Word of Mouth is too Important to be the Latest Ad-World Silo

Learnings From WOM Efforts Must Be Shared Across Entire Organization

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Just outside the conference hall at last week's Word of Mouth Marketing Association basic training conference was a blogging station-a.k.a. a few computers on a table-and a huddle of real, live bloggers blogging about such issues as how word-of-mouth marketers should pitch information, to, you guessed it, bloggers.

I mention this partly because, even by the impossibly meta standards of today's media scene, that constitutes a new level of self-gratification, but more because it's indicative of the smart moves being made by Andy Sernovitz, the WOMMA CEO and one of the key players in turning this "next big thing" into a big thing right now.

By bringing bloggers into discussions of word-of-mouth marketing, highlighting their work on the WOMMA Web site and being generous with the association's content (i.e., giving information away to all, rather than only to paying members), Sernovitz and his team have built a culture of trust between bloggers and the word-of-mouth marketers who seek their attention.

Even more importantly, WOMMA has brought responsibility and ethics to the oldest marketing channel, just as its renaissance was in danger of being co-opted by those stealth marketers who would deceive the public. The WOMMA code is pleasingly Aristotelian-based on the rudimentary idea that a marketer can only thrive by embracing good ethics (honesty, openness and a respect for the consumer)-as well as simple and frank: "We stand against shill and undercover marketing."

And it seems to have won over the FTC. Thomas Pahl of the FTC's consumer-protection bureau not only attended last week's conference, but he took the stage and spoke highly of WOMMA's code.

Pahl's remarks-to say nothing of the attendance of over 400 marketing executives at the conference-is a powerful endorsement for such a young association and a sign of how far word of mouth has come in the last 24 months.

The one concern with all of this is that with the emergence of such a strong association and what seemed from the conference to be something of a new-members club of executives, we could be yet again witnessing the cultivation of a marketing silo rather than the full integration of a new philosophy and skill set.

Today, as marketers demand interactive thinking on almost all major campaigns, every mainstream agency is scrambling to hire or reintegrate the interactive talent that, until now, it ignored or hived off in "specialist" shops. How ironic it would be if, while that drama is playing out, the industry was creating the same problem for itself with word-of-mouth.

Word of mouth relies too much on total integration across an organization to be a silo. Encouraging and facilitating a conversation about a bad, or badly marketed, product or service will just highlight the negatives.

There's too much for all types of marketers and agencies to learn from word-of-mouth techniques for those to be the purview of one person or department. One of the core aspects of word-of-mouth marketing is that it requires monitoring of the conversation, listening rather than just talking. What is learned from such a dialogue must be used to inform the full breadth of marketing activities, otherwise it is being wasted. What's more, word of mouth forces a marketer to give up some element of control, letting consumers take over a campaign, and that is an invaluable a lesson for all marketers operating in a consumer-controlled world.

Sernovitz says such integration into the mainstream is his aim and that by that focusing on ethics, education and measurement-"building metrics around word-of-mouth, we can get it built into media plans"-he'll achieve that. It's important that he's right.

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