The answer, as with most things as complex and far-reaching as word-of-mouth, turns out to be a bit of both, at least according to marketers and early adopters exploring this suddenly hot area.
Indeed, if you count things such as customer reference or advisory programs, traditional PR, analyst outreach and even trade show marketing, then b-to-b marketers are already knee-deep in the word-of-mouth game.
What still needs to happen for b-to-b marketers to fully realize the value of word-of-mouth marketing, experts say, is for them to tweak and leverage these existing customer-driven approaches to take full advantage of the power of online networks. That includes things such as blogs, social networks, user forums and gripe Web sites, all of which hold the promise of sending traditional word-of-mouth techniques into overdrive.
"The big picture is that b-to-b has always been about word-of-mouth," said Andy Sernovitz, CEO of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), which held its first conference in March and just announced a follow-up July event in Chicago that will focus on word-of-mouth metrics. "Customers don't buy multi-hundred-thousand-dollar items without talking to their peers," he said. "That hasn't been called word-of-mouth, but it is really in essence what b-to-b marketing is all about."
Keith Bates, who ran the high-tech PR agency Keith Bates & Associates for 30 years before disbanding it in 2000, has been actively investigating this emerging idea. He believes word-of-mouth includes two or perhaps three main categories. The first, influencer relations, involves educating important constituents-media, analysts and, increasingly, bloggers and other emerging online influencers-about your company and its products. The second, viral marketing, is the concept of seeding your market with a great, often quirky, idea that gathers a life of its own and spreads through audience interaction. A potential third category, Bates said, is evangelism by company experts and, even better, highly knowledgeable (read, highly credible) customers.
"Word-of-mouth is not like running TV ads or buying space and the whole world sees it," Bates said. "It is really one-on-one, people talking to one another. It's slow and labor-intensive."
The challenge for b-to-b marketers, Bates explained, is figuring out where to get started when adding word-of-mouth techniques. There simply is no such thing as a one-stop-shopping approach to implementing a word-of-mouth program, he said. He did, however, recommend reading a few key books (see "Word-of-Mouth Bookshelf," at right). After educating themselves about the topic, Bates said the next step is to either assemble an in-house strategy team or reach out to one of the growing number of agencies that are starting to specialize in word-of-mouth techniques.
These specialists include companies like BzzAgent, BuzzMetrics, Starcom IP and SoapBox Marketing.
While high-profile word-of-mouth examples are beginning to accumulate in b-to-c-perhaps most famously, Burger King's Subservient Chicken viral videos-b-to-b cases, while less flashy, are no less powerful .
For instance, enterprise software vendor Amdocs leveraged word-of-mouth techniques to build a more scalable customer reference program, helping its marketing team formalize and automate how it hooked up customers to talk with one another as part of the sales process.
"Word-of-mouth is critical in enterprise selling," said Charles Born, VP-global marketing for Amdocs. While he can't control what customers say, Born said it's important to make them feel that what they have to say is important and that they are strategic partners.
According to Promise Phelon, founding partner of the Phelon Group, which helped create the Amdocs customer reference program, about one-third of customer communication can be "managed"; the other two-thirds is more unstructured, water cooler-type conversations that fall outside a company's control. In such instances, marketers' goals must be to influence the conversation as best they can, said Phelon, who counts Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel Corp. and Oracle Corp. among her b-to-b clients.
Other techniques, such as customer reference programs, may not seem cutting-edge, but that's the point. Word-of-mouth, especially in b-to-b, doesn't have to mean a far-out viral video. Rather, say proponents, it means harnessing the Internet's ability to exponentially expand the reach of customer conversations.
"Word-of-mouth is really about trying to get your ideas to propagate through a lot of different networks. A lot of it exists offline, but increasingly it is moving online, and things like blogs are a fantastic enabler of that," said Steve Rubel, VP, creator and practice leader of the new MicroPersuasion practice at PR firm CooperKatz. Rubel has been a strong advocate of corporate blogging. In the b-to-b area, he has helped the Association of National Advertisers start a corporate Weblog (at http://www.ana.net/blog/) .
"Previously, there weren't a lot of ways for b-to-b marketers to really do large-scale word-of-mouth marketing. They did PR, some advertising and some trade show marketing," Rubel said. "I think blogging is really going to help b-to-b marketers get involved with word-of-mouth in a more serious way."
"Branding is important, yes, but in the complex b-to-b sale, it's about reaching the right people in the sphere of [purchasing] influence," said Brian Carroll, CEO of InTouch, a b-to-b lead generation company that is increasingly using word-of-mouth methods. Carroll is a big advocate of corporate blogs as a way to help position a company as a thought leader that "deeply understands its business and the needs of its customers and marketplace."
Another tactic, convening a C-level customer advisory board, can get customers talking to one another, cementing a company's role as a knowledgeable, trusted partner. "In essence, thought leadership is built on building trust, and trust is built on reputation," Carroll said. "Word-of-mouth techniques play a key role in all of this."
In the end, word-of-mouth is only effective if it complements strong, traditional marketing techniques, say its proponents.
"In any setting, including b-to-b, customers are going to be talking," said Max Kalehoff, VP-marketing for BuzzMetrics. "You can listen and engage, or you can decide not to."
"The real theme of word-of-mouth is that it's not about a particular marketing technique; it's about listening to your customers," said WOMMA's Sernovitz. "And that skews to the [existing] talents of any good b-to-b marketer."