At last week's WOMMA Conference in Orlando, 440 people turned out to spend an intense two days learning how word-of-mouth marketing could bring them more customers. Many of the case studies presented focused on elements of online publishing as a means of crafting authentic and extended dialogues with customers. But few of these examples were provided by the companies normally considered online publishers. To wit:
Regional guide upstartJudy's Book was on hand to discuss how the company has used online conversations to bolster its reputation. But nobody from CitySearch.com or Zagats.com or a single newspaper's online division was at the show to hear.
TaylorMade Golf presented on how two separate blogs (one on inside product information and the other chronicling its tour pros) are helping to justify premium pricing, educate an influential audience and turn customers into fans. Not a soul from ESPN.com or SI.com was present to consider the long-term impact of these initiatives on TaylorMade's online media spend.
Executives from Whirlpool detailed their experiments in podcasting, which is delivering targeted messages to key influentials and already influencing the company's marketing mix. As with all the WOMMA sessions, this presentation drew a full house--but not representatives from Scripps or Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia or iVillage.com, on whom the task of reaching targeted consumers for Whirlpool has previously fallen.
Who, then, was at the event to take in all this prescriptive advice on how advertisers can become publishers? General Motors, Capital One, Buena Vista Pictures, Apple, Clorox, Deutsch, American Express, Nestle, Warner Bros. Music, Staples, Best Buy, P&G, Samsung, Prudential Financial, Fidelity, Hersey, and General Mills. When an interactive industry event has this kind of a client-side turnout, publishers queue up six deep to sponsor it. Now these same blue-chip clients that publishers have been courting for years are aggressively exploring ways to reduce their reliance on media spending within their marketing mix.
But that's not to say that word-of-mouth today is where interactive media was in 2002. Online was a media industry pariah back then, and advertisers had to be coaxed, bribed, guaranteed, shamed, tricked and otherwise coerced into rediscovering the Internet.
Word-of-mouth enjoys a very different position today. Judging from the bulging rooms at WOMMA, the endless stream of questions for presenters, and the powerful turnout with almost no attrition as the event concluded, marketers are pursuing WOM out of volition and ambition. While the media landscape becomes increasingly obfuscated, and media budgets in ALL channels are scrutinized, challenged and measured, WOM is suddenly irresistible for its ability to, in some small ways, displace advertising as a means of achieving the same customer goals.
Any publishers who ever pitched its advertisers the online channel as a necessary and inevitable investment in spending and mindshare should take a close look at how advertisers are devouring WOM, and be worried. It's not a far-fetched possibility that publishers who don't find a way to support some of these initiatives will begin to see a loss of advertiser revenue. Even worse, as marketers develop a trusted voice of their own (just read the TaylorMade blogs) they will find themselves competing with these very advertisers for audience attention.