Friday, February 17, 2006

Do You Believe? A Social Critique of Organized Peer-to-Peer and WOM Marketing Efforts and Its Practical, Business Implications

In my research on organized word-of-mouth and peer-to-peer marketing efforts I have written about some of the social and ethical concerns that have been raised by the increasing use of organized programs to stimulate brand-related word-of-mouth and "buzz." In my experience the critiques generally revolve around four issues:

1) participation of minors (under 13) as participants or targets of marketing efforts (family protection and consumer watch groups are especially concerned here);

2) disclosure (whether people are aware they're talking with someone who is either being paid or rewarded for their participation in an organized program; this relates to stealth and/or shill marketing);

3) the commercialization of chit-chat (everyday conversations and/or relationships becoming more commercial in nature), and relatedly;

4) "corporate colonization of the life world" (the thesis that corporations and business interests have an ever-expanding presence in our daily discourse and premises for decision-making).
One person who has raised some of these important critiques of organized peer-to-peer, WOM, and buzz marketing programs recently interviewed me about my research. Her name is Kate Kaye, a free-lance writer and author of Sales Pitch Society and the Lowbrow Lowdown website. She and I have had a number of fascinating discussions where we have found areas of common ground as well as points where our perspectives diverge. One issue we talked about concerns whether the social critiques stem from the form of organized WOM marketing efforts (peer-to-peer in the context of everday life), the content of the message that's being shared (corporate brands), or is it a complex interaction of both?

From my reading of Sales Pitch Society she is especially concerned that, among other things, everyday people are unreflectively becoming "brand vessels" by participating in corporate-sponsored marketing programs. In making this critique she compares and contrasts corporate-sponsored peer-to-peer marketing efforts with grass-roots evangelical efforts (whether the goal of the latter is to spread the teachings of Jesus or to protest globalization). She argues that in grass-roots, evangelical efforts people deeply believe in the message they're spreading. But she wonders if the same applies to corporate-sponsored or affiliated WOM marketing program participants. She writes:
What does that say about our society and the mindset of the people living in it if they do feel strongly about the sponsored word they’re spreading? What does it say about them if they don’t? (Sales Pitch Society, p. 31)
This question about belief in, and loyalty to, the message is one that some marketers may not always reflect on. Kate makes a compelling case to consider it on moral grounds, and I'd like to suggest there are practical business reasons for doing so as well (ah, see how easy the corporate colonization sneaks in)...

Companies that want to employ WOM and peer-to-peer marketing initiatives should think about whether the people who are participating in the program really believe in the brand, their membership in a community of others who participate in the organized program, both, or if deep belief in the brand is even desirable.

More concretely it comes down to perceptions of credibility (trustworthiness, sincerity, and competence/expertise). Companies should think through:
- whether the participants are sharing their opinions and recommendations just because they're getting paid or rewarded for it (a possible inference that others might make, especially when there is no existing relational connection to contextualize their involvement in the program);

- if the participants have a stronger belief in the community of participants with which they are affiliated more so than the brand they're talking about (especially if there is a concern that there are competing loyalties or that participants don't possess sufficient category expertise to warrant a knowledgeable recommendation);

- or if the company even wants to work with people who are highly loyal to a particular brand (because they may be seen to be too invested in their recommendation, might come across as too "strong" in their views, or might not interact enough with others outside a well-defined social network).
There is some empirical work that has been done to test out the effectiveness of different philosophies and business models when it comes to belief and loyalty to the message, but much more to do. However in addition to the empirical work we need to create and maintain a space for critical work that explores the moral dimensions and social consequences of the increasing use of WOM and peer-to-peer marketing efforts.

Kate is currently writing a companion, follow-up piece to Sales Pitch Society (for which I was interviewed and look forward to read). Interested readers should also check out her LowbrowLowdown posts on the Word of Mouth Marketing Association's Conference in Chicago (04/08/2005) and Commercial Alert's letter to the FTC (11/04/2005).


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