So, I wrote this in 2004. Yes, folks, 10 years ago. I could not stop giggling and had to share.
Do you remember that old Breck shampoo commercial? The one where Heather Locklear urged everyone to tell two friends about how great the product is and then those two friends would tell two friends and so on, and so on. By the time Heather’s head was titled across your screen a hundred times, you got the point: word-of-mouth marketing works! (And some people, we understand, were in fact inspired to buy the product.)
Marketing experts will tell you that word-of-mouth is the oldest and most effective means of getting your product in the home of every American. An ad can be as funny and clever as it wants, but there’s nothing more compelling than a ringing endorsement from someone a consumer knows and trusts. However, word-of-mouth has evolved along with methods of communication. Today, word travels faster than ever as millions of Americans are plugged into the Internet and mobile applications. If you don’t know what consumers are saying about your company and products on feedback sites, in chat-rooms, boards, blogs, vogs and moblogs – good or bad – you may want to find out.
Take the Movie Industry, for Example
The studios can buy first week audiences. But they are learning quickly that advertising is not nearly enough to overcome the influx of online word-of-mouth. The Hulk is a perfect example of the phenomenon; as ticket sales plummeted by 70 percent the second week, with negative comments from viewers being one of the major causes. We have read about people who as they leave a film send mobile messages out panning or exclaiming praise. And it spreads – quickly. If you read a long list of blogs (and we do), you will see the ups and downs that ‘we the people’ cause by such communication. It’s empowering and exciting as consumers. But as marketers, it can be awfully scary.
The lesson that marketers need to embrace is that there can be enormous benefit in working to harness the power of instant communications for good and not evil. The same person who sends an immediate opinion of a film might be your best spokesperson.
Retail – How Do You Shop?
The retail industry is also experiencing the power of online word-of-mouth marketing. We’ve all read the studies – people are not going shopping for large items without first doing their homework. An August 2004 Dieringer Research Group study found that online shoppers are brand impressionable and that three out of five consumers who researched products online changed their brand opinion based upon information they found..
Consumers who buy a product, have a good experience doing it and then subsequently enjoy the product, are going to tell others about it. Forget Consumer Reports, companies dealing in big-ticket items such as plasma televisions and refrigerators are learning that consumers do their homework and it goes beyond what is said in a magazine. Consumers want to hear about what other people have experienced with a store or how they feel about a particular brand. A salesperson is trying to make a commission and Consumer Reports can only conduct so many tests, but a user can give you the inside scoop – and they’ve got nothing to gain from it. That’s powerful. [Great examples of websites to check are epinions and Planet Feedback, but many sites provide consumer feedback i.e. Amazon and Zappos]
Of course, the only way to have great consumer reviews is to provide a great product or service backed by great customer service. But don’t we all gain from that?
I’d Like a Second Opinion
Healthcare is another industry where word-of-mouth has made its mark. Some experts have gone so far to say that word-of-mouth is revolutionizing that industry as consumers are taking a more active role in their treatment decisions. Patients will ask for referrals, second opinions and consult online patient support groups looking for the latest information about their condition before they settle on a course of treatment. If a patient community does not like what your large pharmaceutical company has to offer, they are going to make sure everyone knows. Conversely, if someone is having a great result from a treatment, they are going to want to share that news with as many people as possible. Most major diseases, and even some of the more obscure ones, have support groups and patient chat rooms. It may be worth your time to visit them once in and while to see what people are saying.
The Bigger the Company, the Better the Target
The scary thing about word-of-mouth marketing is the lack of control – you really have no control over what’s being said, how often and to whom. That’s why it’s important to monitor what is being said so that you can decide if steps need to be taken to dispel a nasty rumor if you can sit back and let America do your marketing for you. Sometimes, the stuff that’s not true becomes more famous than what is. Consider these two recent cases.
As a pet owner, you may have received an alarming e-mail about the Swiffer Wetjet that alleged the product contained harmful chemicals that can kill a pet due to liver failure. The e-mail was started by a distraught dog owner who believed the Swiffer Wetjet was to blame for his or her pet’s demise. Vets around the country received countless calls as to the validity of the claims, while animal welfare associations weighed-in on the issue. A panic ensued because one person who was upset about losing a pet told two friends, who told two friends, and so on. (You get the picture.) Even with the ASPCA’s conclusion that the ingredients in the Swiffer Wetjet were indeed safe for use around animals, Proctor and Gamble continues to address questions and answers related to the topic on its Web site.
Sometimes, however, a company doesn’t get off as easy as old P&G. Sometimes, the chatter, the e-mails, the discussion groups and the blogs can lead a company right into the middle of a crisis.
A leading consumer advocacy group filed a lawsuit against food giant Kraft over its use of partially-hydrogenated oils in Oreo cookies. According to BuzzMetrics, a company specializing in word of mouth research and planning, the lawsuit triggered over 2.6 million comments from over 120,000 consumers causing the total volume of online discussions on trans fats to increase more than eightfold in the same month. The outcome: if consumers did not link trans fats to Oreos before the online feeding frenzy, they do now. 
Wherever You Look
The world is just plain different now. No one is immune. You simply cannot claim to be something you’re not and get away with it for long these days. Anyone with a newfangled mobile phone can walk into a dirty fast food joint and show the world – totally negating the millions spent on advertising a sparkly clean restaurant chain. A phone company that claims to have great customer service might have hundreds of complaints online. Someone – actually lots of someones – are reading them.
If there’s a story to be told about a company or product not being what is advertised, you can be sure that bloggers will find it and tell it. There’s no more hiding the ‘fine print’ or glossing over reality.
In the future, marketers will need to ask harder questions about whether they are up to snuff – can they either pass the bloggers’ rigorous testing and fact-checking and come out unscathed? Or even better, can they use the bloggers to their advantage? Here are a few tips to help you do just that.
Listen and read: Know what is being said/written about your brand, your spokespersons, your advertising, your company, your suppliers.
Know the bloggers who cover your beat. Surely, you follow the analysts for your industry. The bloggers wield tremendous influence. Know who they are!
Be honest. If you make a claim, back it up. That includes making sure your staff can back it up, too. Bloggers get their information somewhere – don’t let it be from inside your company! If a blogger or website ‘outs’ a problem with your company or product, deal with it. Ignoring it won’t make it go away – it will likely make it grow.
Rumors and Gossip and Hearsay – Oh My!
You don’t have to wait to receive a nasty e-mail rumor from a distraught consumer to find out if your company is the target of negative word-of-mouth marketing. There are several ways to gauge your company’s reputation within the online community. It’s a good idea to do a search every so often on your own company to make sure you haven’t missed an opportunity to build on positive chatter or to identify an online rumor that needs to be squashed.
Sometimes, word-of-mouth information comes from inside your own company. An unhappy employee is just as bad, possibly worse, than an unsatisfied consumer. To keep find out if any employees are bashing you in cyberspace, visit Vault. For those of you who are a bit braver and really want to hear the bad stuff, go to F**ked Company where’re you’ll hear the latest rants from employees both present and former, and maybe even discover some internal memos that were never meant to be seen by the public.
Not all complaints fall on deaf ears and sometimes, word-of-mouth becomes a matter of public record. To find out what, if anything, your customers are complaining about, visit DMOZ Complaints. In addition, BRBPub provides an excellent search tool for researching public records. You may not like what you find, but at least you’ll know and can take the appropriate course of action.
Now that you’ve been reminded of the power of word-of-mouth marketing, considered the role it plays in your industry and wondered about what consumers are saying about your company, do us a favor and tell two friends about what you’ve learned. And be sure to tell them where you learned it.