’s the water cooler conversation that went on the day after when people said, “did you see that wassup ad?”. Etc. That’s why people pay millions for 30-seconds. It has built in word of mouth.

One more recap as I build to my point:

  • Marketing promoted trial
  • The product or service promoted retrial
  • In special moments of pure coolness, the product or service encouraged word of mouth
  • In really special, though extraordinary rare cases, the advertising created word of mouth

The Internet didn’t change this dynamic immediately. For most of the internet’s life, advertising agencies didn’t care about it. Sure, websites were money-making online brochures, but that’s it (as a junior copywriter in 1996, I worked on the website for one of my agency‘s biggest clients, that’s how much we cared then). Websites were extensions of the real advertising. (Banner ads were reconstituted print ads, the website a reconstituted brochure).

But clawing through that were moments of earned media.The Subserviant Chicken, which is only five years old, is a classic example. Some people call that Viral, but Viral isn’t the right term, in my opinion. Little cats, babies, and kids who just left the dentist are examples of viral.

When a brand does it, it’s an example of earning media. What’s forgotten about BK’s Chicken is that the online version was meant to work with TV spots. This is how Wikipedia describes the TV spots:

In the ad, a man is sitting in his living room directing a person in a chicken suit to behave in any way he wants. The tag line was “Chicken the way you like it.”

The interactive idea earned more media than the paid idea. We remember the website, but forget the ads.

So here are, in the midst of a social networking. Where virtual “water coolers” allow people to tell two friends, who then tell two friends…” Well, you get the idea.

Like it or not, people are telling two friends about brands all the time. Again, who cares?

Well, in my opinion, we should. Agency people, who are in the paid media business, should consider how to encourage that practice. We don’t want to get out of the paid media business, that’s where the revenue comes. Plus, that’s where the people are. They are watching TV, listening to radio, etc. So the goal of the agency, with all this social media stuff being thrown on them, is to take paid media, and figure out a way to earn additional media.

A simple example: we recently did a TV spot for a client. While making it, we did a making of the TV spot, and spread it around to social media sites where we know people in our target market hang out. The theory is two-fold:

  1. If people see the making of a spot, they are more liable to notice the actual spot.
  2. People get an inside look at the brand they love, and we offer content that’s relatively inexpensive, but less advertising-like.

That’s the idea behind earning media. So if your social media expert doesn’t understand the basics of marketing, especially the basics of marketing with paid media, then you’re most-likely caught up in the trend of engaging in conversations, and getting more friends for your brand.

It’s not about friends. It’s about a bigger picture. It’s about word of mouth 2.0. And when you realize it’s about word of mouth, you become an advocate for being the one who creates the word. I still think it should be the people who’ve been doing it for a long time: the advertising agency people.

What do you think?

Update: Armano has a great image about this.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 6, 2009 5:16 am

    Viral is effective because it’s considered a word to mouth form a friend or acquaintance reliable recommendation and not seams to be a sale made by
    the product/service owner.
    That boost the effectivness of the campaign in 100’s percents more and get’s much more exposure.

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