TopRank Marketing Editor

PRSA 2008: Word of Mouth Online or Off – What’s The Difference?

TopRank Marketing Editor     Marketing PR Conferences, PR Conferences

Can you truly measure the effect of word of mouth in marketing, whether it be online or offline?  If so, which is more effective?  Further, if so, what exactly can we as marketers do with it?

These were the bold questions set forth by Jeffrey Graham,  Executive Director, Customer Insight, New York Times, in the day one PRSA International Conference Session “Word of Mouth Online or Off – What’s the Difference?”

The session’s formal agenda began with the stunning, though entirely unsurprising, admission that word of mouth, while noted as critical towards any marketing campaign’s success, is rarely accounted for in a campaigns budget.

The answer for this is surprisingly direct, in addition to being a complete cop-out: it simply cannot be measured.

Of course it can be measured.  Everything can be measured.  I can still measure the first fish I ever caught when I was six years old.  It was 57 inches long and 32 pounds.

Now, if you are saying it can’t be measured truly accurately, then that may be something we can come closer to agreement on.  In the case of a fishing story, we know before we hear the answer it will not be accurate, and the lie itself is a predictable action of the storyteller.

In fact, many in the old guard agree that the credibility of online word of mouth is negligible at best, and even among younger demographics, most word of mouth still happens – and is still trusted most – when it comes from face to face contact.

Online, does offer its share of benefits, however, including:

  • Nearly absolute permanence of any conversation
  • Complete transcendence of any distance

Many, however, still see it as an extremely volatile channel, and this is to be expected in any forum where anyone at anytime can post any ridiculous parable they feel like.

So knowing the influence of word of mouth, and knowing the reach of online, and admitting to the incredulity of this channel, what can savvy marketers do to be most effective?

The answer here is twofold – find what channels will spread your conversation and find the “multiplier” – those who will take the message you provide to them and multiply it among their entire network.

In terms of channels, surprisingly maybe to some – but television is still king in terms of a channel for overall “push” messaging (ie advertising) to start an online conversation.  However, when this is segmented further down to the industry level – certain verticals will actually see more conversations started from online messaging, among them technology (Note: one of TopRank’s key verticals) who, research indicates will see 49 conversations started compared to television’s 37.

Significant research was done by Graham and the New York Times to determine just what exactly constitutes a multiplier, and essentially, a formula has been created that breaks it down into three basic questions:

  • How many people do you speak to each day?
  • Do people come to you for recommendations?
  • Do you love to learn, share and advice?

Of 3000 people polled (in this case, the experiment was limited to the power of women as multipliers) roughly 30% fit this criteria.

Not only did this 30% of women match the criteria from the questions above, they also shared one other remarkable – 87% saw themselves as loving to help people – and see, either consciously or unconsciously, themselves as fulfilling some altruistic purpose in truly helping their family and friends.  They were truly inspired that their networks saw them as a trusted source to go to for buying decisions.

What else did they have in common?  They were each, in their own way, completely full of themselves.  They loved to talk about how “I” help people, how people come to “me”.  They were all – and this is purely my take – idiots.

A sandwich, like your opinion, is a wonderful thing to have, but no one wants either shoved down their throat.  I myself find it hard to believe that anyone would be truly influenced by these so-called multipliers, would be interested to see truly definitive research showing otherwise – and at the end of the day – feel altruism has as much place in marketing as truth does to childhood fishing stories.

If all this is true, is this another log being placed onto a fire burning partly on pure and utter confusion, and part on the realization that we can only ever get so far inside our target’s mind?

Not quite.  While we may never know definitely if a multipliers network truly likes to listen as much as multipliers love to talk – we do know – without a doubt – multipliers LOVE to buy.  They will spend money because they want to, they will spend money because they feel compelled to, they will spend money because they owe it to the world to do so and share their thoughts.

The multipliers in your vertical are your big, fat target and – quite possible, just maybe – are influencing some other folks out there, too.  So how best do we find them?  That’s best handled more fully in another post, but an off the cuff idea is a simple three question survey:

  • How many people do you speak to each day?
  • Do people come to you for recommendations?
  • Do you love to learn, share and advice?

Just like a fishing story, the accuracy of the response is secondary to the predictable action of the storyteller.

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  1. The multipliers, IMHO, don’t think in terms of “am I doing something good for others.” That’s their rationalization. They are looking for that 15 minutes of stardom, which can come quite often with digital content. Like this comment, we seek to take something that is not our own and make it our own. This comment seeks to subjugate the post and add my own lense to the discussion.

    The bottom line is that you can create word of mouth only to the extent that your message can be molded into something different. The blogosphere does this rather well.

    This is why information that is extreme or opinionated seems to get WOM legs: it’s easy to take a strong agree or disagree stance, essentially making it a marker for who you are–or want to be.

  2. The best word of mouth is the trusted third party referrer when supply of the product or service is short or difficult to acquire – for example “hey Sue do you know a good, reliable local plumber?” – the value of the information increases.

  3. Mike,

    Any online company can get a pretty quick measurement by simply asking “How did you hear about us?” upon checkout, with an option for “Friend”.

  4. Agree with Brian. Mash-ups, appropriation, repurposing, etc is essential to effective online word-of-mouth. If you create an remarkable experience that can be owned and distributed by the customer, you will probably create digital evangelists to coincide with their etheral counterparts.

    Also important is transitioning the conversation to offline events – tweetups, meetups, conferences, and even email is a more intimate interaction method than many social outlets due to the privacy. Remarkable, enduring, and easily accessible experiences will spread on any platform.


  5. Marketing is Marketing no matter were it is. Facebook is exactly like being in the same room as your friends you can see what they look like and chat with them instantly. Getting the word spread to ones you know can be emailed or spoken it doesn’t matter.

  6. To add to Jonathan’s comment regarding feedback, and as Avinash at Google would also push is the use of surveys. I understand SurveyGizmo just came out with a free option. SurveyMonkey is well known and Avinash’s 4Q:

    Also, as in the process of discovering the marketing applications of Facebook – I realize that its mostly this viral word of mouth aspect that you get indirectly via the profile badges users add to their shelf as they associate with brands via groups, pages, and causes.