Monday, May 02, 2005

Word-of-Mouth and the "Magic" of Everyday Talk: Focusing on the Process Not the Individual

This is the first of a number of posts where I will write about findings or conclusions from recent research projects on word-of-mouth (WOM) communication and buzz marketing practices. A more comprehensive discussion of these issues can be found in a manuscript I recently submitted for publication in an academic journal (more details in the coming months). For the time being, though, the theme of this posting is about how existing research on WOM has a tendency to focus more on the individual rather than on the relationships and communication processes between people.

I should note at the start that there's nothing intrinsically wrong with focusing on any one level of analysis rather than another; it's just that we need to be aware of how each perspective we take reveals certain understandings while concealing others.

There are a number of research traditions that seek to identify and label certain individuals or groups of people who engage in more WOM communication than others. For instance, there is a line of research that looks at "market mavens" (1). These people can be distinguished from the rest of the population based on the general level of expertise they have about the marketplace (rather than specific product knowledge) and also based on how they share, or are sought out for, this information. There is another tradition that looks at "Influential Americans," or people who are especially active in their local communities (2). Research has shown that both groups of people are sought out more frequently for information, as well as provide more information, to their friends and family members than members of the general population. Such findings have led some commentators to dub these people as "magical" (3).

Both lines of research offer interesting insights and compelling evidence for their positions. However, if we only focus on the individual-level of analysis -- that is, certain individuals or groups of individuals who do X, Y or Z, more or less than other individuals -- then we can get distracted from more fundamental communication and relationship processes. That is, the processes that make these people seem "magical" get obscured. The magic does not come from the people as individuals, but rather from underlying mundane, routine communication with others in their network of relationships.

For example, research has shown how seemingly trivial kinds of communication -- such as chit-chat, small talk, gossip, "chopping the carrots" (4), etc. -- form the basis for what we often consider "bigger" issues. Take social support, or the process we engage in when seeking or providing support to others. Communication scholars have shown that we base our decision to go to certain people when we need emotional support for the "big" issues in our lives on the multiple interactions we have with people on conversations on "small" matters, often unrelated to social support (5). It is through these interactions about other matters that we build a foundation of trust and gain a sense of who might be good in a situation when we need help. Even more interestingly, though, the everyday talk itself has been shown to be a crucial form of support. Through these mundane interactions we get confirmation of ourselves and how we make sense of the world.

The same principle of everyday communication applies to brand-related WOM. What makes certain individuals influential in our lives is all the conversations with them that are not brand, product, or service-related. It is through the everyday, mundane talk that leads us to go to them for "marketing"-related information, to trust their judgments, to respect their opinions, etc. We can conclude from this, then, that it is not the indivudals themselves who are influential, but rather what is influential is the process of everyday communication in networks of relationships.

What does this mean for curious people who want to better understand WOM and buzz marketing? First, invest time in learning about how everyday talk and relationships work (here's a chapter I wrote with a colleague to provide a helpful overview; this link opens a 3MB PDF file, beware!). I will also be reporting on studies of actual WOM conversations and how people move into, around, and out of, WOM "episodes" (sequences of evaluative talk about organizations, brands, products, and services). Second, if you are a company or a buzz marketing agency, focus on ways to engage with your consumer audience in ways meaningful to them on non-marketing topics. It is these interactions that will build the basis for brand, product, or service-related topics and decisions.

In the end, what makes word-of-mouth marketing powerful is not really about the marketing of a specific brand, product, or service. Instead, the "magic" grows out of people engaging one another, and often about topics on other matters.

NOTE: There is a lot of interesting research that takes a social network perspective to explain WOM behavior. See Reference (6) below for an early academic study on the topic, and also Emmanuel Rosen's book, The Anatomy of Buzz for a provocative and accessible discussion. Although social network research offers tremendously useful insights into the WOM process, it has a tendency to focus on just the structural position of people in a network (such as a "hub" or "bridge") rather than the underlying everyday communication and relationship dynamics that I discuss in this post.

References for this Posting

(1) Higie, R. A., Feick, L. F., & Price, L. L. (1987). Types and amount of word-of-mouth communications about retailers. Journal of Retailing, 63(3), 260-278. back

(2) Keller, E., & Berry, J. (2003). The influentials. New York: The Free Press. back

(3) Walker, R. (2004, December 5, 2004). The hidden (in plain sight) persuaders. The New York Times Magazine, p. 69. back

(4) "Chopping the carrots" is a phrase used by Dr. Julia Wood, a communication and relationships scholar, to refer to reviewing the day's events when doing mundane activities, such as chopping carrots for the evening meal. The phrase is also a chapter in a recently published volume (Composing Relationships: Communication In Everyday Life), edited by Dr. Julia Wood and Dr. Steve Duck, on the importance of everyday communication in our lives. back

(5) Leatham, G. B. & Duck, S. W. (1990). Conversations with friends and the dynamics of social support. In S. W. Duck and W. R. C. Silver (Eds.), Personal Relationships and Social Support (pp. 1-29). London: Sage. back

(6) Brown, J. J., & Reingen, P. H. (1987). Social ties and word-of-mouth referral behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 14, 350-362. back


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