Wednesday, January 25, 2006

To Tell Or Not To Tell?: Question About If Inundation and Repetitive Experiences With WOM Agents Decreases Credibility

Over the past few days I've had the chance to talk with bloggers, journalists, and authors about findings in the "To Tell Or Not To Tell?" report. One issue that has surfaced in a couple of the interviews relates to what happens if, and/or when, people start to become inundated with agents who participate in organized WOM marketing programs; will non-agents become less accepting of the message? [Note that "agent" is being used here generically to refer to any participant in an organized WOM marketing program].

I wanted to reproduce a specific exchange I had over e-mail about this issue (it's actually a follow-up to my last post with Isaac from Chapell Associates). What follows is the question and then my response.

In the Ad Age article covering the release of your study, you're quoted as saying:
“There’s a sense if there’s an organized word-of-mouth marketing program there must be something interesting about it...There’s a sense that a company wouldn’t do this unless there was something interesting or new about the product.”
Correct me if I'm wrong, but part of this seems to be that consumers aren't used to being approached as part of a WOM program - so it seems important and exciting. This makes sense to me, but it makes me wonder: if WOM became more prevalent, and consumers got many a "recomendation" via WOM agent, would they be less accepting of the messages?

This is, to some degree, a question of inundation - how much WOM are consumers willing to accept? Are repeated experiences with WOM likely to increase or decrease their trust of the recommendations provided by WOM agents?
Here's my response:
Thanks for your question and you raise a valid point. First, let me respond with some background to the quotation that appeared on I was asked to explain why I thought the number of pass-alongs (how many people a person told after talking with a WOM agent) was higher when there was disclosure. I think there may be three reasons: 1) conversational quality scores were also higher when there was disclosure (that is, those conversations were rated as more informal, personal, relaxed, and in-depth); 2) credibility scores were higher, specifically that there were higher ratings of trustworthiness (being genuine and ethical) and goodwill (feeling like the other person had their own interests at heart); and 3) there's a sense of being "in the know" when you receive information that's part of an organized WOMM program (because it might be a new product or something especially interesting about an existing one in order to warrant being part of an organized program). The AdAge quotation came from my explanation of this third point.

I provide this background because I think organized WOMM programs will only be effective when they incorporate the three bedrock principles of all WOM: trustworthiness, goodwill, and relevance. That is, WOM works because we feel the other person has our best interests at heart and we view them as a reliable, trustworthy source of relevant information.

In terms of your question about how much WOM are people willing to accept, I think we need to reflect on how WOM is being used here. WOM can be seen as part of a larger philosophy of engagement, listenting, responsiveness, involvement, etc. as well as a specific set of activities or tactics (such as a campaign). I think you're talking about the latter in your question and I don't know what the threshold is for exposure to organized WOMM campaigns. But again, I think it all goes back to if people perceive the program is facilitating the exchange of relevant, credible information within the context of a trusted relationship.

I also don't know if repeated experiences with a WOMM program lead to more or less credibility in a message or towards a specific person. But I think this one is easier to answer because it would probably be like any other experience and depend on the quality of the recommendation and the relevance of that recommendation to our lives. If people's experience with organized WOMM programs help them to make better decisions, feel more in the know, feel like they can help others better, etc., then I think repeated experiences will lead to higher credibility. If the converse is true then I think people will begin to lose any belief in the value of the organized WOMM programs.

One final comment, you write about people not accustomed to being approached by WOM agents, but I don't know if this is really how it works, at least based on my research. That is, it's not like agents are going around like a salesperson might, door-to-door, and trying to make contact with a certain number of people (granted, some participants might do this or some companies might encourage their participants to do this, but if they are, I think this is a very unwise approach). Rather, the brand-related talk is more likely to come up in relevant points of existing conversations. For example, based on some recent findings, only 24% of campaign-related WOM episodes were planned in advance by the agent, suggesting that 76% came up spontaneously, or at least without an existing idea that they were going to talk about it. And then we'd need to look at the 24% that were planned because an agent might be looking forward to telling someone about the brand, either because of a positive or negative experience with it (that is, as opposed to "plotting" a time to enter it into a conversation). So in sum, to the extent that agents are going up to people and talking about the brand when it's not relevant to the other person, or not a relevant point in the conversation, then I think there is a problem, and people will not accept this type of model and will have a strong desire to "tune out."
Thanks, and again, let's keep the discussion going!


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