What's The Biggest Online Force to Drive Word of Mouth? The Answer Might Surprise You. - Ed Keller
Published: June 28, 2011 at 07:02 AM GMT
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Last Updated: June 28, 2011 at 07:02 AM GMT
By Ed Keller
With the meteoric rise of social networking, marketers can be forgiven for thinking that word of mouth equals social media. This is wrong on two counts.
Firstly, the overwhelming majority of word of mouth still occurs offline, not online. This is not an indictment of social media, but rather a reflection of just how large the volume of face to face word of mouth is. Because offline WOM is harder to measure, it's often discounted. But that's a mistake. There are important planning and evaluation implications that stem from this, and we have discussed them previously.
The second problem with thinking WOM equals social media is that the role of the internet in word of mouth extends far, far beyond social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and FourSquare. The things people see on the internet are a tremendous spark for WOM conversations, and the number one resource people turn to when they want to take action after WOM conversations. Search, in particular, is the most important internet resource when it comes to word of mouth, far outpacing social media.
I am sure you've had this experience yourself. You are talking with a friend at a cocktail party about how much you loved Midnight in Paris, your friend wants to see the movie tonight and immediately Googles the movie on her smart phone, arrives at the Fandango site, which provides theater names and show times. By 9pm she's meeting her sister at the theater and spending the evening transported to the era of Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
In a nutshell, that's how word of mouth most often leverages the internet. No social media site involved.
And it's not just happening anecdotally, but confirmed in a large scale survey research project my firm did recently for Google. Specifically, we looked at the role of various forms of media and marketing at different stages in the word of mouth process – those that are used before conversations take place and that spark the conversation; those that are used during conversations; and those that people turn to after conversations. For this study, we were interested in conversations about 12 product categories, including health, personal care, and technology.
The internet and TV are just about equally important during the "pre-WOM" phase, meaning what people see on the internet and on TV often spark conversations (90%+ of which take place offline). During people's conversations, the internet starts to take a lead over TV. And following conversations, people are far more likely to turn to the internet than to any other medium.
The study finds that TV and the internet often work in tandem for consumers (and therefore they should for marketers, as well). A large percentage of the time when conversations are sparked by TV, consumers turn to the internet after for follow up.
What role does the internet play? Before and during conversations, the internet is most often used to provide extra information for consumers. Following conversations, its role becomes more specific -- checking prices, in particular, and finding where to buy products, as in my movie example.
When it comes to the internet, search is the #1 site type visited at all stages – before, during and after conversations. E-commerce sites are second, with about half as large a role in WOM. Brand sites and social media sites, in turn, are each about a quarter as prominent as search.
We know from previous research that word of mouth is highly credible and quite often leads to purchase intent. That finding is confirmed in this study. But what we learned that is new in this study is that conversations referencing search are thought by consumers to be more credible (+25%) and more likely to lead to purchase (+ 17%), compared to those that reference social media.
When it comes to word of mouth, social media is the shiny new toy for many marketers. And we encourage you to play with that toy. But it's important to base judgments on facts, not hype. This study serves as an important reminder that most WOM takes place offline, not online; that the internet plays a critical role in driving those conversations; that search remains far and away the most important part of the internet when it comes to word of mouth; and that a search + TV strategy can be very effective, more so than a TV + social media strategy.
I have written before that when it comes to social marketing, we need to think holistically because "all media are social." I was referring to the unique capabilities of TV, print, and online media to drive conversation. Now we see in this study that within online, there are many ways to drive social behavior. We can't let the shiny new toys divert our attention from the bigger (and often more effective) ways to tap the power of word of mouth.
Ed Keller, CEO of the Keller Fay Group, has been called "one of the most recognized names in word of mouth." The publication of Keller's book, The Influentials, has been called the "seminal moment in the development of word of mouth." Ed can be contacted at email@example.com.
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