Social Media And Word Of Mouth: 2 Ecosystems That Must Be Mastered

One of social media’s key attractions to marketers is the window it provides on authentic conversations and opinions of consumers, as both a marketing channel and an insights platform.

But do the conversations occurring on social media platforms accurately reflect consumer conversations about brands more generally — the type of discussions people have in person with family, friends, colleagues at work, and so forth? If consumer conversation is an iceberg, then social media is the visible “tip” above the ocean surface, while offline conversation is the largely invisible portion that lies beneath. How well does the social media tip of the iceberg reveal what is a much larger conversation happening in real life? 

The answer is: not well.

My firm recently completed extensive new research, looking week by week at social media and word-of-mouth conversation about more than 500 brands. While there is a modest correlation between online and offline conversation volume over time, such correlations are too infrequent to be relied upon. Marketers who depend on social media conversation alone are listening to only a part of what consumers say about their brand, and are vulnerable to making misguided conclusions about brand health. 



500 brands studied

For this research project, we looked at weekly data throughout 2016 for 500 brands across a range of product categories: brands such as Adidas, Coca-Cola, Samsung, and Walmart.

We started by looking at changes in conversation volume—the share of the conversation each brand received among all 500, week by week. The level of correlation was positive but averaged just +8.5%. With a correlation so close to zero, we concluded that the correlations we observed were barely more than one would expect to see purely by chance — a coincidence, perhaps. For all practical purposes, the association is not sufficient that a brand marketer could assume that one is a mirror to the other. When it comes to measuring volume, the social media “tip of the iceberg” doesn’t tell us a lot about offline conversation that is happening under the surface.

Another important metric is “sentiment,” which indicates whether a conversation is positive or negative toward the brand in question. Marketers are interested in promoting positive conversation and recommendation, so sentiment is a key metric to monitor. However, when we ran the same test for sentiment trends, we saw a positive correlation of less than 1%; in other words, no meaningful correlation at all.

The same was true for two other metrics we included in our analysis, “brand sharing” and “influence.” We define brand sharing as the degree to which consumers are sharing or talking about a brand’s online or offline marketing and advertising content. We define influence as the degree to which the brand is being talked about by those individuals with more social connections, and a greater propensity to give brand advice. With correlations between online and offline trends close to zero, we concluded that marketers will need separate strategies for online and offline content and influencer marketing. 

Brands operate in two social ecosystems

Elsewhere, it has been proven that consumer conversation drives sales, with offline conversation and social media each playing a role. This new research demonstrates that brand performance online and offline are different phenomena. Both are important to brand success, but relatively few brands earn the same level of success both online and offline. 

I began with the analogy of an iceberg, and the question of whether the visible social media tip is predictive of the offline conversation below the surface. We have concluded that the answer is no. Another apt metaphor is the concept of ecosystems: Online and offline conversations occur in two vastly different ecosystems, as different as ocean from desert, and tropical from temperate. Marketers can best drive business performance if they can find success in both ecosystems, but they will need careful preparation. Only a marketer prepared with a good map, a smart strategy, and the right gear can expect to thrive in both the online and offline ecosystems.

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