Word of Mouth

Social media are one example of online word of mouth. Word of mouth (WOM) is a powerful marketing tool. AT&T found it was one of the most effective drivers of its sales, along with unaided advertising awareness. Some brands have been built almost exclusively by word of mouth.46

SODASTREAM SodaStream, a product that allows consumers to carbonate regular tap water at home to replace store- bought sodas, was built with minimal media spend due to the power of word of mouth. To help promote conversations about the brand, the com­pany has sampled liberally, used product placement, and engaged with affinity groups that might be interested in home carbonation because of its environmental advantages, including various “green” organizations, or because it offers the convenience of not having to store bottles and cans, which appeals to boat and RV owners. CEO Daniel Birnbaum notes, “I would much rather invest in PR than in advertising, because with PR it’s not me talking—it’s someone else.” One of SodaStream’s most successful marketing activities is “The Cage.” The company calculates the average number of cans and bottles thrown away by a family in a year in a given country and then fills a giant cage-like box to hold them, placing it in high-traffic locations like airports to draw attention to it. After deciding to target Coke and Pepsi head on, SodaStream did purchase advertising time in the 2013 and 2014 Super Bowls. Ironically, with this decision the company still benefited from PR and word of mouth because the networks banned its initial ads for being too aggressive. The banned ads received more attention than the ones that actually ran, racking up millions of views online and a barrage of media coverage. Purchased for $6 million in 2007, SodaStream had a 2014 market cap of more than $1 billion.


Contrary to popular opinion, most word of mouth is not generated online. In fact, research and consulting firm Keller Fay notes that 90 percent occurs offline, specifically 75 percent face to face and 15 percent over the phone. Keller Fay also notes how advertising and WOM are inextricably linked: “WOM has proven to be highly credible and linked to sales; advertising has proven to help spark conversation.”47 Others note how well offline word of mouth works with social media. Consumers “start conversations in one channel, continue them in a second and finish them in a third. When the communication is happening in so many channels, it becomes almost impos­sible to separate online and offline.”48

Viral marketing is a form of online word of mouth, or “word of mouse,” that encourages consumers to pass along company-developed products and services or audio, video, or written information to others online.49 With user-generated content sites such as YouTube, Vimeo, and Google Video, consumers and advertisers can upload ads and videos to be shared by millions of people.50 Online videos can be cost-effective—they can be made for as little as $50,000 to $200,000—and marketers can take more freedom with them, as Blendtec has done.51

BLENDTEC Utah-based Blendtec used to be known primarily for its commercial blenders and food mills. The company wasn’t really familiar to the general public until it launched a hilarious series of “Will It Blend?” online videos to promote some of its commercial products for home use. The videos feature founder and CEO Tom Dickson wearing a white lab coat and pulverizing objects ranging from golf balls and pens to beer bottles, all in a genial but deadpan manner. The genius of the videos (www.willitblend.com) is that they tie into current events. As soon as the iPhone was launched with huge media fanfare, Blendtec aired a video in which Dickson smiled and said, “I love my iPhone. It does everything. But will it blend?” After the blender crushed the iPhone to bits, Dickson lifted the lid on the small pile of black dust and said simply, “iSmoke.” The clip drew more than 3.5 million views on YouTube. Dickson has appeared on Today and other network television shows and has had a cameo in a Weezer video. One of the few items not to blend: A crowbar!

Outrageousness is a two-edged sword. The Blendtec Web site clearly puts its comic videos in the “Don’t try this at home” category and developed another set showing how to grind up vegetables for soup, for instance, in the “Do try this at home” category.


Products don’t have to be outrageous or edgy to generate word-of-mouth buzz. Although more interesting brands are more likely to be talked about online, whether a brand is seen as novel, exciting, or surprising has little effect on whether it is discussed in face-to-face, oral communications.52 Brands discussed offline are often those that are salient and visible and come easily to mind.53

Research has shown that consumers tend to generate positive WOM themselves and share information about their own positive consumption experiences. They tend to only transmit negative WOM and pass on information they heard about others’ negative consumption experiences.54

It’s worth remembering that much online content is not necessarily naturally shared and does not go viral. One study found that only 4 percent of content “cascaded” to more than one person beyond the initial recipient.55 In deciding whether to contribute to social media, consumers can be motivated by intrinsic factors such as whether they are hav­ing fun or learning, but more often they are swayed by extrinisic factors such as social and self-image considerations.56

Harvard Business School viral video expert Thales Teixeira offers this advice for getting a viral ad shared: Utilize brand pulsing so the brand is not too intrusive within the video; open with joy or surprise to hook those fickle viewers who are easily bored; build an emotional roller coaster within the ad to keep viewers engaged throughout; and surprise but don’t shock—if an ad makes viewers too uncomfortable, they are unlikely to share it.57

Companies can help create buzz for their products or services, and media and advertising are not always neces­sary for it to occur. Proctor & Gamble (P&G) has enrolled more than half a million mothers in Vocalpoint, a group built on the premise that certain highly engaged individuals want to learn about products, receive samples and coupons, share their opinions with companies, and, of course, talk up their experiences with others. P&G chooses well-connected people—the Vocalpoint moms have big social networks and generally speak to 25 to 30 other women during the day, compared to an average of five for other moms—and their messages carry a strong reason to share product information with a friend. A campaign for P&G’s Secret Clinical Strength Deodorant resulted in 42,000 click-throughs to an opt-in coupon redemption and 50,000 strong product reviews on the brand’s Web site.

Some agencies exist solely to help clients create buzz. BzzAgent is one.58

BZZAGENT Boston-based BzzAgent has assembled an international word-of-mouth media network powered by 1 million demographically diverse—but essentially ordinary—people who volunteer to talk up products they deem worth promoting. The company pairs consumers with its clients’ products, information, and digital tools to activate widespread opinion­sharing throughout its own social media site, called BzzScapes, and within each member’s personal social circles. BzzAgent believes this unique combination of people and platform accelerates measurable word of mouth and fosters sustained brand advocacy. As one senior executive at the firm notes: “The bar is pretty low to be a fan and pretty high to be an advocate.” The company claims the buzz is honest because being in the network requires just enough work that few people enroll solely for freebies, and members don’t talk up products they don’t like. Members are also supposed to disclose they’re connected to BzzAgent. After being acquired by Dunhumby, BzzAgent launched its analytics dashboard Pulse, which combines social media information with actual sales data to trace the impact of word-of-mouth buzz. The company has completed hundreds of projects. For Hasbro, it helped launch the Nerf FireVision toys—which appear to glow in the dark when viewed with special glasses—by sampling the product among members of its panel who have younger children. For Green Mountain Coffee, it sent samples and information to 10,000 carefully chosen members to spread the word about the client’s commitment to Fair Trade Coffee as one component of a bigger marketing program. More than 1.8 million messages were shared about Green Mountain’s Fair Trade program, increasing customers’ understanding of Fair Trade certification by 61 percent and sales of the coffee by 14 percent.

Viral marketing tries to create a splash in the marketplace to showcase a brand and its noteworthy features. Some believe viral marketing efforts are driven more by the rules of entertainment than by the rules of selling. Consider these examples: Quicksilver puts out surfing videos and surf-culture books for teens, Johnson & Johnson and Pampers both have popular Web sites with parenting advice; Walmart places videos with money-saving tips on YouTube; Grey Goose vodka has an entire entertainment division; Mountain Dew has a record label; and Hasbro is joining forces with Discovery to create a TV channel.59

Ultimately, however, the success of any viral or word-of-mouth buzz campaign depends on the willingness of consumers to talk to other consumers.60 Customer reviews can be especially influential.61 A recent Nielsen survey found that online customer reviews were the second-most trusted source of brand information (after recommen­dations from friends and family).62 Many review sites are now using a Facebook login that attaches a review posted by someone to their Facebook profile. By attaching their review to their Facebook page, users can find out what friends or noteworthy celebrities deem positive or negative about a brand.63

As Chapter 5 noted, however, online reviews can be biased or just plain fake.64 Research has shown that social influence can lead to disproportionally positive online ratings, and subsequent raters are more likely to be influ­enced by previous positive ratings than negative ones. Consumers posting reviews are susceptible to conformity pressures and adopting norms of others.65 On the other hand, positive online reviews or ratings are often not as influential or valued as much as negative ones.66

Companies can try to stimulate personal influence channels to work on their behalf. U.S. women’s specialty retailer Chico’s increased its revenue per visitor and average order value for its three brands after adding ratings, reviews, questions, and answers to the brands’ sites.67 “Marketing Memo: How to Start a Buzz Fire” describes some techniques to increase word of mouth.

A customer’s value to a company depends in part on his or her ability and likelihood of making referrals and engaging in positive word of mouth.69 As useful as earning positive word of mouth from a consumer can be, though, getting consumers to directly engage with the company and provide it with feedback and suggestions can lead to even greater loyalty and sales.70 Huba and McConnell describe the following rungs on the customer loyalty ladder (in ascending order):71

  1. Satisfaction—Sticks with your organization as long as expectations are met.
  2. Repeat purchase—Returns to your company to buy again.
  3. Word of mouth/buzz—Puts his or her reputation on the line to tell others about you.
  4. Evangelism—Convinces others to purchase/join.
  5. Ownership—Feels responsible for the continued success of your organization.

3. MARKETING MEMO How to Start a Buzz Fire

In analyzing the online success of different songs, media researcher Duncan Watts found their popularity was “incredibly unpredictable.” The key to setting a song on the path to popularity was to achieve some early downloads—a phenomenon Watts dubs “cumulative advantage.” Although many word-of-mouth effects are beyond marketers’ control—as Watts’ work suggests—certain steps can improve the likelihood of starting positive buzz:

  • Identify influential individuals and companies and devote extra effort to them. In technology, influencers might be large corporate customers, industry analysts and journalists, selected policy makers, and early adopters. Companies can trace online activity to identify more influen­tial users who may function as opinion leaders.
  • Supply key people with product samples. Chevrolet selected about 900 people with a Klout online influence score of more than 50 (of a possible 100) and gave them a free three-day rental of the Chevy Volt, resulting in 46,000 tweets and more than 20.7 million largely positive blog posts about the electric car.
  • Work through community influentials. Ford’s prelaunch “Fiesta Movement” campaign invited 100 handpicked young Millennials to live with the Fiesta car for six months. Drivers were chosen based on their online experience with blogging and size and quality of their online social network as well as a video they submitted about their desire for adventure. After the six months of trial usage, the campaign had drawn
  • million YouTube views, more than 500,000 Flickr views, more than 3 million Twitter impressions (the number of times a tweet is read), and 50,000 potential customers, 97 percent of whom were not already Ford owners.68
  • Develop word-of-mouth referral channels to build business. Profes­sionals will often encourage clients to recommend their services. Weight Watchers found that word-of-mouth referrals from someone in the program had a huge impact on business.
  • Provide compelling information that customers want to pass along. Companies shouldn’t communicate with customers in terms better suited for a press release. Make it easy and desirable for a customer to borrow elements from an e-mail message or blog. Information should be original and useful. Originality increases the amount of word of mouth, but usefulness determines whether it will be positive or negative.

Sources: Beth Saulnier, “It’s Complicated,” Cornell Alumni Magazine, September/October 2013, pp. 45-49; Olga Kharif, “Finding a Haystack’s Most Influential Needles,” Bloomberg Businessweek, October 22, 2012; Michael Trusov, Anand V. Bodapati, and Randolph E. Bucklin, “Determining Influential Users in Internet Social Networks,” Journal of Marketing Research 47 (August 2010), pp. 643-58; Matthew Dolan, “Ford Takes Online Gamble with New Fiesta,” Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2009; Sarit Moldovan, Jacob Goldenberg, and Amitava Chattopadhyay, “What Drives Word of Mouth? The Roles of Product Originality and Usefulness,” MSI Report No. 06-111 (Cambridge, MA: Marketing Science Institute, 2006); Karen J. Bannan, “Online Chat Is a Grapevine That Yields Precious Fruit,” New York Times, December 25, 2006.

4. MARKETING INSIGHT Tracking Online Buzz

Marketers have to decide what they are going to track online as well as how they are going to track it.

What to track. DuPont employs measures of online word of mouth such as scale (how far the campaign reached), speed (how fast it spread), share of voice in that space, share of voice in that speed, whether it achieved positive lift in sentiment, whether the message was understood, whether it was relevant, whether it had sustainability (and was not a one-shot deal), and how far it moved from its source.

Other researchers focus more on characterizing the source of word of mouth. For example, one group seeks to evaluate blogs accord­ing to three dimensions: relevance, sentiment, and authority. Academic researchers Hoffman and Fodor advocate measuring the various types of investments customers make in engaging with brands in terms of their activity with blogs, microblogging (e.g., Twitter), cocreation (e.g., NIKEiD), forums and discussion boards, product reviews, social net­works, and video and photo sharing.

How to track it. More firms are setting up technologically advanced central locations to direct their online tracking efforts. To monitor the Gatorade brand on social networks around the clock, Gatorade created a “Mission Control Center”—set up like a broadcast television control room—in the middle of the marketing department in its Chicago headquarters. Mission Control is staffed 24/7 by a cross­function of Gatorade digital, media, and social agencies, with six big monitors providing data visualizations and dashboards.

The Gatorade team reviews blog conversations and tracks senti­ment and feedback. The team also has to decide when it is appropriate to intervene in an online conversation and when it is not. Any post that includes a query directly about the brand or that reflects a misunder­standing is usually an opportunity for the team to weigh in, but as one team member notes, “If they want to talk about working out, we let them have that conversation.”

Gatorade is just one of many firms that recognize the importance of keeping a finger on the digital pulse of the brand. Consider these efforts.

  • Nestle’s Digital Acceleration Team is a 24/7 monitoring center that tracks real-time sentiment about its 2,000 brands.
  • Dell’s social media ground control and command center in Round Rock, Texas, has 70 employees and processes 25,000 daily social media events in 11 different languages, responding to most que­ries and complaints within 24 hours.
  • Wells Fargo’s social media command center tracks 2,000 to
  • mentions a day. The team monitors and posts to social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and YouTube. When a rumor started that the bank was going to institute a new $5 fee on domestic direct deposits, the command center was able to quickly squash it.

Sources: Wendy W. Moe and David A. Schweidel, Social Media Intelligence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Cotton Dello, “Wells Fargo Command Center to Handle Surge of Social Content,” Advertising Age, April 8, 2014; Ryan Holmes, “NASA- Style Mission Control Centers for Social Media Are Taking Off,” www.tech.fortune .cnn.com, October 25, 2012; Lionel Menchaca, “Dell’s Next Step: The Social Media Listening Command Center,” www.en.community.dell.com/dell-blogs, December 8, 2010; Donna L. Hoffman and Marek Fodor, “Can You Measure the ROI of Your Social Media Marketing,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall 2010, pp. 41-49; “Valerie Bauerlin, “Gatorade’s ‘Mission’: Sell More Drinks,” Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2010; Adam Ostrow, “Inside Gatorade’s Social Media Command Center,” www .mashable.com, June 15, 2010; Rick Lawrence, Prem Melville, Claudia Perlich, Vikas Sindhwani, Steve Meliksetian, Pei-Yun Hsueh, and Yan Liu, “Social Media Analytics,” OR/MS Today, February 2010, pp. 26-30; “Is There a Reliable Way to Measure Word- of-Mouth Marketing?” Marketing NPV3 (2006), www.marketingnpv.com, pp. 3-9.


Many marketers concentrate on the online effects of word of mouth, given the ease of tracking them through advertising, PR, and digital agencies. Through demographic information or proxies for that information and cookies, firms can monitor when customers blog, comment, post, share, link, upload, friend, stream, write on a wall, or update a profile. With these tracking tools it is possible, for example, for movie advertisers to target “1 million American women between the ages of 14 and 24 who had uploaded, blogged, rated, shared, or commented on entertainment in the previous 24 hours.”72 “Marketing Insight: Tracking Online Buzz” describes some company efforts there.

Source: Kotler Philip T., Keller Kevin Lane (2015), Marketing Management, Pearson; 15th Edition.

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