We live in an age where the rallying cry "the consumer is in control" has almost become a cliché. That said, how then do we embrace that most mercurial, yet powerful, of touch points - word-of-mouth? Some seem to believe generating word-of-mouth means motivating others to spread our marketing message. Others argue if marketers should do anything at all, just seed the idea with the brand's biggest fans and then get the hell out of the way. But if we really want to incorporate WOM, ways exist to draw on research to ensure we develop cohesive, scalable and repeatable strategies.
WOM is powerful with consumers because they trust it. What is changing, however, is the way it is trusted. Sure, everyone trusts the opinions of friends, family and colleagues to varying high degrees. Expert opinion also ranks highly. But the emerging power in wom is online opinion. Universal McCann's studies attest that people now trust online Web site opinions more than they do mass-media advertising.
When we ask U.S. online consumers how "trustworthy" they rate information typically provided by various contacts, a wide ranking emerges. Personal recommendations from family and friends scores highest at 6.7 out of a possible 10, with professional or expert personal advice at 6.2. Consumer reviews from retail sites, such as Amazon, score 5.6. A company's own product Web site receives a respectable 4.3. Advertising in TV or magazines accounts for the end of the list, each scoring only 3.7. At least advertising beats email spam, which scores a lowly 3.1.
While tracking wom for 22 product categories, we have found that 80 percent of Americans "often inform others on what to buy" in at least one of these categories. More intriguing, we see the emergence of the "Multi-Influencer" - fully 30 percent of us inform others on what to buy for five or more categories.
Interestingly, Multi-Influencers aren't just the under-25ers who might have a permanent Internet connection. Our research shows Multi-Influencers actually span across all u.s. demographics, from homemakers to CEOs.
Equally important, Multi-Influencers exhibit clear preferences in the subjects they like to talk about. At the broadest level, cluster analysis indicates Multi-Influencers will tend to focus on one of two macro-topic groups: either technology and entertainment, or more personal and household matters like fashion, cosmetics, personal health and groceries.
The implication of these types of macro-topic groupings is actually quite profound. If we wish to embark on a wom or user-generated content activation strategy, we should avoid the pitfall of directly inviting consumers to create a response to our product. As Chevy Tahoe found out in 2006, consumers rebuffed the marketer's invitation to create UGC ads for the SUV, and instead exploited it to attack the vehicle's fuel consumption. Marketers often hesitate to pursue WOM or related UGC consumer creation strategies because of this kind of experience.
Instead of inviting consumer responses on the brand directly, we should harness this type of customized research to determine what other - often seemingly unrelated - product areas actively interest consumers when talking to others. We could then include these other potential areas in a refocused WOM or UGC activation strategy to emphasize our product's proposition, without necessarily talking about our product.
An admirable case in point is ING Canada. A year ago, the company ran a UGC competition on the theme of savings - but rather than promoting bank savings and deposits, the competition was about any form of saving. Consumers' UGC responses were diverse, humorous and creative. For example, they included a video about someone trying to save money by ordering a pizza from a pizzeria promising a free pie if it was not "delivered to your hands" in 30 minutes. So the diner-to-be deliberately refused to physically accept the pizza when the delivery guy turned up at his door, and a very humorous skit ensued.
Surprising approaches like this is where WOM, and related UGC strategies, will ultimately succeed. It not only arouses consumers' genuine curiosity and invites an authentic response that isn't transparently self-serving to the needs of the brand, but also provides a broader-based forum to interact with the brand and other fans.