The Advertising Research Foundation, American Association of Advertising Agencies, and Association of National Advertisers last July announced a joint initiative to encourage industry-wide adoption of "consumer engagement" as a media measurement metric to complement traditional measures of consumer exposure.
While the initiative, dubbed mi4 (Measurement Initiative: Advertisers, Agencies, Media, and Researchers) remains in its infancy, it provides a solid vision of word of mouth (wom) as an important leading indicator of consumer engagement, if not a fundamental building block of the entire concept.
Word of Mouth Is Engagement
Recent studies by research firms like Yankelovich, Ipsos Loyalty, and Mediaedge:cia have confirmed the power of WOM. Virtually every cross-media study around declares that "someone like me" or "another consumer" or "a friend or family member" is far more influential on consumption decisions than any other form of media. And recent data from GfK NOP (including historical Roper data) demonstrates that, while not a new phenomenon, WOM has exploded in importance: In 1977, 67 percent of U.S. consumers called WOM one of the best sources for ideas about new products, versus 92 percent in 2005.
This trend, combined with the new level of observability and accountability that the Internet brings to consumer-to-consumer information exchange, means that WOM has truly arrived as a media channel. Increasingly, the success of media companies will be based not on the content they create and the eyeballs they draw, but the community and conversation around that content. Likewise, the success of marketers will be determined not by the so-called optimal mix of reach and frequency, but by the consumer traction they generate and the intensity of conversation in relation to brands.
While researchers measure consumer engagement, the study of online consumer buzz has already proven itself a killer application. It starts with sophisticated search software and linguistic algorithms that passively monitor the billions of naturally occurring conversations on blogs, online message boards, public e-mail groups, and consumer-ratings Web sites.
Three things make this research powerful. First, it is utterly unaided and so lacks many traditional research biases; people are talking precisely because they're engaged! Second, it has an uncanny ability to zero in on affinity groups and pinpoint audiences by lifestage and psychographics. Finally, it opens a window into the minds of early adopters and trendsetters, providing amazing predictive power.
Media researchers are already tapping this data to understand how messages resonate through media, permeate conversation, and impact attitudes and behaviors of key audiences. TV network executives study online buzz to understand why viewers become passionate about certain programs. And sophisticated media planners track this buzz to make smarter investments for their clients.
Adopting Lessons of WOM
While it will take time for the mi4 initiative to produce tangible results, it's already stimulating constructive thinking. I hope that all of the mi4 stakeholders will consider the successful applications of "engagement" research already taking place in the WOM field. It's not a theoretical model; it's a real application that's already starting to influence all players in the paid media realm.