In an article last Monday in the Wall Street Journal, reporter Emily Steel described the growing trend of using online social networks — both existing and company-encouraged — for marketing research. It’s a very dangerous trend, as I point out in my letter to her. Many companies are headed for disaster if they give undue weight to the opinions expressed on their online networks.
Very much enjoyed your article The New Focus Groups: Online Networks.
However, it didn’t cover the major pitfalls, of which there are many. (Full disclosure: I am a marketing consultant who runs face-to-face focus groups and telephone focus groups. I’m a founder of the Qualitative Research Consultants Association and member of its Professionalism Committee, although I am speaking officially for neither.)
I have rejected the methodology of online groups for reasons enumerated in detail in the following article:
In brief, the written word does not allow for the reading of emotions that live focus groups do, and the reading of these emotions is absolutely necessary for the interpretation of the results. (E.g., How enthusiastic are they? Are they hesitant? Are their remarks ironic and sarcastic? Are they coming from their heads or hearts? Are they mildly annoyed or royally pissed off?)
However, these kinds of standing panels have a problem that I didn’t discuss in the article. It is one of sample bias. As you describe, people are continually dropping out of the group and being replenished. This severely skews the kind of people who remain in the panel, in ways that are virtually impossible to account for in interpreting the findings. It is well known that participators are radically different than non-participators and ex-participators. For instance, probably the more enthusiastic and/or more lonely people (including social misfits) tend to stay in. So, you keep the enthusiasts, for whom the panel becomes a part of their social life (as mentioned in your article). They are sometimes less prone to criticize, but sometimes more prone to criticize. The point is, one never knows. But as this sample becomes more and more distorted and unrepresentative of real customers, you have a disaster waiting to happen.
On the other hand, these panels are a wonderful source of ideas and a way to make sure that certain actions and wording do not antagonize loyal customers.. But they are notoriously unpredictive of success in the marketplace. The Edsel automobile and New Coke are but two of many examples of going to the wrong people and asking the wrong questions. Many of the .com failures were guided by discussions on company forums, forgetting that most real people to not hang out on forums, especially for prolonged periods of time.
I hope that, as a reporter, you will follow this phenomenon. You will have many juicy disasters to cover. When you ask, “What were they thinking and why were they thinking it?” I hope that you will keep this letter in mind when they tell you “That’s what our customers told us they wanted.”
President and Founder,
Market Navigation, Inc.
Word of Mouth Consultants
Author of “The Secrets of Word-of-Mouth Marketing: How to Trigger
Exponential Sales Through Runaway Word of Mouth” AMACOM
I found the WOMMA (Word of Mouth Marketing Association) conference in Washington last month both exhilarating and disturbing. I’ve been worrying about the current state of word-of-mouth marketing ever since.
It was quite a turn-on to see so many people enthusiastic about word-of-mouth marketing. But, after Andy Sernovitz’ inspiring opening remarks about the simplicity of word-of-mouth marketing – it’s all about the simple idea that happy customers recommend you, which grows your business – it went rapidly downhill for me with subsequent speakers and panelists. And in a very disheartening way.
They talked mostly about technique rather than strategy
What disturbed me was an almost total concentration on techniques, methods and tactics rather than purpose, goals, objectives and – above all –strategy.
Granted, I didn’t see every presentation and I understand that several speakers did mention strategy. Also, in all fairness, many of the presenters on panels had only about 12 minutes to present. Nevertheless, I would assume that when you have 12 minutes, you present the most important essence of what you are doing. Also, there is tremendous pressure at a conference to give people nuts and bolts “how to’s” so that people can feel that they came away with something practical.
Nevertheless, there is almost a Christmas-morning delirium about our new toys, together with an irresistible urge to unwrap them and start playing with them. But, let’s not take our bicycles right out into the snow yet. Let’s spend a little more time on strategy.
Why? You can have a good strategy and bad tactics and still win because you quickly adjust tactics to feedback. With the right strategy, you’re in the right place at the right time, doing the right kinds of things (which may need improvement).
Conversely, good tactics will not make a bad strategy work.
You can even have a good strategy in the wrong place at the wrong time, so that neither good strategy nor good tactics will work. Think of the Iraqi war: Free markets and representative, constitutional democracies are good strategies to build nations. Getting rid of a dictator is a good first step tactically. But in the midst of conflicting religious and ethnic fanaticism, these strategies don’t work. They lead to civil chaos. The efficient, tactical win at the beginning was well executed. But the strategies were wrong.
Back to WOMMA. Even companies like Dell and Microsoft – who I respect tremendously – talked about all kinds of tactics designed to get people talking, instead of concentrating on the fundamental changes in their products that would get people to talk in ways that would cause fundamental product evangelism, loyalty and trust.
Instead, many speakers throughout the whole conference talked about artificial, superficial ways that will get people talking about how unusual the message itself was. So there is a proliferation in word of mouth circles of fancy videos, contests, and all kinds of programs that are more designed to get people talking about the medium itself — hoping that the “buzz” will somehow rub off on the product image — rather than talking about the product.
What I was craving was somebody getting up and saying, “here’s what we’re building into our product: things that will blow people away and here’s what we are doing to motivate and enable people to talk about that.” I’m sad to say that I heard absolutely none of that.
For instance, what is Microsoft building into their new operating system Vista that would get me to install it on my computer? Or, how are they going to get me to realize that a new feature that I might ignore is extremely beneficial to me, in fact so beneficial that I will rave about it to my friends? What is Dell building into its computers that would get me to buy one instead of an Intel Mac? No, they are talking about admirable and wonderful programs that keep them in touch with and responsive to various segments and niches through blogging and many other creative programs. But these are what should come after building products that are remarkable, outstanding, extraordinary and unique.
This is like advertising was before and after its golden age. Before the golden age of advertising, people just put drawings of the product in the mass media, without any benefit statements or even descriptions. Then, advertising hit its stride and discovered its true strengths: bringing dramatizations of the unique benefits of the product to the masses. It was “salesmanship in print” in the best sense. It zeroed in on the most beneficial, unique aspects of the product and dramatized them in an entertaining way that got attention. At least, the best of it did. Then, the side show took over the circus. Most of it — to this day — gave up dramatizing the benefits and went for image instead. “Sell the sizzle, not the steak” became the rallying call for the hypemeisters. Advertising lost its way and just tries to make an intrusive impression, confusing getting attention with fundamental persuasion. Advertising is now judged by its entertainment value rather than its persuasive results. For instance, after the Super Bowl each year, there are many published polls naming the commercials voted “best” by viewers. So, you can win “best commercial” and go out of business because the commercials didn’t cause any sales, as 17 out of 18 of the Dot.com companies did in, I believe, 2002.
Advertising that calls attention to itself — instead of something related to the product — almost never works. Advertising history is filled with examples. Many of them won awards. But the products failed.
In the same way, the present word-of-mouth marketing movement, I’m afraid, may be losing its way. Marketers need to spend more time creating products that are so unusually good that people will recommend them to their friends and providing the mechanisms to do so. Instead, people are focusing on the superficial aspects of our newfound ability to get people to talk about almost anything as an end in itself, in the hope that some of it will rub off on the brand.
This will be just as self-defeating as it is presently in advertising. Pretty soon there will be so much viral video and so many pseudo-sincere (or even actually sincere) company blogs that people will just ignore them. There will be so many “agents” who were given free samples, that people will learn to probe about whether they are an agent and stop listening to their friends’ recommendations.
Update: After I wrote the above, I came across this brilliant presentation of John Moore at the Jan, 2006 Orlando WOMMA conference, talking about Creationist (the hype marketers) vs. Evolutionist (people focused on the product and customer) marketing. Just one quote:
“The Creationist WOM marketing mindset is about making the WOM activity more remarkable, while the Evolutionist WOM mindset is more about making products and experiences more remarkable.” Well worth watching:
It’s not about the buzz you create. It’s about creating product decision and usage experiences that cause raves. A buzz doesn’t sound anything like a rave.
Here’s another post that references the best slide decks of WOMMA, including thank you, my own. Many of the talks are strategic.
I have been so caught up in what I see as the nobility and purity of the word-of-mouth marketing movement that I’m shocked when people view word-of-mouth marketing as sleazy. I understand where they’re coming from and I sympathize with their strong condemnation of attempts to manipulate consumers, hype unworthy products and engage in a wide variety of other deceptive practices. But when someone as thoughtful as Jeff Jarvis weighs in on the side of the condemners, it’s time to weigh in. You can read what Jeff says, together with Andy Sernovitz’s and my answer here:
It seems to me that the main assumption underlying the criticism of word-of-mouth marketing is that any attempt to influence word of mouth is automatically bad. Word of mouth, in their view, should be organic and pure — and they’re right, at least about the pure part. I suspect that they are coming from a picture of shill marketing and other deceptive practices. As I’ve pointed out in “The Secrets of Word-Of-Mouth Marketing,” people react to any kind of manipulation or dishonesty in word of mouth much more strongly than dishonesty in advertising and salespeople. As well they should. Devious attempts to influence — manipulation — are expected of other forms of marketing. Salespeople and advertisers are expected to advocate their products in the best possible light. Lies by distortion, exaggeration and omission are expected and are reacted to with annoyed tolerance, not righteous indignation. Not whoppers, of course, but the over-enthusiasm of everyday advocacy. All of conventional marketing has a not-so-hidden agenda. I’m not excusing it’s inherent dishonesty; I’m just pointing out that we have a resigned and cynical tolerance, although we’re all increasingly tuning it out with a wide variety of tools.
Word of mouth is a different story. The whole idea of word-of-mouth is that trusted sources can be believed. Friends, colleagues and advisors are sacrosanct. Friends don’t lie to friends about product recommendations — maybe about the number and size of fish they caught, or about their sexual exploits — but not about recommending to friends what kinds of things are in their best interest. So, when people find out that their friends are recommending a product because they are getting an undisclosed commission, they are understandably outraged. They feel justifiably violated. The same thing is true about phony recommendations on Amazon, and all of the other sleazy word-of-mouth practices. Similarly, when people like Jeff Jarvis — who value journalistic integrity, truth, accuracy and transparency so highly — even contemplate the idea of word-of-mouth marketing, they see it as a vile oxymoron. the idea of a Word-Of-Mouth Marketing Association is even more hideous to them. They see devious and deceptive practices as poison in the pure and free marketplace of ideas, rightly so. Lies are lies, period. As Jeff points out, you only need one ethical principle in this area: Tell the Truth.
However, the critics have an accurate picture of only part of the truth. I would respectfully point out to them that a piece of the truth, when applied to the whole picture, can be a grotesque distortion — a lie. There are those of us for whom “honest marketing” is not an oxymoron, it is a redundancy. Word-of-mouth marketing, as distinct from word-of-mouth conning, is the art of making sure that products are so remarkable that people want to talk about them, getting out the word to influential people, and providing the means through which these influential people can spread the word. It is a profession that I am proud of. Millions of people are alive today and even larger numbers of people’s lives have been enhanced by the efforts of word-of-mouth marketers in the pharmaceutical industry alone. It’s not all about shill marketing and subservient chickens.
I thank Jeff and his readers for a much-needed reminder of the value of honesty and integrity, and of the need for everyone in the word-of-mouth marketing community and WOMMA to continue to fight deceptive practices.
Word-of-Mouth Marketing Speaker and Consultant
Author, The Secrets of Word-of-Mouth Marketing
The implications are enormous, on many levels. First of all, it shows that a desirable outcome can be encouraged by a very interesting kind of word of mouth: user, customer, consumer initiated contests or incentives.
Also, it shows that products will get modified, even if the customers don’t know how to do it themselves.
As I’ve written about before, and spoken about at the WOMMA Orlando conference, this is a very big step for Apple. Now that Windows can be run on the Mac, there is little reason for people not to switch to Macs, the clearly superior machine and operating system. They can now do so gradually, and have Windows for any custom programs (or games) they may have to run.
I hope Apple doesn’t fight this development. It’s the best thing that has happened to them since the return of Steve Jobs and the launch of the iPod & iTunes.
I will we awaiting further developments before switching. I’ll wait for some software to catch up to run natively on the MacIntel machines. Also, the Windows installation has to be simple and seamless, preferably without a re-boot. Most importantly, I have to make sure that Dragon Dictate Naturally Speaking will work on the WinMac. Since it makes calls to the chip, it is not obvious that it will work. I use Dragon to do my more lengthy writing of long articles and books. There is nothing remotely close on the Mac. Everything else is better on a Mac.
Here’s part of what John Moore had to say about the Jack Trout Forbes.com article attacking word-of-mouth marketing. Read the whole thing, here.
Jack … it’s not about you. It’s not about how you, or any one marketer or one company for that matter, can control consumers with marketing missives. It is about how consumers can help marketers spread marketing messages.
In today’s multi-channel, multi-dimensional environment, marketers cannot begin to place marketing messages everywhere consumers are. The costs do so are way too prohibitive. WE NEED HELP. WE NEED TO ENLIST THE HELP OF CONSUMERS TO HELP US. The game has changed from when and where marketing messages are delivered to HOW and WHY marketing messages are delivered. Some companies get this (Apple, YouTube, Google, Scion, Skype) and some companies don’t (AT&T).
Trout has been touting the marketing concept of positioning for over three decades now. I’ve studied his writings on the topic and I’m a firm believer in this positioning concept. But I believe that if a marketer has properly designed a positioning strategy for a product/service, WOM will not only get people mentioning the product’s name … WOM will also get people mentioning why that product/service matters. Dig?
Ya know … when it comes to meaningful words on Word-of-Mouth Marketing, Trout is a fish out of water.
Right on, John.
Just got back from the WOMMA WOMBAT (Word of Mouth Basic Training) conference. 450 people! It was great. More about it later. But I just had to post this:
I gave a presentation to a standing-room-only crowd. Very flattering. But I digress.
In the course of the presentation, I said, apropos of a recent post that if WOMwere everything, we’d all be using Macs. Think about it: the best word of mouth in the
whole universe, and about a 4% market share. I asked how many people
had Macs. About half of the people raised their hands. Then
I asked, “Of the Windows people, how many would like to switch
if it weren’t for the expense and trouble of switching?”
Virtually ALL said yes! Wow. What’s wrong with this
Apple has done a magnificent job of creating the reasons to switch, but failed to provide a simple, easy way to switch. It’s like England trying to get everyone to drive on the right side of the street, gradually. Can’t be done.
Some things can’t be done gradually, but MUST be done gradually or they are perceived as too painful. The switch from Windows to Mac is one of these for the average computer owner. Virtual PC is too slow and doesn’t work for many programs, such as my favorite, Dragon Dictate Naturally Speaking 8. So, even though I’ve switched, I have to maintain a Windows machine to write my books and articles.
Until now. If Apple will encourage developers to develop a simple operating system switcher (they exist now on the Windows platform) that will allow people to switch between Windows and OS X, people will be able to buy a Mac, install Windows and have a Windows machine just as if they bought a Dell. Then they could switch gradually, starting with the browser and mail client, which would get the Windows side of the machine off the internet. Now, they have a Windows machine that is unsusceptible to viruses, spyware, malware, etc. They can switch the other programs gradually and see much easier each application is on a Mac.
Apple probably won’t do this. But their customers will. And in the new, new marketing, the customer is in control. As long as Apple doesn’t sabotage the ability of its new Intel machines to operate Windows, we will see all of this pent up desire to switch cause a major shift.
Of course, there are a whole lot of other things that Apple needs to do (none of them that hard compared to what they have already done), in order to get a wholesale switch from Windows to Mac.
The lesson: Even when there is a major pent-up demand created by word of mouth, the mechanisms have to exist to switch to it easily.
Word-of-Mouth Marketing Consultant
Author, The Secrets of Word-of-Mouth Marketing