Tuesday, May 16, 2006

TalkTrack and the Conversational Geography of WOM Project

Advertising Age reports yesterday on some exciting findings from The Keller Fay Group's TalkTrack methodology (disclosure: consulting relationship).

Actually before I go on, does anyone notice how there's almost always a WOM-related story in AdAge on Mondays when the print version comes out? It's like WOMMA's version of WOM Wednesdays except it's Advertising Age's "WOM Mondays" (doesn't have quite the same alliteration value though [er, actually consonance since alliteration only technically refers to the use of a vowel at the beginning of a word]). It's great to see a WOM-related story almost every week nowadays in this publication.

Back to TalkTrack... one of the reasons I'm very excited by this is because of the parallels with my academic work that falls under the heading of the conversational geography of WOM project. Briefly the argument that I have made is that effective WOM communication is based less in the marketing of a particular brand and more in the everyday conversations in relational networks, since it is those everyday conversations and relationships that form the basis for the influence characteristic of WOM episodes. Thus, in order to understand WOM successfully, you have to take into account A) a mapping of the everyday conversations, and B) the relational histories of the people talking.

Methodologically speaking, you can accomplish A and B through a combination of different methods. To track the conversations you can use 1) a diary-based method, which I've done with the Word-of-Mouth Episode Survey (and what TalkTrack is doing for brand-related interactions on an ongoing basis with a nationally-representative sample), as well as 2) recording actual conversations and WOM episodes in order to transcribe them and analyze them for how WOM episodes emerge on a sequential and inferential basis (using insights from conversation and discourse analysis).

But you also have to account for another kind of history beyond the conversational history that plays out turn-by-turn in a specific episode, and that's the relational history of the people talking. For this, you can use 3) a "relational ethnography" approach (see Carl & Duck, in press; contact me for a pre-press version). What you do here is ask people to record their everyday conversations, which will include WOM episodes, transcribe these interactions, and then interview the participants about what they see going on from their "insider/participant" perspective (this insider perspective will supplement the "outsider/analyst" perspective). Specifically you want to ask the participants in the WOM episodes about how they make sense of their own interaction and to provide insights that an outside analyst wouldn't have access to since s/he is not an "insider" to the relationship. Here, then, you're gaining insights into how the relational connection and history serves as a basis of influence in the WOM episode.

Now, from my perspective, TalkTrack is extremely valuable because it will give insight into the first of the two points I mentioned: the mapping of everyday conversations. And there are many practical applications of this, some of the most important from a commercial perspective, arguably, are the ability to see trends in the conversations, to get a sense of what percentage of the conversations in a particular industry or category a particular brand occupies, insights into polarity, who's making recommendations, where these are taking place, what people are saying, etc. (see my presentation in Hamburg Germany about how this information can be used).

Another benefit is that TalkTrack, or a longitudinal, diary-based approach more generally, can be used as an industry benchmark for how everyday, organic WOM episodes play out. Companies can then compare their outcomes from organized programs to this more general data. Even more specifically, companies that specialize in designing organized WOM marketing programs can then compare data they gather from participants in organized WOM marketing programs to what non-participants (or "everyday people"; the type TalkTrack is tracking) are doing.

I will actually be writing about this for my contribution to WOMMA's Measuring Word-of-Mouth Volume 2 research book (disclosure: WOMMA Advisory Board and work group leader for this book). Specifically I'll be comparing findings gleaned from TalkTrack to findings of WOM marketing agents from my research collaboration with BzzAgent.

The next phase of my academic research agenda will be to utilize the relational ethnography approach for the analysis of WOM episodes.

Stay tuned for the details!