Is “Word of Mouth Marketing” overhyped

Screen Shot 2011-12-16 at 20.25.26The role of word of mouth marketing was vigorously challenged in a really interesting article by Alan Mitchell in Marketing magazine (subscription needed). And it rang true to me. I'm a big believer in word of mouth. But I've always thought the best way to create it was to invest your time, talent and money on creating great products and services people WANT to talk about, rather than in somehow trying to influence the word of mouth propogation process.

This is a view shared by Alan, who says about word of mouth, "It's a by-product of doing everything else right: delivering excellent quality and value, providing good customer service, treating customers with respect, and so on".

Here are some of the holes he blows in word of mouth marketing.

1. Most things don't go viral

Alan quotes research looking at 39million Twitter chains by Duncan Watts. The main finding was that 98% of these chains didn't "cascade". Only 2% really took off. And this makes sense, right? Most of things that happen around us are not really worthy of talking about to many people, as they are not that remarkable. And the same goes for probably 98% of marketing activity.

And, as I've posted on many times, the likelihood of being in the lucky 2% has a lot to do with the category your brand is in. Dining, media and entertainment top the list of categories with most conversations in a study by Talk Track Britain. Surprize, surprize, household products came at the bottom.

2. "Influencers" don't drive word of mouth

One of the core concepts in word of mouth marketing is that if you can find and target the right, well connected "influencers" they will have a dis-proportiante effect on message transmission for your brand. Duncan Watts's study did find a group of "superconnectors" with big networks of contacts. However, 95% of the messages in the study did not pass through them. As Watts says, "Influentials don't govern person-to-person communication. We all do."

Alan goes on to talk about further research that backs this finding up, this time by the University of California. This research found it was impossible to predict who was going to be influential in a given sittuation.

3. Big brands get talked about more

Word of mouth marketing is often seen as a good idea for small brands trying to grow. However, research from Kingston Business School shows that people talk more about bigger brands, because more people own them. So, the best way forward is to focus on selling more stuff and growing your brand, so more people talk about you, and not the other way round!

4. Most word of mouth is face-to-face

We're all led to believe that social media has revolutionised the way word of mouth happens. However, another study by Keller Fay shows that a whopping 81% of word of mouth takes place face-to-face, with another 10% by phone. Only 9% takes place online.

In conclusion, Allan nails it on the head by saying "Word of mouth is how brands actually grow strong: we call it reputation. However, this is not created by a separate activity called 'word of mouth marketing'".