Tuesday, May 22, 2007

My opinion, brought to you by....(Insert brand name here)

Word of Mouth marketing is nothing new; marketers have been speaking about the benefits of positive word of mouth for years. However, in America and soon to be in the UK also, in a bid to find new ways to reach consumers, companies are starting to sponsor word of mouth.

Not as underhand as it first sounds, companies are not paying consumers to simply say good things about their products in a scripted fashion, rather, they are allowing consumers to try their products for free and asking them to give others their opinion. And, the opinion they give does not have to be a positive one, but they are asked to tell those they are speaking to that they are involved in a marketing campaign.

If statistics are to be believed, on average we are already bombarded with 3, 000 marketing messages a day ( I’ve never quite believed it’s as high as this however), and according to Marketing Week only 14% of regular campaigns have any effect. So, what’s a brand to do? With 80% of consumers trusting it, go back to good old Word of Mouth obviously. Only this time, try to gain at least a little control over what previously they had no control over whatsoever. As Dave Balter, CEO of BzzAgent and co-founder of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (Womma) puts it, “Advertisers have always been fascinated with word of mouth… It has just been a case of how to harness it.”

And so, harness they will (or at least try to). Those companies taking part in this type of marketing are eager to point out that it is not viral marketing, nor is it stealth or buzz marketing. Consumers must tell those they are talking to about the product that they are agents for the brand. They are not paid for their endorsements, neither do they have to say something nice about the product, but they do get to keep the product they have been sent, are asked to report back on it, and they have the thrill of being the first to try out new products. All sounds honest enough, and indeed a little risky for brands as they are allowing consumers to say whatever they like about the product, good or bad.

It’s already been a massive hit with companies in the US. 47% of the companies in the fortune 500, according to Womma, are adopting WOM programmes this year while consumers in the US are also keen to become involved, signing up to BzzAgent at the rate of 5, 000 a week.

Now set to launch in the UK, BzzAgent and the UK advertising company GroupM are joining forces to create what is apparently the first WOM company based in the UK. Already 160 consumers have been in touch about joining.

And I think, why not. I don’t see any problem with consumers giving their opinion on products to friends; it’s what most would do anyway. However, personally, as I wouldn’t be getting paid for spreading the word, I would only tell my friends about it, I wouldn’t be going out of my way to tell strangers. Which, if Rani Schlenoff, a BzzAgent Ambassado in the US’s experience is anything to go by, is exactly what is expected of you: “My family and friends love hearing about what I'm trying. As for strangers, after the initial shock of me injecting myself into their lives, they are usually very happy to hear what I have to say."

It may not be scripted, but you really have to wonder how much influence companies actually have over what their brand agents are saying. At the moment the industry is self-regulating, as the Advertising Standards Agency has no rules of guidelines relating to WOM. It will be interesting then to see then how successful it continues to be and whether it will become corrupt somewhere along the line.

Also, should it continue to grow in popularity and agents remain impartial to a certain degree, I would think that brands will have to beware. Their products will need to be bang on the money if they want people to rave about it. Especially since a dissatisfied consumer will tell at least twice as many people as a satisfied consumer.

Still, I’m intrigued and as a consumer might even be interested in signing up myself. I may not get anything as exciting as a new piece of technology, but if I’m going to get stuff for free, why not? As other agents have also noted about themselves, I like to talk and tend to tell my friends about the products I use anyway. But perhaps I might feel a little grubby if I have to also tell them that I am now a WOM agent for the product I’m talking about. Hmmm… Should I decide to try it, I’ll keep you posted.

To read the full article on Word of Mouth Marketing on the BBC News website click here.

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