How to Research Word of Mouth

By George Silverman
President; Market Navigation, Inc.

Why Research Word of Mouth?

Word of mouth is the most neglected of all the forces at work in the marketplace. Yet is the most powerful. Word of mouth has probably destroyed more products and, conversely, made more products successful then all the other forces in the marketplace put together. Why isn’t it researched more?

Probably because people think they are already researching it. After all, aren’t they researching people’s attitudes, opinions, expectations, wishes, hopes and fears — the very things that drive word of mouth? Also, they probably think that nothing can be done about word of mouth anyway.

However, it is not enough to research the underlying determinants of word of mouth. You need to know the issues and concerns that your prospects actually communicate: what your prospects and rejecters are actually asking and how your customers respond.

Why? Because after hearing your sales pitch, or seeing your advertising, your prospects start talking about your product. The customers’ private opinions about the product influences their own behavior. But they don’t always express what they think and feel. What they say about the product to each other (word of mouth) influences the behavior of their friends and colleagues, multiplying throughout the land, influencing the direction and speed of the marketplace.

Most companies expend huge amounts of resources researching advertising, sales aids, and other promotional materials. Companies allocate little or no time to researching word of mouth issues such as:

  • What are the non-users asking the users?
  • What are the users actually telling the non-users?
  • How are the objections, concerns, and qualms of your prospects answered?
  • How do your customers actually persuade their friends to use your product?
  • How do your customers suggest they initially get to know (try) your product?

Word of mouth is a live, interactive medium, and depends as much on the questions of the recipients of word of mouth as it does on the senders. In other words, just because an attitude is there, does not mean that it will be expressed, or paid attention to.

Not only do you want to hear the contents of the word of mouth, you want to hear the sequence and the source. Often, sequence is as important as content. Word of mouth research will help you put your information in the right psychological order. When things get a little out of sequence in word of mouth, people say, “Wait a minute, you’re losing me. Let’s back up a little.” In other marketing materials such as brochures, when you’ve lost them, you’ve lost them.

Also, the source of the word of mouth is extremely important. In some situations, people won’t try until they have heard the opinions of experts. In other situations, people feel that the experts are completely out of touch and will not understand their “ordinary” situation.

How to research word of mouth

The only way to research word of mouth is to research it directly. You can’t just ask people, “How would you describe the product to a friend?” That’s a good first step, but you need to hear how her friend answers, what questions arise, how they are answered, etc.

Focus groups are perfect for word of mouth research. It is as if this methodology were invented to research word of mouth, even though it wasn’t. It is the best way to directly observe and hear the actual word of mouth in process. In other words, it is not a way of asking people to recall their word of mouth interactions — in surveys, for instance. It is a way of hearing them directly. The focus group, using designs that I will describe later, is a way of causing actual word of mouth to happen, not just simulations of word of mouth. You can actually get customers talking with prospects in the process of convincing them. Dyads and triads can also be used.

How to design word of mouth research

However, a different kind of focus group is needed. The following is a basic research design, which needs to be modified according to the specific circumstances and objectives of the research, but it will serve as a template from which to make modifications.

This basic research design has been called the 2-2-2 design by one of my clients. Conduct two focus groups of customers, two focus groups of prospects, and two of mixed groups of enthusiastic customers mixed with skeptical prospects. Alternate the first four groups, starting with customers or prospects, depending on the circumstances. Do the usual probing about attitudes and opinions of the product, then get into questions like,

·        What would you tell a friend?

·        How would you persuade a skeptic?

·        What questions would you anticipate from a skeptic?

·        How would you answer their objections?

Then, conduct a focus group of skeptical prospects. Explain the benefits of the product as described by the first group. Then probe for the next level of qualms and objections. Listen carefully for the first signs of persuasion, which are often someone saying “Hmmm, that sounds interesting, I’ll have to think about that.” Notice that this person is not persuaded, but his mind has been opened up.

Keep probing for objections that have been answered by the first group, but not accepted by the second group, or new objections that haven’t been answered. I try out some of the answers that have been provided by the company, and some of my own which are constructed on the spot, drawing upon my experience with similar situations.

Cycle through at least two more groups to get into deeper levels of objections and deeper persuasion.

Now you are ready to run actual word-of-mouth groups. These are the mixed groups of enthusiastic customers or product advocates, and skeptical prospects. Up until now, you have only gotten one side in each group, but haven’t yet gotten people talking with each other in actual word of mouth conversations. Sometimes you can give the customers the assignment to “sell” the product to the prospects and the prospects to either resist or “unsell” the customers. This takes a very special sort of moderating that is a mixture of subtle guidance and Devil’s Advocacy. Sometimes you need to prod and provoke, other times you have to sit back and say almost nothing. It mostly comes from an intuitive understanding of how word of mouth works, coupled with what you have learned in the first four groups.

What you want to do, ideally, is get the product advocates to persuade the skeptical prospects. Once you have that, you know the ideal word of mouth that you want to encourage. These strategies and tactics should serve as the basis of all your advertising and sales messages. They are, after all, what is actually persuading people. So, advertising and selling should be designed around word of mouth, rather than regard word of mouth as an accidental byproduct of promotional efforts. This is a revolutionary thought and a paradigm shift.

By modifying this research design, you can put together experts with more typical customers, local influencers with their sphere of influence, retailers with their customers, and other kinds of people that you ordinarily wouldn’t put together into a focus group because they tend to persuade each other and bias each others’ opinions. Here, that’s exactly what you want to observe! Virtually any kind of people who are engaged in word of mouth can be researched in this way: Medical specialists + general practitioners, physicians + nurses, auto mavens + car buyers, editors + their readers, travel agents + travelers, financial advisors + investors, etc. Everyone except gladiators and lions, or cats and dogs.

For instance, you can survey your new car buyers, asking why they bought their car, their level of satisfaction, etc. Or, you can run word of mouth research sessions to hear what they actually tell their friends. These are two completely different things, and you gain an enormous competitive advantage if you know both.

One of the best ways to conduct these focus groups is to use telephone focus groups. Telephone focus groups allow you to put people together from different cities at the same time. This in turn, allows people the psychological safety to be much more frank and open in their interactions. In face-to-face sessions, there is too much chance of people either knowing each other in a given city or worrying that they will meet each other in a professional capacity.

What to do if you don’t have “users”? A new product, for instance.

It is important to realize that word of mouth can — and should — be researched well before a product launch. Even before a product is launched, there are often expectations about it. Many people, particularly innovators and early adopters, have heard about the product and are discussing it. It is crucial that you know what’s going on here. Even if they have not heard of your product, it is worth telling some people about it and hearing not only their reactions, as is so commonly done in focus groups, but to hear how they would explain the product to colleagues. Often, they can come up with simple, elegant descriptions, metaphors., and analogies that people who are too close to the product cannot do in less than several pages.

In this type of situation, instead of putting together users and non-users, you want to put together people who are extremely favorable to the product idea with skeptics.

You can modify the above research designs to fit most situations.

I hope I’ve opened up your eyes to the importance of researching word of mouth and given you some ideas about how to implement word of mouth research.


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