Thursday, February 09, 2006

Response to Matt Galloway: "Should WOMM Agents Talk To Strangers?"

Matt Galloway over at The Basement posted about the "To Tell Or Not To Tell?" report on disclosure and organized word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM) programs. He wondered whether or not an implication of the report's findings was that WOMM agents shouldn't talk to strangers. He writes:

So while Dr. Carl's recommendation is to encourage disclosure, it seems to me that equally good advice is for agents not to talk with strangers.
Matt bases this conclusion on the findings that 1) trust is already lower in stranger relationships and 2) because there isn't a relationship history to contextualize the affiliation with a marketing company, it might be best to just avoid interactions with strangers.

I would like to agree and disagree. That is, I think interactions with strangers can be appropriate, but under certain conditions. First, I think stranger interactions should be avoided in terms of randomly going up to strangers and striking up a conversation specifically in order to generate WOM and without consideration of the other person's needs. This seems strikingly similar to invasive advertising models that WOM-friendly folks are working against.

Second, I think engaging in interactions with strangers that emerge coincidentally are more acceptable, as long as there is a) relevancy gleaned from category knowledge and/or experience, b) taking the other person's needs into consideration, and 3) disclosure of program participation. For example, suppose a participant in an organized program is at a store and somebody comes up to that person to ask them a question about something. I don't see any reason why a program participant wouldn't talk with that person as long as they say they are part of a program (assuming the program they are part of is relevant to the question being asked). Or in a situation where a program participant happens to overhear people talking about a product and helps them out. The trick here is that strategically positioning oneself as a "plant" or lurking around certain areas to wait for such "coincidental" conversations to happen seems suspect to me.

To illustrate this point consider situations where people are just genuinely motivated by altruism, even in interactions with strangers. For example, Steve Hershberger from ComBlu sent me a really interesting behavioral study on "Evangelist/Customer Impact in the Liquor & Wine Industry" (Steve said I could make it available for download; opens into PDF file). In the study they described one customer of a local wine shop who loved to be in the store and help others pick out wines. While he was shopping himself he would look around and if he saw someone struggling or looking lost he would go up to help them out. After trying to figure out what their needs and interests were he would make a relevant recommendation. (It was through some of these questions related to the use of the product, in this case, wine, where a level of trust was built). In a situation where the stranger was still skeptical he might even go so far as to buy a single bottle of the wine for a person out of his own pocket, just so the fellow consumer could benefit from the wine. The ComBlu case study goes on to report interesting findings about the business implications of such evangelist behavior (apparently the small store had four or five patrons who did similar things), but there are interesting points to learn here for organized WOMM campaigns.

This wine shop situation seemed appropriate because the person was sincerely passionate and knowledgeable about the product category (and not just about a single product that's part of the campaign), had the other person's best interests at heart, and provided relevant recommendations to a stranger who would clearly benefit from information. Now, if this person was also a participant in an organized WOMM campaign and discloses their participation right from the start, then why not talk to strangers? Everything here is consistent with the bedrock principles of WOM which are trustworthiness, goodwill, and relevancy (based on prior knowledge and experience).

So, to sum up, stranger interaction for organized WOMM programs seems acceptable under the following conditions:

1) the participant is sincerely passionate and knowledgeable about the product category;
2) provides relevant information and recommendations to people who would clearly benefit from the information; and
3) discloses their participation to the stranger right from the start.

I'm not naive to think that every WOM program participant will go through all of this, but I think some would. And if they don't fulfill these criteria, then Matt may just be right and program participants shouldn't talk with strangers.