Suzanne Babb a professional office organizer from Phoenix starts her mornings at 7 a.m. She gets her son and daughter ages nine and 14 up and ready for school and then hops into her brand new Dodge Caravan to get the day rolling. She loads her afternoon appointments into the minivan’s navigation system swings by grandma’s for breakfast checks her email drops her son off at school hits a client meeting across town then creates a podcast for her website letstalkorganizing.com from the van in between appointments. After school while the kids are in archery and art classes Babb posts a few entries to her blog and even invites potential clients into the Caravan for a parking-lot meeting.
It’s a dizzying day not unlike that of many working moms with one main exception. It’s not actually Babb’s Dodge Caravan. A long-time minivan hater and proud Chevy Trailblazer owner she isn’t even in the market for a new car. But the automaker gave it to her for an entire week anyway—no strings attached—in hopes that she’ll fall in love with it. The purse holder. The laptop outlets. The possibility that after the kids go to sleep the black 10-seater with 13 cup holders could become a sweet party wagon for Babb and her other mom friends. If the Dodge Caravan makes a love match and Babb spreads the word about the free-van-for-a-week experience to the 5 000 weekly readers of her blog then this leg of the automaker’s launch campaign has been successful. Very successful. And all because of one single mom from Phoenix (Agency: Matchstick Toronto).
Welcome to the modern-day world of word-of-mouth marketing where marketers forego the traditional and instead jockey for uniquely relevant imbedded positions in the everyday lives of consumers. A place where brands hope that a positive hands-on experience—just one is all it takes—sparks a chain reaction that starts with a feeling of goodwill and ends in loyalty advocacy and ultimately big-big sales. With the explosion of online social networks like Facebook and MySpace and the popularity of consumer-generated content portals like YouTube unleashing new consumer communication behaviors onto the landscape many brands are racing online to get a piece of the action. But for savvy event marketers (yeah we’re talkin’ to you) the opportunities to engage are hardly in short supply.
Ad budgets are down alternative media spending is up and despite the spate of hot gadgets and new technology customers are still—by a sweeping 90 percent margin—talking to each other face-to-face about brands. The only difference is that now more than ever before your customers are in control of the message.
“A few months ago if you would have looked at my brand plan it wouldn’t have had a heading that said ‘word-of-mouth program ’” says Neal Stewart director-marketing at Denver-based Flying Dog Brewery. “But we just completed focus groups comparing our brand versus some others in the same category and not once did we hear that consumers are connected with how our brand is positioned. It’s something they embrace once it’s recommended to them and it’s what sells beer and builds awareness.”
For savvy event marketers (yep still you) that can simultaneously loosen the reins and empower your customers to choose their own brand adventure turn online behaviors into real-world touchpoints demonstrate return on objective and continue to engineer environments that inspire trial and advocacy the word-of-mouth effect is yours for the taking. Don’t believe us? Turns out Babb loves the Dodge Caravan. “It was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had with a vehicle ” she says. And she’s not the only one. Since she blogged about her week behind the wheel local networking groups and chambers of commerce have asked her to bring the van and give presentations on her new “mobile office.” The only problem of course is that she had to give it back. “Now all I can think is how am I going to get this minivan ” Babb says.
If word-of-mouth marketing can give a Dodge Caravan the kind of nifty sex appeal that changes die-hard imported SUV drivers into minivan fans well then it must be pretty friggin’ good.
Word of mouth (WOM) has always been one of the the most effective affordable and desirable outcomes of marketing. One customer likes your product or service he or she tells a circle of friends and voilà—you’ve got a hit. Word-of-mouth marketing however is a more strategic proposition—a set of new questions that must be added to the planning process. “It’s not just how do we stimulate trial and repeat purchase ” says Ed Keller principal at Keller Fay Group a WOM consultancy and president of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. “It’s what is our marketing doing to encourage WOM and in particular WOM advocacy? How do we make it easy in our messaging for consumers to really be able to share with each other the most relevant and important and exciting things about our brands? How does our messaging bring that to the fore so it’s easy for consumers to have the language to talk about our brand and what are the marking mechanisms that make it easy for consumers to spread the word about our brand?”
According to a study released in November WOM marketing spending (i.e. initiatives that are specifically budgeted to generate WOM) topped $1 billion in 2007 making it one of the fastest-growing alternative media segments according to Stamford CT-based PQ Media’s Word-of-Mouth Marketing Forecast 2006-2011. Ad Age recently reported that in 2006 Nike spent just 33 percent of its $678 million U.S. advertising budget on traditional media—down from 55 percent a decade ago. Instead the mega brand is opting for alternative programs that create more direct and meaningful interactions with consumers like its Nike+ sensor products that track training data from iPods onto a website community then leverage with weekly training runs at retail stores complete with Nike-sponsored running coaches. Last May Procter & Gamble announced to analysts that the marketing budgets for its major brands would be shifting away from traditional media and to more web in-store and promotional events. Heck even minivan makers are trading in their old school tactics in favor of some one-on-one mommy outreach.
Despite the hot and heavy love affair consumers are having with the Internet the big brands know that consumers are weary of weeding through the bombardment of media messages and—can you blame them?—are just looking for product information from someone they trust. Someone with first-hand experience. This friends is the sweet spot for experiential marketers where events can be used to create a spark with consumers and ignite post-experience brand advocacy. “Having a personal experience with the brand is central to WOM marketing ” says Keller who estimates that 3.2 billion conversations about brands take place every year. “The most powerful and the most impactful WOM conversations are those where someone in the conversation is speaking based on personal experience with the brand. Experiential marketing which allows consumers to see touch and feel the product and engage in a conversation with somebody maybe who represents the product or maybe with other consumers who are there at the event itself and who can begin talking to each other can become a very important part of the WOM marketing mix.”
“We think of [word of mouth] inherently in everything we do ” says Jennifer Peterson vp-marketing at Victoria’s Secret about the brand’s college label Pink. “From the start Pink has been marketed in more non-traditional ways; more grassroots organic growth. We know that they fall in love when they really experience it.” In addition to its annual Pajama Party event Pink leverages its crew of college-age brand ambassadors to help the brand connect with girls on 20 to 30 campuses a year. In 2007 the brand used a pop-up Airstream trailer to tour college campuses and promote its dorm-room makeover sweepstakes.
A new study from the Event Marketing Institute (available at eventmarketing.com) indicates that events like this—perhaps more than any other medium—have the chutzpah not only to stimulate WOM but to multiply the effect reducing the critical cost-per-touch by half or more. Ninety-percent of event attendees bring at least one other person with them. More than two-thirds travel in groups of two to four people. Of those 78 percent tell friends or family who did not attend the event about the experience—37 percent on the same day. And it’s not just a fleeting experience that disappears into the ether once attendees head home. Sixty-three percent recalled the name of the company or brand that sponsored the event. Eight-five percent said they had positive feelings about the company. And a full 98 percent of all respondents said they would recommend a product or service as a result of a positive experience using it. (Say like a weeklong experience with one’s very own Dodge Caravan.) Exponentially powerful stuff no? It can be provided you have a handle on three core principles that are unique to word-of-mouth marketing. They are the three M’s: Mindset Message and Messenger.
The Word-of-Mouth Marketer Mindset
From Alltel to Intel JetBlue to K-Y and Victoria’s Secret marketers are merging word-of-mouth marketing strategies with experiential programs to create brands customers love and love to talk about.
The first thing event marketers can do to thrive in the new frontier is to put the consumer in charge says Steve Knox ceo of Procter & Gamble’s word-of-mouth research and marketing unit Tremor. “It isn’t your conversation that you want them to have—it’s their conversation.” P&G calls it Let Go thinking—the idea that brands are co-created with consumers. “You have to work with consumers to understand what it is they want to share about your brand ” Knox says. “It’s what makes this kind of marketing so powerful.”
Tremor uses two consumer panels—Vocalpoint which consists of more than 450 000 moms and Tremor Teen which has 250 000 kids between the ages of 13 and 19—to unearth the messages consumers want to share then it executes marketing programs based on that research. For example by talking to its Vocalpoint moms P&G found that the typical grease-fighting benefits of its new Dawn Direct Foam product wasn’t what got moms excited to tell their friends. The best pass-along message instead was: “So easy to use even your kids can do it.” The insight led to a 50 percent sales spike in test markets.
“For us to sit in a room and try to be creative is not nearly as powerful as engaging 100 000 moms and helping them tell us what it is about a brand that they find sharable ” says Knox. “It’s never what we think. It’s always what the consumer thinks. It’s putting the consumer in charge of the message.”
JetBlue’s Campus Rep Program does more than just empower consumers to spread the word. It hires them and then lets them run their own programs. Two brand ambassadors on 21 campuses across the country are each given the tools to find local events the brand can tie into to make connections with young and future jet setters. This year JetBlue added a website portal where reps could share marketing ideas. “Not only are we allowing them to get creative and develop their own marketing platforms we’re allowing them to share their ideas with other people. Seeing that level of success—it’s a very satisfying feeling to see that it actually worked ” says Tracie Sandford director-marketing at JetBlue.
For example a rep-created Blue Day where students go so far as painting themselves blue in an effort to win free plane tickets this year gained enough momentum to become a full-fledged “Bluau” (Blue-Luau). JetBlue got behind the Hawaiian-themed effort but the reps really ran the show. Empowering brand ambassadors to call the shots is a little unnerving but Sandford says it’s key to keeping them engaged and interested—and actively fueling that all-important word of mouth. “Have we seen photos of things that never would have passed muster through our brand team?” says Sandford. “Absolutely. But do they work in the environment they were in? Absolutely as well. We feel really good about it.” JetBlue’s reps crank out an impressive 200 events per semester (Agency: Mr. Youth New York City).
The Word-of-Mouth Message
Keller says getting people buzzing isn’t about bells and whistles. “You don’t have to be involved with a tech breakthrough or a totally revolutionary product area to generate WOM ” says Keller. “Everyday products can do that as well.” It’s about product fundamentals—really understanding the role that a product plays in the consumer’s life and then creating a platform where that unique message can be transmitted. And no offense to Madison Avenue but marketing messages don’t have to be funny or outrageous to spark watercooler conversation either. “Most of what people want to share with others is not the humor in a marketing campaign ” Keller says. “It’s about whether the product really does a good job.”
Consumers aren’t averse to receiving marketing messages as long as they are relevant to them. In fact despite the evidence WOM isn’t a traditional media killer. It can actually make consumers more receptive to traditional marketing messages. “If you and I are friends and we are part of a social network and I say to you ‘Here is an unbelievable product that I just came across ’ your receptivity to that message because we are friends is very high ” says Knox. “Suddenly what happens is your receptivity to all the other marketing messages about that brand is also increased.” The key Knox says is to remember that the message consumers share with their friends 100 percent of the time is different than the marketing message. By inserting the Caravan directly into Suzanne Babbs’ busy daily routine the brand handed over the first-hand experience and then—here’s where the WOM magic happens—took its own voice out of the equation. When Babb blogged or talked up her experiences she filtered product points into personal anecdotes. And you can’t do that with a billboard.
The Word-of-Mouth Messenger
Keller calls them Influencers. P&G calls them Connectors. The Grateful Dead calls them Deadheads. Whatever you call them socially connected consumers that passionately love your brand are your greatest assets. Identifying and engaging your best customers not only keeps your base energized (remember just 10 percent of customers make up 90 percent of your business) it turns the push-pull equation inside out and invites that base to become cheerleaders for your brand.
“A growing number of marketers are beginning to realize the benefits that come to them when they focus on a core group of brand advocates ” says Keller who authored the 2003 book on the subject The Influentials. “They think about the influencers within their own customer base and they start creating programs that acknowledge who they are. They seek their advice and input about things that the brand could be doing better to meet their needs. They include their ideas when they begin to create new products. They let them beta test things so by the time a campaign rolls out through other channels there has been a core WOM that had been built up by people who are truly loyal to and passionate about the brand.”
Keller estimates that influencers just 10 percent of the total population wield their influence on us all. P&G’s Connectors are people who have social networks five to six times larger than the average person Knox says. But marketers need to be careful not to target or “buy” influential consumers based on old media techniques. Some influencers are active in a category like high-tech or automotive while others are active brand proselytizers. (Think iPhone or JetBlue.) Some like Dodge’s Caravan test drivers are potential brand fans whose demographic and psychographic profiles (based on extensive in-person interviews) make them good candidates for future brand advocacy. Tremor further assesses its connector candidates by differentiating trendsetters from trend spreaders focusing its efforts on the latter. “Trendsetters have a disincentive to share ” Knox says. “Their personal equity is about being different so the moment people start to adopt their trends they’re on to the next thing. The trend spreader is inclusive: we need to do this together. Exclusive versus inclusive.”
Influencers aren’t just born and serendipitously discovered by marketing researchers. They can also be made. “It’s about storytellers and stories ” says Gary Stein director-strategy for San Francisco-based word-of-mouth marketing agency Ammo Marketing. “Influencers are storytellers. We want to get people who are right to tell the story.” Last year Johnson & Johnson worked with Ammo to get women talking about its K-Y Intrigue personal lubricant. The brand recruited 52 female “storytellers” called Concierges who matched the close girlfriend psychographic profile. Each woman hosted intimate house parties that were less focused on sex and more focused on other sensual pleasures like food and wine or spa treatments. By repackaging a traditionally taboo personal product into a memorable experience attendees were given their own stories to tell.
“You have to try to engineer an experience where there is value being generated ” says Stein. “So even if it’s a woman that you work with they’re good friends but not that close you may go in and say ‘I had the most amazing glass of champagne last night and I learned how to drink it and where it comes from.’ That begs the question ‘How did you get that opportunity?’ and then ‘Let me tell you about it.’”
Can events that engage a core group of customers really fuel the kind of word of mouth that sustains brand growth over the long-term? Super Bowl ads reach 97.5 million viewers after all. Consider the runaway success of board game maker Cranium a company that sold its first million games without spending a dime on advertising. After six years 22 million games sold five Toy of the Year awards and a recent announcement that the company will be sold to Hasbro for a healthy $77.5 million WOM still plays a vital role in the brand’s growth.
“I think the world’s greatest brands are no longer built on just loyalty—it requires advocacy ” says Richard Tait grand poobah and co-founder of Cranium. “When you have customers who believe so strongly in that mission and feel such a strong sense of affiliation to your brand then the most important thing is to encourage them to be advocates for the brand. And that has meant that we have dedicated our resources and our focus in pretty much every area of our business around customer service and ensuring we give our customers a platform to advocate for us.”