If you’ve read the story from BusinessWeek on MySpace and some of my initial reactions you’ll have a good context for my comments on word-of-mouth, word-of-mouth-marketing, vs. a term I’ll coin hoof-in-mouth-marketing (known more commonly in the biz as stealth marketing).
To me the developing story is how marketers have taken something we all rely on, word-of-mouth, and moved it in to what is now referred to as word-of-mouth-marketing. For the purpose of this commentary I’ll refer to true word-of-mouth as just that, word-of-mouth. I’ll use word-of-mouth-marketing to describe the intentional, but above board practice, of companies attempting to generate word-of-mouth through various marketing tactics. Finally I’ll dub the quickly growing marketing practice of companies misrepresenting themselves to generate word-of-mouth as hoof-in-mouth-marketing.
We all know that word-of-mouth is about people conversing with each other naturally about a good or bad experience they’ve had with a product or service. Or, it might be solicited when a friend or family member asks another person for their opinion. We’ve all been there and we know and value how this works.
The next level is buzz marketing or word-of-mouth-marketing. This is the purposefully generated word-of-mouth created by individuals and companies to sell a product or service. One might ask how this is different from public relations. Good question. I’d like to think on that point more before commenting on it here. Richard Branson is certainly known as a PR king and many of his ‘stunts’ have been known to be ‘buzz worthy.’ An individual selling Amway products or a similar multi-level marketing product would be word-of-mouth marketing if done in an upfront way:
“Hey Jill, I started using Arbonne skin care products recently and they’re incredible. I liked them so much I started buying product from them and reselling it. You should come over for dinner with Bryan next week and I can show you how their whole line if you want. I can give you discounts off retail that will save you a bundle.”
vs. an individual that uses the less than upfront version that we’ve all experienced at one time or another that makes us feel used.
“You know Jill, you and Bryan haven’t been over for dinner in a long time why don’t you come over next Thursday night?” “I’d love that Mary, let me check with Bill and I’ll call you to confirm.”
Jill and Bryan show up for dinner and after a nice dinner a full court press from Mary ensues extolling the virtues of Arbonne skin care products. Jill likes Arbonne products and even uses them occasionally but feels used by her friend Mary and can’t believe she’s been invited to dinner to an Amway like ambush!
How about the company version? A commenter on the BusinessWeek story made the points that companies will pretend to be an individual on MySpace in order to generate buzz about their product or service. To me they’re identical and they’re both 100% creepy. In the case of the personal scenario I outlined you feel used and it would be hard to look at your friend the same way again. In the company example you feel manipulated and the last thing you’ll ever feel for that company is trust or a positively feelings.
Why would companies resort to this? It would stand to reason that only people with inferior products and services would resort to word-of-mouth-manipulation. But, if experience with other marketing arenas is any example then forgot about reason. My experience earlier this year with an interactive lead generation business using affiliate marketing practices business would suggest otherwise. Highly reputable Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies purchased leads from this company but were careful to keep an arms length distance from them even though they were completely relying on the leads to power their sales efforts. Instead, they used brokers who purchased leads from multiple sources in order to maintain a veil between their company and the less than savory marketing practices being used by this lead gen company and their affiliate marketers. Why were they willing to sell themselves out? M-0-n-e-y. Lot’s of it and I think word-of-mouth-marketing is walking the same dangerous line right now since it’s just gotten started and there are so many opportunists in the online community that are ready to do just about anything to make a quick buck.
Somehow, someway WOMM should flourish as a savvy, above-board practice. It’s not hard, it just requires that you act with the intent to influence, not manipulate – to sell your product and service openly and unabashedly – not underhandedly.
The WOMMA is busy hiring all sorts of marketing professionals at their Chicago headquarters and one can only hope that they get the right kind of people. They’ve got to have strong fortitudes, impeccable reputations, the best credentials and the right intent. Oh yeah, they’ve got to be able to positively demonstrate the right AND wrong way to use word-of-mouth-marketing. That way we can all avoid hoof-in-mouth-marketing and make lots of money the old fashioned way. Make a good product or service, work hard, innovate, and provide great customer service.