I often begin the story of how Bazaarvoice got its unusual name with a simple truth: Word of mouth is the earliest form of marketing. “Bazaars” were early marketplaces where people met face to face with vendors and other shoppers – chatting about goods, haggling over prices, and forming real customer-seller relationships.

Social brings these conversations online, and has changed the concept of word of mouth forever. In his new book, The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace, my friend and Bazaarvoice board member Ed Keller reminds businesses that offline word of mouth – real, face-to-face conversations between consumers – is still the most effective endorsement, and can’t be ignored.  And speaking of books, you should check out the amazing Chapter 4 of The Cluetrain Manifesto.

I asked Ed to share some insights from his new book, which I love, and is co-authored with his partner at the Keller Fay Group, Brad Fay.

Some of the most talked-about brands aren’t necessarily highly-innovative products, and often they’re commodities. What makes a brand worth talking about face-to-face, and is it different than what makes a brand worth talking about online?

First, let me start by saying that there is a lot more face-to-face conversation than online conversation. Yes, the amount of online talk has risen rapidly over the past few years, but the amount that takes place offline, in the real world is staggeringly huge and that often gets lost. In fact, 90% of conversations still take place offline. That’s why we titled our book, The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace. It’s an effort to remind the business community to take a holistic perspective when it comes to social marketing. Think online when and where it’s appropriate, but do not make that your exclusive or even primary focus, and don’t lose sight of the size and power of face-to-face conversation.

Further, research shows that people talk about very different brands online versus offline and their motivations are different. When posting something on a social network such as Twitter or Facebook, the main motivator is most frequently social signaling – what the post signals about the person who is positing it such as being among the first to try a new product, having tickets to a hard to get entertainment event, or other things of this ilk. Functional factors are the second most important – for example, product features and benefits. Emotional factors are least important – things like excitement, awe, disappointment and the like.

When it comes to offline word of mouth, however, these three “drivers” are exactly reversed. Emotional factors are the key to offline conversation, with functional factors second. Social signaling is least important. In offline word of mouth, we believe that “the steak is the sizzle.” Product fundamentals, pride associated with a product you have used, and factors like this are what get people talking. It needn’t be the latest and greatest new product, or a great technological breakthrough. In fact, the most talked about brands in America tend to be brands like Coke and Walmart – ones people use and enjoy every day, and they want to share their experiences with others. In the UK a similar story emerges, with Tesco being the most talked about brand.

Many marketers often define “influencers” by the size and engagement levels of their social networks. Your book looks at “true” influence, online and off, in terms of means, motive, and opportunity. Can you expand on that?

Ed Keller, co-author of The Face-to-Face Book.

Influence is a topic I wrote about in my first book, The Influentials, and that I discuss again in The Face-to-Face Book. There is a lot of focus now on services like Klout which define influence based on the size and scope of one’s followers on Twitter and Facebook. But those statistics don’t reveal very much about actions that are taken as a result of seeing a tweet, or retweeting what someone else said with no additional commentary or advice. Our research suggests that there are people in every community across the country who have larger-than-average social networks (offline and online) through which they hear about things and with whom they share what they have learned. Most of the time this influence happens offline, face to face, although influencers are above-average in their use of online social media, too. They have the means to influence because their network is large; they have the motive because they like to share; and they have the opportunity because people seek them out for their advice. Our research shows that because they talk more than others, and their opinion is highly valued, people act on it more frequently. Taken together, this means their social influence is four times as valuable as the advice that comes from an average person.

The rise of social marketing and brands’ increased attention on word of mouth has led some marketers to proclaim that “advertising is dead.” What is the role of paid media as the market shifts its attention to earned media?

This is a really important question. The most fundamental driver of word of mouth is personal customer experience. For word of mouth to be effective it must be authentic, which only personal experience permits. But in addition to personal experience, we have learned that media and marketing activity help to spark fully half of all word of mouth conversations, with paid advertising being the leading source of marketing content. Far from advertising being dead, we find that it plays a huge role in word of mouth. However, this doesn’t mean that the advertising model of yesterday will work for the future. Advertising needs to be designed to connect more often with current customers and brand advocates. The goal should be to give them new information, effective language, and motivation to talk about the brand and recommend it. We have often seen that people often have a visceral sense for why they like something, but often can’t put their preference into words. Advertising can help give people the words they can use, or an easy means to share information online. Through repetition, advertising can also give people cues that become conversation sparks as they watch TV together with others, or talking points to help them the following day when they are discussing a show they have watched or something they have seen online or in a magazine. The objective for marketers in the future should be to create ads that spark conversation; the conversation then persuades the prospect, which leads to purchase. We believe that’s the model for successful advertising in a social era.

Many companies are still afraid to embrace word of mouth marketing and social because of the fear of negative feedback. What would you say to these businesses?

The first thing I would say is that the overwhelming percentage of word of mouth is positive, not negative. According to research that we report on in The Face-to-Face Book, about two thirds of all conversations about products, services, and brands is positive, while less than 10% is negative. The remainder is either a mixture of some positive and some negative, or it’s neutral without any real affect one way or the other. But even when there is negative word of mouth, there is a lot to learn that can benefit businesses. In the book we feature one of Bazaarvoice’s clients, L.L.Bean, who uses negative reviews to immediately investigate product problems and can often uncover an error in the way the product was described on the website or in the catalogue, or a manufacturing issue that can be fixed. So negative word of mouth is rarer than many might think, but when you get it, fear it not and embrace it instead. Make smart decisions about the root causes and all the tools at your disposal to react and respond. This led one executive we quote in the book to say, “negative information from a customer is the greatest gift you can have.”

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Getting people to talk positively about your products has always been the goal, and still is in a digital marketplace. Getting consumers to talk, both online and off, starts with delivering great customer experiences.

  • BethReina1

    Great article. Especially appreciated the insight on negative feedback. People are often afraid of this but it is the key to improvement.

  • Jonathan West

    Creating ads that spark a conversation is something that we should all do more often. Normally, we are in such a hurry to get our message out there and deliver it exactly as we want (all positive, of course) that we forget to pay attention to how the ad will be received – no-one responds well to “telling selling” but everyone likes to discuss a point-of-view. Sparking conversations is a simple idea with powerful consequences.

  • http://anitaloomba.com/ Anita Loomba

    Great article! Even though social media has grown, there are still many businesses who are afraid to utilize it, in fear of the negative stories. I will definitely check out this book.