Heard It Through The Grapevine

So this guy I know told me that he heard from a very influential friend of his that all the buzz on the M15 bus last week was about Word of Mouth (WOM) marketing. Some people call it conversational marketing; others call it "listening to the consumer." (And from there it's just a hop, skip and jump to social media, CGM, and "Web 2.0.") So today I came to an Advertising Research Foundation workshop on WOM marketing, because I'm easily influenced.

So why all the buzz about buzz?

Well, it is axiomatic that "the best advertising is word of mouth"; even your grandmother knows that. Now, though, marketers are attempting to harness -- to deploy -- this channel in a fashion that is a quantum degree more proactive than ever before. We all understand what B2B is -- business-to-business marketing. We all probably see ourselves as working in either B2B, or in B2C (business-to-consumer) marketing. WOM is something many of us haven't thought about before -- C2C. Messages are diffused from consumer to consumer, and while the advertising environment grows increasingly cluttered and fragmented, people still talk to (and listen to) friends, relatives, colleagues, co-workers, strangers on the bus.



The WOM space, I think, is comprised of two halves. One half is the seeding and generation of "buzz" (which can include "guerilla" and "viral.")

The other half is the piece that most interests me: the application of research methods, especially digital ones, to understand consumer conversations -- to listen. While the vast majority of consumer conversations occur off-line (shout out to Ed Keller), technology allows us to track and organize the conversations consumers have when they have them online. In digital media, as we all know, consumers leave footprints.

Marketers have always made systematic attempts to listen to consumers; think, for example, about the focus group. But such efforts may be TOO systematic, too much driven by the construct the marketer brings to the table. In the words of one extremely articulate client side market researcher, "Listening with that bias actually feeds your own agenda." And really, that isn't listening at all.

Long ago I learned that all "traditional" market research is biasing; just asking the question influences the answer. (On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being completely agree and 5 being completely disagree, how do you feel about what I just wrote?)

My revelation here at the ARF is this: the entire market research discipline is predicated on the assumption that we must pose questions to glean knowledge -- in a sense, creating the data we analyze. Thirty years ago, this may have been necessary. But today there is just so much data extant; we're lousy with data. Research need not generate its own data to find insights; this suggests that perhaps we should collectively shift our construct of research away from the guy with the lab coat and the clipboard posing questions, and toward the direction of observing consumer behavior in the wild.

So what we call WOM isn't just listening; it is watching, listening, touching, sniffing out. It is observation without interference. It involves an attempt to find order in the beautiful chaos of consumer-generated data. And interestingly, in that context almost all of online metrics work falls squarely within the definition of WOM.

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