When I was asked to guest edit October's Admap Focus on Word-of-Mouth Marketing, I knew it would be an easy gig. From Brad Fay, founder of the world's only offline and online word-of-mouth research company, to Craig Hepburn, who is using word-of-mouth to transform the way Nokia engages with people across the world, the leaders in this industry have now had several years to prove that conversation really does drive business – and that it can be measured, grown and managed long-term.
But any discussion of word-of-mouth (WOM) needs to be framed with two basic questions. How does it differ from social media? And why does that distinction matter? Below I humbly (OK, not so humbly. Passionately and unashamedly) offer seven reasons why it's time to graduate from social media to WOM.
One is a technology, the other is a human behaviour. Social media are tools that allow people to connect with each other, while WOM is the behaviour they engage in while using those tools. Changing behaviour is better achieved by understanding the conversation than understanding the technology.
Any seven-year-old can work out how to insert a Tweet This button onto their blog; few seven-year-olds can nail exactly what motivates human beings to share, and harness that insight for business results. Too many companies get trapped in the sexy new platform race, desperate to find where they should be investing next. But if you focus on people, they'll take the conversation wherever they go: old technologies, new technologies, technologies your innovations consultant can't even imagine yet.
One lives online, the other lives everywhere. Ninety per cent of brand WOM still happens face to face. No wonder; the impulse to share is born from emotion, and we're much more likely to have a real life emotional experience with all our senses engaged than in the safe distance of cyberspace. The most effective way to spread peer-to-peer conversation is to combine an offline event, gathering or asset with social media plug-ins, presences and activities. Use the real world to disrupt, delight and draw in; use social media to amplify. All with the awareness that the places that are hardest to measure – the dinner table, the school gates, the pub – are the ones that matter most.
One focuses on 'us', the other on 'them.' Mention social media, and most companies think of their own Twitter feed, Facebook page or Pinterest board. But WOM's power lies in its independence; peers talking to each other about you, not you talking to them. That means encouraging people to create their own content in their own spaces, not getting them to like your page or comment on your blog. A suite of your own social presences is important, but it's still traditional marketing in sexy clothing. Valuable WOM – the stuff that changes opinions, drives sales and secures loyalty – belongs to us, not you.
One isolates, the other integrates. Let's get one thing straight. There is no such thing as a 'social media' consumer. Nor a 'digital', 'retail' or 'outdoor' one. Nowadays, smartphones in hand, we move between real and virtual worlds constantly, capturing and sharing as we go. A commitment to WOM means a commitment to drive conversation using every consumer-facing touchpoint you have in a consistent and seamless way. It means breaking down internal barriers so your shop floor staff are talking to your tweeting CEO, and your marketing folk are helping your R&D guys to crowdsource. It means being social, not just doing social; WOM flows across all these spaces with no respect for advertising segmentations.
One is fixed, the other is dynamic. Social media are things and places. WOM is a process, which changes and evolves. If you focus on where the conversation is happening, you might miss what it is doing. The most successful social strategies adapt weekly, daily, even hourly, to how people are responding, and to how outside trends and influences flooding into the social space are changing the course of your own activity. WOM demands constant monitoring, measurement, adaptation and re-calibration. Social media demands a huge monthly report with graphs that nobody reads, while WOM has no truck with woolly assumptions and missing KPIs. It demands precision, comparison, judgment and accountability. And those are words that get colleagues and bosses very excited indeed.