Word of Mouth Meets the Internet

Time to start gathering around those virtual fences, o dearly beloved reader - that's where a lot of marketing action is taking place. Word of mouth, the oldest form of marketing, is shaping up to be the most talked-about trend of 2006. Forward-thinking brands are already racing to encourage and harness consumer-generated media to drive greater business impact.

The proof that word of mouth has hit the mainstream? As Pamela Parker reported, top marketing minds are jumping to word of mouth companies: Jupiter's Gary Stein has joined word of mouth research firm BuzzMetrics and Forrester's Jim Nail has joined Cymfony, a company that tracks consumer generated media. And Sam Decker, who led the growth of Dell.com into the world's largest ecommerce site, has announced he left Dell to join word of mouth startup Bazaarvoice (still in 'stealth' mode).

I convinced Sam to take a minute out of his hectic schedule to chat with us about the future of consumer-driven marketing.

The Grok: Sam, why did you leave Dell to join Bazaarvoice, an early stage startup?

Sam: It was an opportunity to work longer hours for less pay! But besides that, I am extremely excited and passionate about the crossroads of customer-centric marketing and eCommerce. The future of eCommerce is to integrate the customer voice into your customer experience and make it part of your brand. This is the new marketing model that needs to invented, evolved and matured. It's the right time, the right idea, the right team, and an opportunity to work with a diverse set of global online brands. That sounds like fun!

The Grok: Why is word of mouth so important for brands today?

Sam: Here's the recipe for this trend: An oversupply economy, overabundance of information &campaigns, customers increasingly cynical of advertising &marketing, and eCommerce has hit mainstream. It's no wonder why customers are turning to each other. Customer-to-customer conversations are authentic, credible and reliable. Just what we need as customers to get excited about a product and make wise purchase decisions.

The Grok: The classic view of WOM is of one person talking to directly to another. How does this concept change when it is brought to the Internet?

Sam: The Web has amplified the voice of every customer. Blogs, podcasts, forums, ratings, reviews ... everyone is an expert. And all these experts are connecting and listening to each other. One voice carries a lot further than it used to.

Also, online is extremely measurable. Paradoxically, CMOs are challenged with ROI measurement during a rising trend in seemingly un-measurable word of mouth. Word of mouth online can be measured, especially if it occurs within your own web site, intermingled and correlated with the web analytics and financial measures. Mix these together, and executives will take notice.

The Grok: Who is getting it right?

Sam: Today, I see three pillars of word of mouth online, and examples of excellence in each.

Email - people forwarding links to each other - is the first pillar. It's extremely fast and powerful, but not transparent to others. Google and Hotmail built their user base on the viral effect of sending emails from their service. Dell makes it easy to email a configuration to your friends and receive an email when you post to a support forum, which is helpful when you need advice on a purchase or a problem.

Consumer-generated content like blogs and podcasts are another pillar. Microsoft empowers hundreds of employees to blog. One of my favorite marketing/leadership blogs is John Porcaro's, a marketing leader for the Xbox division. His transparent insights -- good and bad -- put Microsoft in a positive light because he's honest, smart and he's part of Microsoft.

User reviews are a critical pillar for eCommerce. This is the 'bullseye' of word of mouth online, because right now the visitors at your website considering a purchase are looking for this advice to make a decision. Amazon and eBags do great jobs here. However, according to shop.org annual study, only 26% of online retailers host reviews. Of those, 96% rate this as an effective tactic. There's opportunity here.

The Grok: What are some tangible strategies for companies who want to harness today's chaotic world of consumer generated media to increase marketing effectiveness?

First, define what kind of word of mouth you want ... drive awareness with a buzz campaign or encourage and leverage product word of mouth. If it's the latter, put a system in place to encourage, manage and analyze your customer conversations. Make it easy and convenient for customers to share their opinion. Get your customers excited about contributing to your customer community. Manage the community to maintain its usefulness and authenticity. Tap into the rich customer voice data for insights and optimization. And correlate this data to operational measures and impact. This is critical because without a results-oriented approach, any word of mouth strategy will wither and die within a for-profit business, despite the best intentions.

The Grok: Many brands would be wary of letting customers take the reins in the retail relationship. How have clients responded to Bazaarvoice's offering?

Sam: Our clients understand customers are going to talk about a company's products and services with their peers whether the company chooses to listen or not. CMOs (and CEOs) are under a great deal of pressure to become more customer-centric. WOM offers the fastest possible path to this objective. We give our clients a way to transform customer-to-customer conversations into operational results. So, our clients are happy.

Volume 123: 01/15/06

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