Research worth talking about

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Academics are often criticized for living in ivory towers, but in the field of word-of-mouth marketing, scholars have created a body of research with very practical applications. It's too bad that most of this research never moves beyond academic journals.

Here's a sample of recent scholarly work that could help people running businesses in the “real world.” While these studies won't teach you the latest tricks on Twitter, they may give you insights that lead to better strategies.

*Robert East found that about 30% of negative word of mouth comes from people who have never owned the product that they were talking about. Ouch! You're working hard to develop a superb product or a service, and people are badmouthing it without giving it a chance. This type of secondhand buzz is one reason why marketers should be proactive and trigger honest, positive word of mouth from actual customers.

*Duncan Watts examined the reach of several viral campaigns. The virality of one of these campaigns was especially low. Another campaign that was much more viral should have reached more people, right? Wrong. As the researchers found, the campaign with poor virality had a higher reach because it began by exposing itself to almost a million people. The other campaign was launched to fewer than eight thousand people; so, although it was more viral, fewer people found out about it overall. The lesson for b-to-b marketers: Pay attention not only to how viral your idea is but also to its initial reach.

A related lesson has to do with the distinction between volume and dispersion of buzz. Hearing lots of buzz about their brands is music to marketers' ears. But Dina Mayzlin and David Godes, who examined the link between online buzz and sales , conclude that simply counting buzz is not sufficient to predict success. Instead, their analysis shows the value of conversations that take place across heterogeneous communities. In other words, getting some buzz in many places is better than lots of buzz in one small community. The implication for b-to-b marketers? Make sure conversations about your product or service start simultaneously (and early) in multiple social clusters.

*Walter Carl and Barak Libai are among those looking into how to measure the monetary value of word of mouth. Specifically, they have been trying to assign a dollar value to a brand conversation that occurs as a result of a marketing initiative such as an advocacy program. Using their model, you can calculate a dollar amount that shows how much money the company made (or lost) from each conversation with a new person.

* A study Jonathan Frenzen and Kent Nakamoto looked into collaboration and the value of sharing knowledge. The research found that, indeed, people are likely to share information under certain conditions. But that's not the end of the story. When these researchers presented study participants with a scenario of restricted access to resources, the likelihood of sharing information dropped significantly. This is particularly relevant to b-to-b marketers, who often have to sell to competitors within an industry—companies that have good reasons to withhold information from each other. The lesson: sometimes you can't count on word of mouth and must rely on advertising or your sales force to spread the word.

*A study by Andrea Wojnicki and David Godes seeks to understanding why people talk about services. It found that people who view themselves as experts on something love to buzz, especially about their positive experiences. The explanation? Every time an expert talks about a good experience, his self-image as an expert who has made a great choice is enhanced, which is why he's motivated to talk about it again and again. What's more, Wojnicki explains that when experts are reminded of their positive experience and of the fact that they are knowledgeable, they are likely to generate even more word of mouth. The practical implication: Finding satisfied experts among your customers and reminding them of their expertise will generate more buzz.

Here's a question I'm struggling with: Word of mouth is no longer just about exchanging words. For example, your colleagues don't have to tell you they plan on attending a certain business conference—you can see the conference logo on their Facebook or LinkedIn pages. As SOCIAL MEDIA? technology gives us more opportunities to observe others, this type of implicit recommendation WILL BECOME is becoming increasingly important. As a marketer, YOU'LL want to make sure it's easy for your customers to affiliate themselves with your brand.

But THIS can get tricky. An interesting study by Jonah Berger and Chip Heath showed that people want to imitate members of their in-group, but not necessarily outsiders. So the moment they detect that “the wrong people” are wearing/reading/using your product, they're gone. While this research was done in the consumer domain, it's not too difficult to see how it applies to b-to-b marketing. (For example, somebody should study IF this effect is at work in selecting business conferences.) An even more important question, of course, is what to do about this as a marketer. Is it possible to manage the delicate dance between social groups? How do you do that?

These are interesting questions that all of us—academics and practitioners—NEED TO address in the next few years.

Emanuel Rosen is the bestselling author of The Anatomy of Buzz Revisited (Doubleday, 2009). You can follow him on Twitter @EmanuelRosen and reach him at [email protected]

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