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Word of Mouth: Join the Conversation

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Posted At: December 8, 2009 1:03 PM
by Josh Morris

If work or pleasure takes you to Boston, and a friend suggests you go to Faneuil Hall and eat at Houston’s – for lunch or dinner (they don’t serve breakfast) – because it is the best restaurant in the city, would you believe your friend is working for Houston’s, or just giving you his opinion?

Certainly you’ve had a friend suggest a product or service before, and most likely you’ve done some suggesting yourself, but have you ever considered the implications of what it is you’re really doing?

What exactly is word of mouth marketing?

Word of mouth (WOM), as defined by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association(WOMMA), is “the act of consumers providing information to other consumers.” So your friend was giving you good word of mouth; he believes Houston’s is great and thought you would enjoy eating at his favorite restaurant in Boston.

In turn, word of mouth marketing (WOMM), according to WOMMA’s WOM 101, is “giving people a reason to talk about your products and services, and making it easier for that conversation to take place. It is the art and science of building active, mutually beneficial consumer-to-consumer and consumer-to-marketer communications.”

So, wait: did Houston’s provide your friend with incentive to drive business once he left the restaurant? If it’s called marketing, it must mean they’ve spent money on it, right?

Carin Galletta, founder of Ink Foundry Public Relations, a full-service word of mouth marketing agency, put WOM into an easy perspective: “I’m giving you my recommendation for a product or service. If you respect my opinion, my recommendation can encourage you to purchase a product.”

What actually happened was Houston’s staff are so good at what they do, assumedly providing great food and excellent service, that your friend was compelled enough to tell you about his experience, in turn providing free marketing for Houston’s. Are we getting closer? I think so!

Advertising, public relations and marketing all cost companies money – at times, very big money – and are ultimately meant to impact business. But Galletta believes all of the money in the world won’t create a successful WOMM campaign; WOM must start with a great product.

“We tell all of our clients to make sure the product or service is the best it can be before engaging in a word of mouth marketing campaign,” she said.

Sure, Houston’s spent money on products and staff, but the food and service themselves were what made your friend recommend the restaurant. So, whether or not the business is intentionally creating it, WOM is an inherent result of a great product or service.

Is WOMM something new?

Yes. According to WOMMA, WOM has been around forever but businesses are just now getting around to harnessing it effectively within marketing objectives, resulting in the formation of WOMM. Although it is new, there are already many types of WOMM, but to better understand the different tactics, WOM should be broken into two categories: organic and amplified.

WOMMA defined organic word of mouth as the daily interaction of consumers and amplified word of mouth as the result of a WOMM campaign. Organic WOM has been going on throughout history and the only control businesses have over it is the quality of its service or product. Amplified WOM, according to Galletta, is the result of businesses harnessing and encouraging the consumer interaction and can be achieved through many different tactics, channels and strategies.

For example, two types of WOMM to create amplified WOM, defined by WOMMA, are: 1) “buzz marketing: using high-profile entertainment or news to get people to talk about your brand;” and 2) “viral marketing: creating entertaining or informative messages that are designed to be passed along in an exponential fashion, often electronically or by e-mail.”

A great example of a WOMM campaign is one Ink Foundry recently held. It was an immersive influencer event, where key influences are identified and invited to a brand event at the Playboy Mansion for a Las Vegas casino client.

Galletta said, “We brought in gaming tables, dealers, Vegas girls and everything else that we could to recreate the casino experience at the Playboy Mansion. We even took the Vegas experience into the famous Playboy Mansion grotto.”

If that didn’t “encourage” the invite-only guests to talk over the next few days, or weeks, I’m not sure they still have a pulse.

Where does PR play a role?

Earlier I mentioned Ink Foundry is a public relations, word of mouth marketing agency. Sure, its emphasis is on WOMM, but its foundation is public relations. Galletta said that even after 20 years her parents still don’t know what it is, but that’s because PR is very misunderstood by most everyone.

“It can encompass many, many different elements including managing crises, keeping brands out of the news, community events and many other things that people don’t really think about,” Galletta said. “However, everything that PR does should support the company’s larger marketing objectives.”

It’s this supporting of every part of a company, beyond marketing, that keeps PR vital to everyday operations. WOMM campaigns rely on PR ethics and strategies to be successful and create the most positive WOM possible.

While discussing the PR foundation for Ink Foundry, Galletta said it began about 10 years ago as a public relations company that specialized in word of mouth marketing, brand immersion events and influencer engagement, and that it is still doing that today.

“[That's] corporate speak for: we found the people most likely to enjoy a brand and found cool ways to make the introduction and let the people do the rest,” Galletta said.

WOMMA defined the basic elements of WOMM to include: researching how, when and where opinions are being shared; engaging in conversation with supporters, detractors or neutrals; and identifying key publics to educate about your products or services. Each basic element of WOMM is also a basic element of PR; where doesn’t PR play a role in WOMM?

Ethical WOMM

“Nothing is more important for a business than upholding the highest ethical standards,” Galletta said, and her Ink Foundry Web site has an Ethics section that states it abides by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) Ethics Code. And after review, the WOMMA Ethics Code closely resembles the core values of the PRSA Code of Ethics – further establishing the relationship between the two industries.

“We want everyone to know where we stand and how we work,” Galletta said. “We also want to set a visible example of how we believe ethical word of mouth marketing should be done. It’s not cool to try to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes.”

WOMMA agreed in its WOM 101 guide, and said, “Word of mouth can’t be faked or invented. Attempting to fake word of mouth is unethical and creates a backlash, damages the brand, and tarnishes the corporate reputation.”

If WOM, at least in its organic form, has been around for so long, and is going to happen whether or not you intend for it to, businesses might as well participate proactively and ethically.

Galletta believes that WOMM is the untouched division of marketing as far as power and impact are concerned, and said, “Across the board, WOM is the number one way that people hear about and then decide to purchase a product.”

Then if engaging in and harnessing amplified WOM is the most powerful and effective form of positive marketing, certainly remaining passive and allowing uncontrolled, organic WOM must be the most destructive and critical form of negative promotion.

Galletta recommended joining the conversation whether your company is experiencing positive or negative WOM. “Get in the conversation and define who you are and what your brand is; don’t let someone define your brand for you,” she said.

If the word out about your business is negative, there is no better time to join the conversation and defend your products and services, providing accurate WOM. But remember, unethically creating buzz around a product or service, even in defense, poses far greater risk than reward; if word gets out you’re lying, customers have a far greater incentive to share negative information with their friends.

Go ahead and chime in!

Did you just feel a little power shift from producer to consumer? Now that you know a little bit more about the implications of word of mouth and the power of word of mouth marketing, why not consider vocally supporting your favorite brands more often, or more objectively criticizing one bad customer experience? Try not to abuse the power of WOM, but if the next time you’re unhappy with a product or service, speak up! You never know who’s out there listening, waiting to join the conversation.

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