Tangled Up In Friends

Plenty has been written about the value of word of mouth in the marketing communications mix. McKinsey, for example, reports that 67% of purchase decisions are influenced primarily by word of mouth. All well and good. Brands need to account for word of mouth in their communications plans. Check. 

Now, more interestingly: How? Turns out, when it comes to teens, word of mouth is a completely different beast than it is for adults.

We recently did a research study in which we quantitatively mapped the journeys that various types of consumers took to purchase a particular set of services in a mature, commoditized category. In analyzing thousands of responses, we were able to compare the journeys that teens took versus those of adults.

For everyone, the purchase journey was long—on average, about four months from trigger until purchase. As expected, all consumers surveyed used some kind of word of mouth to help them reach decisions, primarily as a way to sort through the hype they said they saw in the category.



That’s where the similarities ended. All types of adults used word of mouth only once, near the beginning of their journeys. It was an important step in their journeys, but in the vast majority of cases, only one step.

The teens, on the other hand, used word of mouth multiple times, at least three or four times over the course of their journeys — whether they were researching providers, comparing rates, or searching for promotional offers, we found they checked in with friends or family immediately following most steps in their journeys. While these check-ins were sometimes digital, they turned out to be mostly in-person interactions.

For teens, in this particular example, word of mouth is not just one step, as it is for adults. Rather, it is pervasive in how they make their purchase decisions. They use it iteratively, pairing it with nearly each step that they take on their own.

Other evidence seems to support the notion that this is not an isolated case. Take for instance: a teenaged girl enters a convenience store to purchase a drink. She stands before the cold case, trying to decide what to choose. While an older consumer might consider the packaging or recall the brand advertising as ways to help make a purchase decision, the teenaged girl is more likely than not to immediately pull out her mobile phone and text her friends (or parents) to get their opinions on what to buy.

This “co-dependence” on peers and family members to help make purchase decisions—even one as seemingly simple and impulsive as what drink to buy—appears to be hardwired in the Millennial generation. They take instant communications with their friends for granted, and it has had a significant impact on the way that they interact with each other—and with brands.

In the end, marketing to teens in word of mouth channels can’t be thought of or delivered as simply a one-off experience. One size does not fit all. Those channels aren’t even necessarily or exclusively digital in nature—nine out of ten word of mouth conversations about brands occur offline, according to the Word of Mouth Marketing Association.

Rather, marketing in these word of mouth channels should be, to borrow from Paul Adams of Facebook, “many, lightweight interactions over time.” The use of word of mouth channels to reach teens needs to evolve with those teens over the course of their individual journeys to purchase a product or service from a brand.

Brands have to carefully consider their approach in these word of mouth channels, understanding how these channels play off of the other channels in the journey, and making sure that their efforts in these channels are multifaceted and able to adapt to the evolving needs of their consumers.

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