FEATURE26 October 2011

Sometimes ‘like’ just ain't enough

Social media has been called ‘word of mouth on steroids’ – but it accounts for less than 10% of brand-related conversations. That’s why measuring online buzz isn’t enough, says Keller Fay’s Steve Thomson.


What was the last brand you really liked? I mean liked as in clicking the Facebook ‘Like’ button on the brand’s fan page, which immediately shares that information with your friends. Perhaps they liked it too.

Depending how many friends you have on Facebook, and how many friends your friends have, those two actions have the potential to reach hundreds of people. Little wonder brand owners have taken to referring to social media as ‘word-of-mouth on steroids’.

Even without the social media boost, the power of WOM and its importance to brand owners have been demonstrated over and over again. Most recently the Gunn Report from the IPA noted that “buzz is strongly linked to [advertising] effectiveness”, and it’s free – so more buzz equals greater marketing ROI.

“WOM marketing is increasingly about gathering Facebook likes and positive mentions on Twitter… but this is a narrow and one-dimensional view of WOM”

Social media WOM offers the promise of even greater returns. It takes a lot more effort than two mouse clicks – and a lot more money – to reach hundreds of people in the offline world. Some big brands have made big bets on social media – notably the Pepsi Refresh campaign in 2010. And so WOM marketing is increasingly about gathering Facebook likes and positive mentions on Twitter and other social media platforms – meaning social media monitoring is becoming the main, and often only, measure of word of mouth reach and effectiveness.

This, however, is a narrow and one-dimensional view of WOM which overlooks the fact that most conversations about brands and companies still take place offline. Keller Fay’s TalkTrack – which measures consumer WOM across all sources – indicates that face-to-face conversations account for 81% of brand-related conversations while 11% takes place via phone. Online in all forms accounts for less than 10%.

The other 90 per cent
Brands that ignore other modes of consumer advocacy are potentially ignoring all kinds of opportunities. Julian Ferguson, operations director for the trade organisation WOMMA UK, says: “Successful WOM is about making your brand part of your target audience’s social fabric so that talking about it comes naturally. It doesn’t matter whether conversations are online or offline, recreational or business-based, just so long as they are happening and positive.”

An effective WOM-stimulating approach is to carry out an offline activity that is expected to fuel WOM of all types. That’s typical for the new product sampling programmes conducted by firms such as BzzAgent. McNeil Nutritional’s relaunch of Splenda sweetener in the UK used the classic BzzAgent seeding model, where ‘agents’ are given product samples and information to share and tips for spreading the word. That campaign was a clear success, with significant WOM generated on- and offline (estimated 860,000 conversations) and a sales uplift of 86,000 new users.

But WOM can be achieved in many different ways – it all depends on the business objectives. Our data shows that traditional advertising, despite its detractors, plays a surprisingly large role in stimulating word of mouth. Similarly, offline buzz can come from online activity and vice-versa. Recent research by Keller Fay for NBC Universal in the US found that different tools in the marketing arsenal play a different role in sparking word-of-mouth advocacy, depending on where consumers are in the purchase process. We found that word-of-mouth plays an increasingly important role as consumers get closer and closer to their final purchase decision, and so does the importance of advertising as a part of that discussion.

Seeing both sides
Successful WOM campaigns require brand owners to understand the interplay of online and offline, social and traditional media, virtual and real-world activity.

Researchers must challenge the temptation to rely solely on social media metrics – you can’t pay shareholders and staff with Facebook likes. WOM should link to broader business metrics

Steve Thomson

The launch of F-Secure’s Internet Security 2011 product is a good example of this. WOM marketing specialist 1000heads sent personalised material out to influential bloggers in Scandinavia to help build awareness about John Knowles, a fictional character who is intent on giving away his bank details. At the same time credit cards with more of John’s details written on them were dropped in city centres. The offline activities were designed to generate online and offline WOM, drive traffic to the F-Secure Facebook page and generate hard sales. All three were achieved, with £300,000-plus revenue growth and Facebook views up 687%.

But even a focus on integrated marketing is missing the bigger picture about word-of-mouth and brand reputation, reckons 1000heads CEO Mike Rowe. He argues that “Brands still think in terms of campaigns… they’re still imposing traditional marketing techniques [and] need to move away from that. The real power is peer-to-peer [networks] and getting people talking about things they want to talk about.”

Keeping up with the gossip
This all has implications for how researchers measure WOM. Social media monitoring has many advantages, providing detailed real-time measures of WOM volume and sentiment with all the richness that verbatim comment can provide. But there are drawbacks. Irony and sarcasm are still a challenge for sentiment analysis, though it is improving, and the inability to overlay accurate talker/listener characteristics is a frustration for many. Car manufacturers, for example, want to know what prospective or recent new car buyers are talking about, and are less interested in aspirational chatter among teenagers.

And online WOM is not reflective of all consumer buzz. Our data suggests offline WOM is often more positive and there is a growing body of evidence that consumers tend to be more extreme when commenting in social media, where it’s easy to have a rant or play devil’s advocate. Research also suggests that conversations are heavily dominated by a minority. Sysomos analysed 11 million Twitter users and found that 5% generated 75% of all activity.

There is then a strong case for complementing social media monitoring with other measures, and here the more conventional MR solutions have a role to play. Survey-based approaches can provide a broader perspective, either focused on WOM tracking specifically or including questions on WOM in general brand tracking studies. But of course survey research is not a universal solution either. It relies on recall or diary measures rather than the real-time data of social media monitoring. So it’s reasonable to argue that best practice incorporates social media monitoring and traditional research approaches.

A similarly broad perspective is critical for assessing the impact of buzz. Researchers must challenge clients’ temptation to rely solely on social media metrics – you can’t pay shareholders and staff with Facebook likes.

Ideally WOM measurement should link to broader business metrics such as brand health and equity and – best of all – actual sales or market share. BzzAgent’s Brian Cavoli notes: “Everyone talks about ROI in a zillion different ways, but if your purpose is to launch a product then ROI has to be a financial metric.”

Steve Thomson is UK managing director of the Keller Fay Group. He is a past director of the Ipsos consumer goods practice and a former Roper ASW executive

1 Comment

13 years ago

Right as usual , Steve. The easiest way is, as so often, inadequate. Thanks for the voice of reason.

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