Commentary by Scott Donaton


More Point to the Power of Buzz in a Fragmented Market

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A few weeks back, we published a story that created an immediate stir. It revealed the results of a Cap Gemini Ernst & Young study showing that, for the majority of consumers,
Scott Donaton, editor of 'Advertising Age.'

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TV advertising is not a big influence in their decisions on which car to purchase.

This finding, what does not move consumers, was talked about ceaselessly by marketing and media people; it was even cited by General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz from the stage at the American Magazine Conference.

Top of the list
Martin Nisenholtz, who runs The New York Times Co.'s Internet unit, was captivated by the opposite point -- by what did sway decisions. Atop the list of influences was "word of mouth," cited by 71% of respondents. Direct mail was a distant second at 48%.

Word of mouth is one of the oldest communications tools. But there's a nice irony here: The more sophisticated technology becomes, the more marketers focus on the human jaw, and how to put it in motion. There are reasons. Media fragmentation has lessened the effectiveness of mass-media advertising. And the Internet puts a bullhorn to word of mouth, spreading ideas instantaneously to large numbers of people.

This may seem like old news. But since Nisenholtz pointed it out I've become more aware of the degree to which marketers are trying to figure out word of mouth. At last month's Association of National Advertisers conference, several presenters talked about its power. Ed Keller, CEO of RoperASW, co-authored a book this year, The Influentials, with the subtitle "One American in 10 tells the other nine how to vote, where to eat, and what to buy." Marian Salzman of Euro RSCG co-authored Buzz: Harness the power of influence and create demand.

Could people talking to other people be advertising's most potent format?
The new books owe debts to Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point.

Friends and family
Keller's book highlights Roper research showing how influential word of mouth has become and focuses on the people most responsible for spreading it. Roper should know; it's tracked this for 25 years. Its findings show the majority of people rely more than ever on friends and family, rather than advertising or editorial, to decide which restaurants to try, places to visit, prescription drugs to purchase, hotels to stay in and videos to rent.

"It really is a critical shift point and marketers need to think about it fundamentally, not just think of throwing on a word-of-mouth element" to marketing plans, Keller told me. "It's a more powerful force in the marketplace and marketers need to come to grips with that."

Consumer distrust
Roper tracks word of mouth's rise to the early 1990s, when it saw a growing consumer distrust of institutions and an increase in self-reliance. Keller sees a chance for marketers to influence word of mouth by getting "meaningful information" about products and services to influentials, and then having them spread the word. His advice: "Produce a superior product, get people enthusiastic and they'll become evangelists."

The worry is that as more marketers try to artificially create buzz or manipulate word of mouth -- by, for example, paying people to order drinks in a bar -- the more consumers will become jaded and distrust what they hear. I might be more likely to buy the car a friend recommends, or see the film a co-worker likes, but not if I suspect that person has a hidden agenda in steering me in a certain direction.

"It has to be real or people will get turned off," Keller said, noting that consumers are attuned to spin. "Marketers can't go over the line or they're going to blow it. If you do something overly manipulative, you're going to get found out and it's going to work against you."

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