Thanks to the creative folks at 1000 Heads for their eye-catching WOM infographic (available here).

Centered by the greatest piece of puffery in the history of marketing ('WOM, The Most Powerful Force in the World" - I wonder, does that include the atomic bomb?), it simplistically conveys some very important points regarding WOM that indeed often are lost in all the exaggeration and hype about this critical form of C-to-C influence.  Hey, what's a little puffery to get across the idea that in many situations, WOM has a far greater impact than formal, paid-for marketing efforts.  And who hasn't used a bit of exaggeration to make that point?  To wit:

'Word of mouth is the most important marketing element that exists.' - Gordon Weaver

'Word of mouth is more powerful than all of the other marketing methods . . . put together.' - George Silverman

'Because of the sheer ubiquity of marketing efforts these days, WOM appeals have become the only kind of
persuasion that most of us respond to anymore.' - Malcolm Gladwell

'Word of mouth is the greatest of all brand messages.' - Dobele & Ward

Let's briefly dissect some of the key elements of 1000 Heads' perspective on WOM:

It isn't just Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.  That's for sure.  Keller Faye Talk Track studies have shown that a majority of WOM doesn't occur online at all, but that up to 90% is spread offline via face-to-face (73%) or by phone (17%).  Interestingly, these results are tempered by age, with younger persons (13-17 y.o.) giving relatively more WOM online (~19%) than other age groups.  Yet, many marketing managers feel comfortable with their social media strategy that consists solely of creating a Facebook page and Twitter account.  As Carlos Diaz of Blue Kiwi has argued in his social media maturity model, companies that limit their social media activity to setting up a Facebook fan page, corporate Twitter account, and a YouTube channel are social media immature, locked between the 'Pre-social' and 'Engagement' stages, and are merely adding a lot of 'blah blah' to cyberspace.

It's people talking to each other.  Offline and online, seamlessly.  Key word, 'seamlessly.'  True, I allude to the distinction between online and offline above, but maybe it's time we stop talking about WOM as occurring either online and offline.  WOM is fluid. As I wander through the streets of Paris, ride the metro, visit clubs, what have you, it is rare to see young people not talking to someone, either face to face, via a portable device, or both simultaneously.  Receive some WOM via one channel, it won't be long before the recipient is transmitting it to someone else via another, online or offline.

It happens when we feel something.  Emotion is our social currency, and passion drives us to share.

That passion is driven by everything from nappies to Napa Valley, from porkies to Proust, and of course, brands.

I can't argue with this emphasis on passion as being at the root of WOM, and passion comes in all shapes and sizes.  People may be passionate about many things.  A new book or film, a band, a restaurant, a dress shop, a new iPhone application - our affinity and enthusiasm about these sorts of things can light a fire that fuels and continues to fuel our conversations with others.  My nephew, a grad student at Clemson, often encourages me to check out new indie bands he comes across in S. Carolina.  No big surprise there.  But as I wrote in my book, he also was so passionate about his new Swiffer mop, that he posted about it on Facebook.  That's somewhat more surprising.  Okay, passion is important, but we also must take care to recognize that passion isn't the whole story when it comes to WOM.  Another large part of the story is need.  This morning I woke up with the realization that my house may have termites.  Termites.  Never spoke about them in my life.  But you can bet that starting today I'm going to be interacting with some of my neighbors, asking for recommendations about local services, who to trust, who to avoid.  That's WOM, and passion has nothing to do with it.  Passion is emotion.  Need underlies motivation.  Both stimulate WOM.

And where there's trust, there's talk, which leads to recommendation, and in turn, sales.  You don't need rocket science to understand the importance of trust in the WOM process and why we are more apt to follow the advice of our friends and relatives than advertisers and salespeople.  Friends and relatives, we are likely to presume, have our best interests at heart.  They want to help.  Advertisers and salespeople have their own interests at heart, and if they do want to help their customers, that desire is only secondary to wanting to help themselves.  I've often been perplexed by research findings suggesting that consumers in general do not admit to very high trust levels for bloggers.  But maybe that isn't as surprising as it sounds. Most likely, you don't know the blogger personally and you have no idea what might be the blogger's connection to the companies and brands that are recommended.  Until that blogger earns your trust, you'll prefer to seek out the recommendations of friends who have experience or expertise in the category of interest.  That's why I'll listen very attentively to the neighbors I trust who have previously dealt with a termite problem, and very warily to the experts who hope to sell me their services.

But brands need breadth and depth.  Mass buzz, but also deep advocacy to ensure their WOM isn't just a flash in the pan.  Another great point from 1000 Heads.  Passion and trust are often at the center of terrific brands.  Brand competition has never been more intense.  Yet brands that offer - and, importantly, continue to offer -  quality, innovation, and engagement, inevitably resonate with consumers, thereby enabling a long-term commitment that translates into deep advocacy.

It's always changing, so we have to keep listening and innovating in real time.  WOM waits for no man (or woman) . . .  Unfortunately, even some of the greatest brands are learning the hard way how quickly one can fall in the age of social media.  Nestle learned very quickly what happens when you try to inappropriately set the boundaries of engagement and disrespect your consumer audience.  The Nestle's Facebook fiasco is now an infamous case study in how not to engage with consumers via social media.  And you have to wonder what's going on with Johnson & Johnson.  Their customer-oriented response to the 1982 Tylenol crisis is in all the textbooks.  So what is with their current secrecy surrounding the 2010 recalls?  That attitude is contrary to just about everything I've written above.  Instead of stimulating favorable WOM, the company now finds itself fighting consumer lawsuits.  It's always changing, indeed.