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Word-of-mouth is the new black

Is UGC so last year? What about IM. Should I be wearing that with my new social networks? We marketers are forever chasing the next communications phenomena, like fashion magpies, hypnotised by another yet more dazzling object, writes Tom Hyde, new-business director at Profero.

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With each new buzz word, a thousand articles spring forth, followed by dozens of specialist agencies all of which are "uniquely" tuned into the communications zeitgeist, offering their clients "unrivalled" access to a mystical underground movement, known as "THE INFLUENCERS".

Who are these people? What's it all about?

The new agencies will tell you that consumer behaviour is changing; that consumers own and control the brands they love; that they want to have two-way conversations with brands. This is all well and good, and undoubtedly useful, if you are Apple or Nike. But as a consumer of many things, I am also certain that I am not interested in talking to, or about, Andrex toilet tissue. It's not that I don't like it. I am a big fan. I use it everyday. I tried the Aloe Vera infused tissue once. It was good. There you go; I've just contradicted myself within four sentences and engaged in the world of WOM. Maybe it is the new black!

The truth is, word of mouth is nothing new. It's always been there, it was used by prehistoric tradesman to build their prehistoric businesses. It allowed the good to succeed and caused the bad to fade away. It is nothing new. Where word of mouth is propagated may have diversified slightly, but essentially most still occurs in kitchens, pubs, offices, restaurants, on trains, and in the streets. Anywhere someone has got a few moments and an opinion. Online is just one of many places where some people like to talk and share.

Good marketing will always connect with some people. Some of these people will in turn inevitably want to talk about it to others who may then go on to buy the discussed brand. It is in our nature to share our discoveries. It makes us feel good. It makes us feel more knowledgeable, even for just an instant. Even if it is just based on a superior insight into the benefits in Aloe Vera impregnated toilet tissue. It's my wisdom and I shall impart it on others.

So what is all the fuss about WOM?

The internet offers new ways for people to do what they have always done, talk, share and compete. This is not news. The internet is no longer the revolution, it is the establishment. Also not news.

So, if the internet is mainstream, and everyone likes to talk about brands, and the internet is good for talking to lots of people, then ergo we can connect all brands with all people via blogs, forums, and Facebook and such like. Easy!

But it doesn't really work that way. Yes, 67% of people at sometime research something online before going on to buy it. Yes, 80% at some point get involved with social networks of some description, but let's not forget that only 8% of us actually contribute to forums and blogs, so what about the other 92%?

Is there anyone out there interested in talking about cleaning products - probably yes. But am I really interested in seeking out their opinion on the merits of Cillit Bang? Definitely no. Will I listen to my mum as she cleans up after a family meal? Yes (I have no option but to). Will I try out her recommendation when I finally decide to tackle my own oven -- probably, yes.

And here's the rub, The Influencers are not a secret group of ultra trendies guiding the clueless masses towards the path of brand righteousness. They are my mum. They are whoever we respect and are talking to at any particular time. Influencing these people is our ultimate task.

The best marketing makes the participator feel something. People remember feelings far better than they do facts. Emotions burn deeper. People share emotions. It's why the Nescafe love story ran for over a decade with 20m people tuning in to watch the final "episode". It's why Phil Collins is currently number 14 in the singles chart, thanks to a drum playing gorilla, care of Cadbury's. It's good content. It entertains; it makes the audience feel something and makes them want to share. Engaging content builds deeper relationships with brands apparently. This is not news.

The trouble with content is that there is a lot of it. It's everywhere. We filter out all most all of it, and ignore the rest. The few true emotional connections we do make are with content that resonates with us personally - a programme we are addicted to, a social network we can't stop visiting, a podcast that makes us laugh. Essential content is difficult to conjure up. Essential content delivers extraordinary experiences and it is these experiences we consumers are demanding. Experiences that entertain, educate, facilitate, or help us communicate better.

We want the brands we support, to offer us more than just a good product. Give us something we want. Give us something we need, something we will seek out. Give us something indispensable. It may be a game or widget, it may be a concert or film, it may even be an ad as we've seen with the gorilla. As long as I desire it, I will grab hold of it and tell others of the great thing I have discovered.

Brands are starting to get this. They are realising that to be front of mind they have to work harder, either through product innovation or diversification. O2 deliver great mobile phone services as well as great music festivals. Nike iD combined a shoe, an iPod, and a website to offer their customers a unique music/training experience. Burger King sold 2m Xbox BK games for $3.99 each.

Online offers a relatively efficient way to deliver new brand experiences to a lot of people. Marketers need to realise that is not just the domain of those wishing to talk with the young and technology engaged. What about content for and older audience, what about experiences for our mums and dads, and grandparents?

Channel 4 recently ran a campaign for a TV season called "Literacy Week". The series of programmes were tackling the issue of poor literacy levels of one in five children leaving school in the UK. Rather than using online to run trailers for the programmes they took the innovative approach of providing mums and dads with a bespoke book individually and uniquely adapted for their own child, downloadable from AOL. How about that for an essential and extraordinary experience? Not only are they telling their audience about their programmes and an important social issue, they were actually using their marketing budget to try and do something about it. Brilliant! (Even, if we do say so ourselves).

Anyway, I digress. Back to the key question. Is WOM the new black?

In so much as that it goes with everything, and is accepted universally, the answer is a definite yes. But, is it the magic bullet for brands in a new consumer age?

WOM is and as has always been the product of the consumer's relationship with your brand. Managing it has always been about managing their experiences. Give them something positive to talk about and avoid giving them ammunition to say bad things. This is not news. How to do this online for everyday products and everyday people though is still seen as a challenge by some.

To those marketers searching for an answer, I say this, give them an essential experience and they'll become a fan. Keep delivering extraordinary experiences and they will shout about it to everyone that will listen.

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