Engineering a Phenomenon? Like...uh... How?

Chapter 4: "Talk is Cheap"

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Previous posts enumerated classic examples of word of mouth, from Nordstrom to Christianty. All were impressive.

Now imagine the implications of not merely stumbling on that phenomenon, but harnessing it. This would not only present incalculable opportunities for makers of a better mousetrap, it would render billions of dollars worth of paid messaging so much wasted breath.

And that is exactly what is taking place. The collapse of the traditional mass-media/mass-marketing model is being accompanied by digital mechanisms for fluid communication among consumers, who trust one another far more than they trust any banner ad, celebrity endorsement or 30-second spot.

Among those with a dim view of marketers dictating self-interested messages -- unsurprisingly enough -- is Andy Sernovitz, founder of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, and author of Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking. Sernovitz especially can't imagine anyone anymore being influenced by advertising, beyond the basic function of the news alert, for a brand new good or service.

"It used to be," Sernovitz says, "a manufacturer would launch a product that was fine -- not good or bad, but just fine. You spent $20 million developing it, and as long as it didn't blow up, you could sell it for years. And that's how all the average products sitting on our shelves got that way. The new reality is, you spend $20 million developing a product, the day you deliver it it will get reviewed on tens of thousands of blogs and message boards and websites. And the success of your product will be determined that day." To wit:

iPhone: good.

Segway HT: bad.

Those verdicts came immediately in. End of discussion.

Once again, nobody disagrees about the power of word of mouth. On the contrary, many marketers, entertainer and politicians lay awake at night scheming about getting the tiger by the tail. The trick is how, and on that point there is hardly any agreement whatsoever. There are those who believe that WOM by its very nature is a spontaneous organic phenomenon entirely rooted in human volition and therefore not subject to third-party influence.

Others believe that virtual crowds can be rallied, provided you can identify and impress certain key nodes, or hubs, who have a preternatural influence on those in their social networks. This is the premise behind Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point." Still others believe that there is no need to isolate "influencer" demigods. That rigorous seeding of valuable information or content among likely audiences will inevitably sprout far and wide.

In this chapter, we'll consider all of the above.
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