Jack Trout attacks Word-of-Mouth Marketing
(Via WoM Watch)
In a dazzlingly out-of-touch article for forbes.com, Jack Trout has attacked word-of-mouth marketing. This probably means that word-of-mouth marketing is now a big enough threat to the establishment that it is worthy of attack. It’s rather sad to see such a venerable old-line marketer so out of touch. It’s also sad to think that a lot of old-line companies are going to listen to him.
I usually don’t get involved in public battles and I usually let silly assertions lie, I feel compelled to answer this one because Jack is deservedly well respected and is very influential. His remarks are likely to cause many marketers who are seeking sanctuary in the comfort of the past to rally around his assertions and make some big mistakes. As the person who is often called “The Father of Word-of-Mouth Marketing” and the author of what is widely viewed as the definitive book on WOMM and as a member of the Board of Advisors of WOMMA (not speaking in any official capacity here), I anticipate many inquires about what I think. So I might as well post it right away.
I’ll try to make my reply a reminder of WOM principles, rather than a polemic.
Read his articulate column here.
I’m reminded of the oft-quoted (I wish I knew who originated it) methods for attacking innovations.
Ignore it. Say it’s trivial. Say it’s not new. Say it’s what we’ve believed and practiced all along.
In bare-bones summary, he writes:
Things are out of hand. WOM is nothing new. The only thing new is digital communications with much more noise (he says that’s good news, for some reason). People don’t really want to “chatter” about products. WOM is sometimes negative, destroying the product. Wom can’t be controlled. It’s just another tool in your arsenal. You’re going to have to continue to use advertising because you can’t buy mouths. People stop talking about you once the next big thing comes along.
You can tell things are out of hand when there is an association and highly-attended conferences all over the world. I guess advertising is really out of hand with all of the conferences it has.
We have a new dictionary of terms to learn. From the guy who coined the most overused and misused term in marketing, positioning. (I didn’t say “unimportant,” just overused and misused.) Since when is making several important distinctions and giving them precisely defined terminology a bad thing?
He goes on to say: World-of-mouth isn’t new much less “the next big thing” that WOMMA declares. A third-party endorsement of your product has always been the Holy Grail. It’s more believable. In prior days, we used to try and find the “early adapters” for a product. We figured they had big mouths and loved to tell their friends and neighbors about their new widget.
(Actually, it’s early “Adopters,” not “Adapters.”) What he misses is a profound difference in the modern marketplace: you don’t find them (at great expense), they find you. Then you earn their trust and permission to talk with (not at) them. You don’t bring them to your products, you bring products to your customers. Also, “third-party endorsement” as the Holy Grail defeats his point. If it’s the Holy Grail, hasn’t he just made our point? Of course, it’s the Holy Grail. That’s what we’re saying!
He goes on to cite many products that got a lot of buzz: the Segway, King Kong, the Pontiac G6. “Unfortunately, the buzz was negative.” Here, he is supporting several principles of WOMM: It’s the most powerful force in the marketplace by far, no amount of conventional marketing will overcome negative WOM, you better pay attention to negative WOM and fix it, or your product will die. His message should be: Don’t engage in gratuitous hype because in this age of empowered customers, you will be found out fast and you won’t survive the negative WOM.
“Now for the really bad news,” he writes. “There’s no way to control that word-of-mouth. Do I want to give up control and let consumers take over my campaign? No way. They aren’t getting paid based on how many widgets get sold. If I go to all this trouble developing a positioning strategy for my product, I want to see that message delivered. Buzz can get your name mentioned but you can’t depend on much else. Not too many mouths will do a stand-up commercial about your product vs. its competitor. Nor will they check with you in advance on what to say.”
This is so colossally naive and out of touch that it’s difficult to know where to start. Of course there is no way to control WOM. That’s mostly what gives it it’s credibility and power. People know that their friends and trusted advisors aren’t going to lie to them, so they believe both the truth and relevance of that they are saying.
He doesn’t want to give up control and let consumers take over his campaign? Guess what? They already have. (See my Disturbing Memo to Marketers.)
He wants to see his message delivered. In this age of fragmented media, amid the noise he laments. Good luck. Buzz (as if that’s the essence of WOM marketing; it’s not) can get your name mentioned, but you can’t depend on much else. He’s right, if you have a mediocre product for average people.
People won’t do a stand-up commercial for you? Tell that to Apple, Sony, and the countless other products that have made it on WOM, who have evangelists coming out of everywhere. Of course you can count and count on these people.
This all brings me to my word-of-mouth on word-of-mouth marketing. It’s not the next big thing. It’s just another tool in your arsenal. If you have a way to get your strategy or point of difference talked about by your customers and prospects, that’s terrific. It will help, but you’re going to have to surround it with a lot of other effort, including, if you’ll pardon the expression, advertising. You just can’t buy mouths the way you can buy media. And mouths can stop talking about you in a heartbeat once something else comes along to talk about. I certainly would never tell a CEO, “B.J., I just put a big chunk of our budget into word-of-mouth.” If you did, all I would say is “good luck”.
The overall theme here is “Marketing Warfare.” (After all, he wrote the book Marketing Warfare). He wants command and control. His sees marketing through the lens of tools in an “arsenal.” (thanks, that’s one I’d missed. I’ll add it to my old-marketing-as-warfare slides.) He wants to buy mouths like he wants to buy eyeballs, and deploy them in a strategically positioned campaign.
He’s right about several things: WOM is not the next big thing. Neither is WOMM. Not if “thing” means tool in an arsenal. WOMM is a whole different orientation. Its growing, yes overriding, importance is a consequence of the Age of Overload, where people need to cut through the crap that advertisers produce because they don’t have time to listen to self-serving “positioning” statements.
That being said, conventional marketing is not — and never will be — dead. It DOES have to be part of a careful mix. But since WOM is thousands of times more powerful than conventional marketing and spreads for free at explosive speed, everything has to be organized around wom.
No, the next big thing is not WOM. It is Decision Simplification in the Age of Overload: Making it easy for the customer to find a solution to a problem (or desire or need), sort through the BS, try successfully and use your product pleasurably. WOM contributes to Decision Simplification more than anything else. That’s why it will continue to be — as it always has been — the most powerful force in the marketplace.
Jack, I also would say to your hypothetical CEO who is dissuaded by you from committing resources to WOM, “Good Luck.”
Word-of-Mouth Marketing Speaker and Consultant
Author, The Secrets of Word-of-Mouth Marketing
Update: See John Moore’s very cogent comments here. P.S. The last line was very funny, John. You just couldn’t resist.