Catching The WOM Bug: Going Viral Via Consumer Evangelism

"Happy customers are the best advertisements." So says Andy Sernovitz, CEO of GasPedal, and it is this principle that defines the explosive success of word of mouth (WOM)--that is, the concept of passing on information verbally, especially via recommendations of a brand, product or service. This form of marketing communications has always existed, but its recent proliferation can be attributed to a handful of factors: the communications landscape has shifted from B2B and B2C to C2C (consumer-to-consumer); intangible values are increasingly important as trust becomes the basis of corporate reputation; and executives must now earn the trust of consumers to lead successful businesses. Statistics back up this phenomenon: According to the GolinHarris 2007 Trusted-Media Index, consumers prefer hands-on, direct experiences with products and services, and WOM directly follows suit. This means one thing for communications professionals: "WOM should be a line item in media and PR planning," says Idil Cakim, Golin Harris' VP of interactive media. With that, here's how to pencil it into your communications strategy: *Remember that online and offline are not separate, but they are equal. Just because digital platforms were the catalysts for WOM becoming a centrifugal communications force doesn't meant that WOM strategies can be one-sided. "There are no online versus offline people--just individuals," says Virginia Miracle, SVP, digital strategy for Ogilvy PR. "The question is, how can online and offline [communications] support each other?" The answer, then, is through 360-degree strategies that incorporate all PR elements, from blogs and podcasts and conferences and tradeshows, to social networks and competitions. Participation in all of these channels creates the most engaging experience for consumers, who will spread the word about your brand accordingly. "Online communities plus in-person connections equals sustained WOM," Miracle says. *Identify your main influencers. Every brand "speaks" to specific audiences--some just happen to be broader than others. When generating WOM buzz, these target audiences, especially their influencers, must be catered to; otherwise, they will go talk about someone else somewhere else, leaving your message in cyber-no-man's-land. The blogosphere is a good place to start looking for online influencers. To engage your target bloggers and get them talking about your brand, Miracle recommends a few do's and don't's. Do: Spend time with their blogs before conducting outreach to make sure they're a fit. Convey specific reasons why you think they would be interested in your brand, product or service. Provide links to third-party information/blog coverage of your campaign to give it credibility. Only reach out to bloggers when you have something remarkable to share--not every time you have a piece of news or announcement. Don't: Pretend to be a longtime reader. Let bloggers talk about themselves. Make it hard for them to link to something. Fail to identify yourself or falsely represent yourself just to get their attention. *Lead with conversations. Just as conversations are the basis of WOM, they must also actually initiate a program worth talking about; only then can news spread virally. Consider these elements of a "conversation:" A reason to care: In order for an individual to be inspired to start a conversation about your brand, they must first be given a reason to care about it. The reason could be anything from entertainment value to a vested interest in the subject matter, to a brand's prestige, Miracle says. A reason to share: Now you've got the consumer's interest, but why should they talk about your message? The reason to share might be for the greater social good, or because doing so would drive traffic to the individual's own sight (in the case of a blogger, for example). Most important, give consumers an incentive to participate in your brand and "pass it on." Cakim offers the example of a job well done in the Duchess Diaries Blog, a partnership between McDonald's and to build trust with "gatekeeper moms" regarding Ronald McDonald House Charities initiatives. The company spread the word via a Mom Blog penned by celebrity spokesperson Sarah Ferguson, who chronicled her work and shared McDonald's commitment to children's causes. A way to share: Customers won't spread the word if you don't give them a vehicle for doing so. Imbed "send to a friend" links on your site; create widgets that can be "grabbed" and downloaded to consumers' own blogs and desktops; have "click here to subscribe" links in all marketing e-mails; give viewers the opportunity to "Digg this"; create interactive games that users can play with their friends; produce customizable e-cards, podcasts or videocasts; allow offline consumers to sample your products and participate in focus groups; build polls or other ranking mechanisms where consumers can cast their vote and see what others are thinking. The opportunities are endless if you keep an open mind- -just make sure you stay true to your brand and your target audiences at the same time. *Listen, measure, repeat. Once consumers start talking, it's important to actually listen to what they are saying. This can be done through feedback forms, customer service hotlines and monitoring the quality and tone of online conversations. Then, measure the outcomes to see how much the WOM actually accomplished (for a guide to WOM measurement, see sidebar to the left). PRN CONTACTS: Idil Cakim,; Andy Sernovitz,; Virginia Miracle, Measuring Word Of Mouth Because of its "he said, she said" modus operandi, word-of-mouth (WOM) measurement techniques may seem less tangible than more traditional communications methods--but, according to Idil Cakim, Golin Harris' VP of interactive media, that is a dangerous way of looking at it. "Audience participation is part of media. For heavy Internet users, there is little difference between online and offline conversations," Cakim says. "Conversation--online and offline--will be a measurement unit." Thus, when it comes to measuring these conversations, Cakim recommends considering the following WOM outcomes: Consumption: Product trials Brand/product awareness Opened e-mails Inquiries: Customer feedback Pricing requests Conversions: Sales Change in attitude/behavior Relays: Pass-alongs (information, coupons, discount offers) Recommendations, referrals, links Recreations: Extended story, "my" version of the story Consumer-generated content Mash-ups Communication Goal Potential Tactics Make people aware of a brand, product or issue Viral videos, games, display advertising, blog outreach, search-engine optimization Educate people and begin to demonstrate relevance Brand Web sites, syndicated content, social media outreach Get people involved through interactions Brand Web sites, contests, blogs, games, social network participation Motivate people to openly support you, to contribute something and to share word of mouth Blog summits, blogs, vlogs, social network groups, shareable programs Convert people to promoters and loyal customers Fan activation centers, co-creation programs

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