While listening to Ed Keller (co-author of the landmark book The Influentials) deliver the keynote address at Friday's Beyond Blogging conference in Washington DC, a lightbulb went off in my head. Keller was making a persuasive, if not passionate, argument that the most impactful and pervasive word-of-mouth takes place offline, a case fortified by his most recent Keller/Faye group study. Keller is hardly alone, and Dave Balter of BzzAgent and Steve Knox of P&G's Tremor and VocalPoint tend to echo this point. What dawned on me is that we need to make a clearer distinction between "intimate" word-of-mouth and "incidental" word-of-mouth? Both play equally important roles in the rapid spread of high-impact messaging. And so I hereby kick-off the "Two Eyes (2I) Framework!"
Intimate Word-of-Mouth: We should think about "intimate" word-of-mouth as taking place primarily among familiars. It's the trusted recommendation from a friend or close aquantance. Typically, we have some level of relationship with the folks who receive this type of messaging, and that relationship (even at a distance) is what nurtures trust and confidence in the power of the recommendation. Much of "proactive" word-of-mouth marketing is grounded in trying to unleash advocacy among enthusiasts (or influentials) who will exercise influence or social-currency among their personal trusted network. Hard to argue with this, and I've believed in it's power since I tested sampling and word-of-mouth at P&G.
Incidental World-of-Mouth : Despite all this, I would suggest that the vast majority of word-of-mouth on the web is triggered by consumer to consumer messaging that has no basis in an existing (or trusted) relationships. This is what I'll now refer to as indirect or, better put, "incidental" word of mouth, or iWOM. The consumer creating the messaging may or may not have an intended "target" within his or her trusted social network, yet his or her archived opinion (permanent CGM) may have a lasting impact on the awareness, trial, and purchase behavior of other consumers. And in some respects, the net "reach" may far surpass even Ed Keller's most bullish assumptions about the amplication or "echo" of ofline word of mouth. Relevant content finds relevant audience.
Blogs, in so many respect, have intensified the reach and impact of "incidental WOM" because a very large percentage of the consumers posting their brand experiences (think about all the women on LiveJournal) do so with little deliberate intention of "evangelizing" or "persuading" others. Brand and service experiences merely dot the tapestry of their daily narratives, and those brand experiences are discovered by other consumers seeking targeted knowledge or perspective. Search is the primary driver of discovery, and contrary to what most market research studies suggest, the vast majority of consumers discover blogs (and other forms of CGM) through search. (They just may not know it!) Seen in this context, "Incidental Word-of-Mouth" may actually have a even bigger impact than offline word-of-mouth, especially when you factor in the sheer (almost staggering) number of times consumers "search" before they buy coupled with the degree to which CGM (consumer experiences) dominates the shelf-space of search results.
Buying a New Car? Let's put this in context. "New car" is one of the most active searches on the web. Over 10 million active searches take place every month against terms related to "new car." What often shows up in search results is archived consumer-generated-media (CGM), or "incidental" word-of-mouth related to that particular model, or another consumers "new car" buying experience. Keep in mind that virtually every consumer who blogs will capture, at minimum, major milestones in their lives, of which "birth of a baby" or "getting married" or "buying a new car" feeds the content. When such experiences show up in search results against a targeted query, they still impact the perceptions of the curious buyer. We may not know that person, but we relate to -- and often trust -- their experience. Evidence of other experiences reinforcing the the first one only fortifies the perception of "truth."
Defensive Branding? Which leads me to an important point: incidental WOM is particularly impactful in a negative context. Ed Keller may be right that consumers are more inclined to positive versus negative WOM (he emphasized this point in his speech), but there is no question that negative experiences overwhelm (in some cases dominate) online CGM venues, and find dangerously targeted reach through search. Negagtive comments --whether by "influencers" or "Average Joe" -- have lasting impact (and damage). When a consumer hears something negative (offline or online) about a product or service, they will go to search engines for validation. Often, the results of a query such as "Brand X plus Safety" or "Brand X plus Complaint" will result in a search shelf dominated by "incidental" word-of-mouth reinforcing the rumor or bad piece of news. Such comments are near impossible to erase, can only be mitigated through targeted paid advertising and long-term search engine optimization tactics. Again, we don't know these individuals reinforcing the negative, but we are touched and influenced by the "incidental" access to their story.
What's More Credible - Intimate or Incidental? It's not necessarily a given that "Intimate WOM" trumps "Incidental WOM" in net impact. Moreover, this answer to this question may be a moving target. Right now, "Initimate WOM" is the domain of trusted one-to-one recommendations, and we treat it as sacred. A personal recommendation is both deliberate and focused, and it's hard to challenge what a personal acquaintance or friend recommends. The problem today is that the zone of "trust" is not as obvious as it used to be. As marketer rush to word-of-mouth programs (WOMMA had over 400 attendees at its last WOMBAT conference), and less savory players continue to artificially prop up ostensibly credible buzz through shills or incentives, the "trust" part of the equation -- even with friends -- becomes murkier. In fact, we may, over time, find ourselves being disproportionately influenced both "other" consumers' commentary who have no deliberate intent on influencing us. The blogger who trashes a faulty electronics brand as part of a larger landscape of consumer experience may prove to be more credible that the person writing the deliberate review. I mean, there must be a hidden reason why he or she is doing this, right? I'm not entirely sure.
Closing "My Mouth": Intimate or incidental, a key lynchpin in this WOM/CGM discussion is "trust." Who do we trust, and why? Moreover, in what situations are we most likely to be influenced by any form of WOM or consumer-generated-media? Do we necessarily need to know the person?