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Thursday, December 8 2011

What is Word of Mouth Marketing?

Call me a stickler for proper language usage, a cantankerous old goat, or an old-fashioned traditionalist, but I happen to think that it's important not to dumb down social discourse through the improper use of terminology, poor spelling ("I 8 dinner 2nite"), and lousy grammar. But I get it, the emergence of texting, which is rapidly supplanting email among youth, seduces one rather quickly into a lazy writing modality which, for want of a better description, may more appropriate be referred to as 'de-texting,' in the sense of its efficiency at deconstructing language. When was the last time you texted a complete and accurately-written sentence, devoid of abbreviations and childish emoticons? I rest my case.  Making matters worse is the growing number of commentators who, as commentators are wont to do, comment on various aspects related to social media and connected marketing who bandy about terms without seeming to have clear insight into what it is they are talking about. Case in point - if it has anything to do with social media it is described as 'viral.'

Definitions are important because they provide us with a common ground for discussion. A conversation about word of mouth isn't going to get very far if the discussants are operating from different perspectives on what WOM is. I usually begin my presentations about WOM with George Silverman's definition from his book The Secrets of Word-of-Mouth Marketing, in that it is typical, but also problematic:

A good start, one highlighting the fact that WOM may be positive or negative in nature.  But what about neutral?  For example, say I hear from a neighbor that our local satellite TV/cable provider is about to change its name.  Most of us would agree that is WOM - I have been informally provided with news about a local service company that I personally do not find positive or negative in connotation.  Silverman also points out that WOM is characterized by 'personal communication,' yet isn't it true that WOM conveyed by anonymous posters at an online chat forum is in fact 'impersonal'?  And although it is true that most WOM is disseminated outside of commercial ties, how then do we describe brand advocacy programs, which involve people spreading positive recommendations because they have been incentivized with free products, gifts, or payment?

WOMMA skirts some of these problems inherent in Silverman's definition by defining WOM more broadly:

Although many pundits use the terms 'WOM" and "buzz" as synonyms, Emmanuel Rosen's (The Anatomy of Buzz Revisited) clarifies:

Who can argue with WOMMA and Rosen?  Successful WOM marketing (WOMM) results in plenty of buzz.  So what is WOMM?  Last week, WOMMA contributor Pat McCarthy provided 'the simplest definition of word of mouth marketing":


So now that we know what we're talking about, what are the basic principles underlying successful WOMM?  There are two simple ways to find the answer: (1) by reading my book Connecting With Consumers and (2) by watching this short WOMMA video.

In a nutshell, WOMMA identified 5 basic principles of WOMM:

Wednesday, April 20 2011

The Journal of Marketing Communications Wants You


Journal of Marketing Communications

Special Issue:  Word of Mouth and Social Media

Editors:  Allan J. Kimmel and Philip J. Kitchen



The Internet and mobile devices have come to occupy a central role in the transmission of word of mouth (WOM) and the spread of marketing buzz, an impact that has shown phenomenal growth over the past decade with the emergence of blogs, Internet forums and discussion groups, text messaging, email, and the like.  In fact, the most powerful media form is WOM and it is no longer limited to face-to-face encounters. Moreover, WOM today can spread with lightning speed to reach countless numbers of consumers.  As marketers strive to adapt to these rapidly evolving technological and social developments and keep pace with their markets, researchers have followed suit, as evidenced by the growing body of scientific literature on various aspects of WOM communication (i.e., the act of a consumer creating and/or distributing marketing-relevant information to other consumers) and related personal influence phenomena (e.g., brand communities; brand ambassador programs; product seeding campaigns).  Nonetheless, to date, relatively little academic research scrutiny has been devoted to WOM as it relates to social media and other web-driven consumer-generated phenomena, such as blogs and consumer Internet forums. Moreover, there is a paucity of academic research relating to the strength of consumer-to-consumer communications as compared to B2C and B2B.  There is evidence of resistance by marketers in staying with the time-worn, but tested and tried traditional types of communications.


This special issue of the Journal of Marketing Communications is intended to bridge this knowledge gap by providing an outlet for innovative and timely contributions pertaining to online WOM, as disseminated through the broad array of social media (a category of online media where people are talking, participating, sharing, networking, and bookmarking, including social sharing sites such as YouTube and Flickr; social networks such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook; online forums; and corporate and consumer-generated blogs.   


Topics for the special issue include but are not limited to:

  • methods of using social media for generating WOM
  • comparisons of online and offline WOM dynamics and consequences, including the interplay between these various forms of WOM
  • the conversational, as opposed to dyadic, nature of online WOM disseminated through social forums
  • antecedents to and conditions facilitating online WOM
  • the impact of negative online WOM and complaint behavior
  • the impact of online WOM on sales
  • the dynamics, spread, and consequences of marketing-relevant online rumors
  • rhetorical analyses of online WOM conversations
  • brand-related storytelling in blogs and online forums
  • segmentation analyses of online WOM participants
  • the integration of WOM with other on- and off-line techniques
  • where WOM fits in terms of integrated marketing communications from an organizational or consumer-based perspective.


Submissions to the special issue should be original empirical or theoretical contributions and should not be under simultaneous consideration for any other publication.  Online WOM should not be treated as a peripheral aspect of the paper, but must serve as a central focus.  As a guide, papers should be between 4000 and 6000 words in length, including an abstract of no more than 200 words.  Manuscripts should be submitted electronically in Microsoft Word format to the guest editors before 1st May 2012.  The format of the manuscript must follow Journal of Marketing Communications guidelines.  For the Author guidelines, please visit


All questions regarding the suitability of manuscripts should be sent to the Editors.



Dr. Allan J. Kimmel                             Dr. Philip J. Kitchen

ESCP Europe                            The Faculty of Business

Marketing Department                 Brock University

79 avenue de la République         500 Glenridge Avenue

75543 Paris, France                    St Catharines, Ontario, Canada L2S 3A1





Wednesday, December 8 2010

Connecting With Millennials

There's been much written of late about the so-called--implicitly or explicitly--'blank generation', otherwise known as 'Millennials', including a feature New York Times Magazine story (18 August) penned by Robin Marantz Henig ('What Is It About 20 Somethings?"), so I'm not going to belabor the point here.  The recent Pew Research Center report on Millennials was particularly noteworthy, concluding that the generation defined by the turn of the calendar - that is, those born after 1980 and the first generation to come of age in the new century - are 'confident, connected, and open to change.'  When those Pew millennials who claimed that their generation was unique were asked to explain in what sense, nearly a quarter said 'technology.' 

So far, so good.  Yet we are also hearing more and more the 'vacant' label in association with discussions about a brand new life cycle stage, 'Emerging Adulthood' - the developmental period between adolescence and adulthood.  Not yet considered by marketers, this is the stage of in-between, what with financial independence delayed, schooling prolonged, progressively increasing delay in moving away from home, and the responsibilities of raising a family lingering beyond the far-off clouds.  Emerging adulthood does not appear to be a uniquely American phenomenon - it's happening here in France (where 60% of male and 49% female 20-24 year olds still live with their parents, about a 10% increase compared to 1982), India, and elsewhere.  And then there was that button-pushing report issued by the market research firm Civic Science (who?!) claiming that their research shows that millennials don't run hot or cold about anything - the 'tepid generation'?  According to a Civic Science spokesperson,
"When we looked at our first month's worth of data, we found almost NO
contrast among brands.  Not only do the Ms not dislike anything.  They see to
think that ''Love" is too strong of a feeling for a brand.  Our 5-point scale quickly
turned into a 3- or even 2-point scale.  It seems that "Neutral" is about the most
damning way these Ms can feel about anything."

Regardless of the validity of this claim - and my millennial students assure me they hate this kind of market study, there is no question that millennials love technology.  Maybe they just don't know it because they're so used to it.  For an old fogey like me who once upon a time owned a manual typewriter and had to keypunch cards to get my doctoral research data analyzed in the dark caverns of a converted church on Temple University's urban campus in Philadelphia, every new piece of technology that makes my life easier and more enjoyable is embraced as avidly as a passionate new love affair.  But as Pat McCarthy adroitly pointed out at the WOMMA blog yesterday, today's not-quite milliennial teens are, ho-hum, used to technology and its changes because, for them, it’s always been there.  That's a pretty meaningful statement, and an important one for marketers to note.  According to McCarthy:

If marketers want their brand to captivate teens, they need to think about technology from a teens perspective. David Trahan of WOMMA Member company Mr Youth recently outlined this perspective. For teens today:

1. Devices Have Always Been Portable
2. Mobile Phones Have Always Existed
3. Technology Is Always Evolving
4. Brands Have Always Been Online

I'm also reminded of a Keller Faye analysis showing that whereas most WOM takes place offline, when you break down the analysis according to age, the younger the age group, the greater the proportion of online WOM.  Younger people (13-17 year olds) communicate 19% of their comments about brands, companies, etc. via email, IM/text, and chat/blog, and that percentage steadily decreases across subsequent age groups, resulting in a mere 3% for 60-69 year olds, yes, the ones who predated those punch cards.  In short, if you want to reach and connect with young people these days, technology is the answer.
Slide 63

Saturday, October 23 2010

Who's Talking About What?: Latest Research

Ed Keller, CEO of the Keller Fay Group ( just reported the results of the most recent TalkTrack® studies, with a special focus on teen WOM.  Most readers, I'm sure, are familiar with the terrific TalkTrack® methodology, but here's a quick overview just in case.  Keller Fay's syndicated research program measures brand-related WOM - both offline and online - by interviewing 36,000 American consumers between the ages of 13 and 69 annually.  Participants, of whom about 5000 are teens, maintain a diary for one day of their WOM conversations about products, services, and brands, and then complete an online survey.  Keller's recent overview of teen WOM is based on data obtained from July 2009 - June 2010.

The TalkTrack® findings confirm something we already knew, and which I've previously discussed in my book, Connecting With Consumers: young consumers are more actively engaged in WOM about products, companies, and brands than the general public.  In short, teens talk, and much of that talk is about brands.  And most of that talk happens offline.

Here are some of the key findings from the teen WOM study:

  •  Teen WOM is more frequent than the general public in all categories, but especially technology, telecommunications, media/entertainment, and retail/apparel.
  • Teen conversations about brands are equally stimulated by TV and the Internet at levels above the overall public.
  • The top 5 most talked about brands for American teens:  Coca-Cola, Apple Computers, Verizon, iPod, and Ford.  The next five: Pepsi, McDonald's, AT&T, Sony, and Nike.  In the top 20 for teens, but not the overall public, are Sprite, Samsung, and Hollister.  By contrast, Target, HP, and Honda appear on the general public's most-discussed list, but do not appear on teens' top-20 list.

  • As for talked-about categories, media and entertainment top the list, with nearly eight in 10 having one or more conversations per day (vs. 57% among the general public).  This is followed by food/dining (69%), tech (67%), sports/recreation (63%), telecom (63%), retail/apparel (59%), and beverages (58%).  45% of teens talk daily about personal care/beauty and automotive brands.

Based on these findings, Keller recommends that firms need to think holistically when attempting to engage teens in brand-related conversations, by not neglecting offline channels in addition to online ones, and tapping both TV and the Internet to stimulate WOM.

Good Experiences Motivate Women to Share Product Info

In another study, marketing and communications firm Harbinger, in conjunction with Ipsos, conducted a survey of online N. American females 18 years and older.  Consistent with the Keller Faye teen research, Harbinger reported that women are using a combination of off- and online forms of WOM to seek and spread the word on products and services.  Perhaps the most striking finding is that most of the respondents turn to friends and family for product information, thereby making WOM their top source.  They seek and share information on a variety of product categories, with appliances, restaurants, autos, and entertainment leading the list.  Among the other findings:

  • Less than one-third (28%) of women decide what products or services to buy without seeking some kind of help.
  • New mothers are the most active and motivated to get and spread messages about products and services.

A focus on specific categories sheds some light on motives underlying the female participants' desire to share information.  For food and beverages, 58% claimed they would do so because of a good experience, whereas a bad experience would motivate 46% to spread the word.  Experiences with appliances represent an even stronger WOM stimulant, with 80% of women surveyed indicating they discuss their good experiences, and 73% their bad experiences.  Overall, in all 13 categories considered, sharing good experiences (i.e., satisfaction) and a desire to help others make smart purchases, were stronger WOM generators than bad experiences (i.e., dissatisfaction).  Finally, despite the popularity of social media among the online survey participants, a distinct preference for sharing information with friends and family face-to-face was apparent (up to 90%), a finding that also pertained to strangers or acquaintances (36%, vs. a website, 32% or a social networking site, 27%).

Pretty interesting findings, and also quite familiar.  They conform well to my discussion in chapter 4 of Connecting With Consumers, particularly in terms of some popular misconceptions about WOM, including beliefs that dissatisfaction is a greater stimulant of WOM than satisfaction, online WOM more common, and negative WOM more frequent than positive WOM. 

Friday, July 9 2010

WOM, The World's Greatest Marketing Approach

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.

Friday, June 11 2010

Teen Influencers

An interesting report by eMarketer today summarizing a May 2010 survey by myYearbook and Ketchum, which takes a look inside the heads of American teen influencers. The survey focused on approximately 10,000 myYearbook users, with influencers defined as the top 15% most active users. I had never heard of myYearbook before, probably because I am not a teenager, nor do I have any running around the house, but apparently if you happen to be a teenager who is active online, you know myYearbook, the most visited website for teens.

The survey's key findings, while interesting, are hardly surprising.  Teen influencers (remember, the survey only studied Americans) are estimated to be 70% more likely to share purchase decision information with their friends, and they invest a great degree of trust in what their friends have to say (52%) vs. the information they receive directly from companies (only 5% trust this source) or advertising (5%). 

Presuming that the majority of friends of influencers are not influencers themselves is informative, and it highlights how the WOM process is a two-way exchange.  We shouldn't forget that influentials are also influenced by non-influentials, and as Duncan Watts has suggested, we are all probably influential these days, what with expanding consumer connectedness.  That high school geek who everyone ignores in the cafeteria may well be chatting away online every night under the auspices of a trendy and hip persona, shaping attitudes and influencing brand preferences. 

I found it interesting that so few influential teens trust blogs, as it seems likely that many teen influentials are bloggers themselves. Highly unlikely that I am pulling in many teen visitors to my Paris Restaurants and Beyond blog - at least until I start reviewing fast food joints.  But it's an interesting question as to the relationships between influentials.  To what extent do influencers talk to other influencers?

The myYearbook study also found that a majority of teens prefer straightforward messages from brands, although they are also receptive to well-executed edgy, funny or shocking messages.

Finally, a look at the product categories that influencers are most likely to recommend, the usual suspects emerge:

eMarketer points out that although about 80% of US teen Internet users visit social networking sites at least once per month, many sign on mainly to chat with their friends and post personal updates, thus making them particularly difficult targets for marketers to reach.  So, how to reach teen influencers, especially when you don't have any running around your house?