Sunday, April 29, 2007

Interview with Publicity Club of New England

A few weeks ago, myself, Dave Balter (BzzAgent), Lois Kelly (Foghound), and Jim Nail (Cymfony) participated on a panel about word of mouth, buzz, and viral marketing for the Publicity Club of New England (moderated by Laura Tomasetti of 360 Public Relations). As a follow-up to that panel I was interviewed for their newsletter, the Bellringer, by Lindsay Flaherty of Solomon McCown & Company, Inc.

Here's the link to the article in their newsletter. Due to space constraints Lindsay had to shorten some of my responses so I've included my full responses below:

How has WOM marketing changed the way we communicate?

It's probably easiest to start with a definition of WOM marketing as communication about organizations, brands, products, and services shared between consumers. So, I assume by "we" you are referring not to consumers but to companies. I think many smaller businesses have known about WOM marketing for a very long time because that is what they have had to rely on almost exclusively. I think some larger companies have changed the most because they have created distance between themselves and their customers and have relied on advertising to do the communication work for them, and have not prioritized listening and feedback. So I think companies who have lost sight of the importance of paying attention to their customers or clients (or other stakeholders) will have to change the most. Many of them have moved from being "oblivious" about WOM to paying some attention to it, perhaps by "monitoring" WOM. The smarter companies are the ones who will see that they need to do more than just be aware of the WOM about their products and services and monitor it, but that they need to actively listen to it, be responsive, and proactively seek to engage their customers in dialogue about the company's offerings. But if by "we" you meant consumers then I think we feel more powerful (whether we really are or not is a matter of debate) because we can amplify our opinions and thoughts due to various communication technologies (but don't give all the credit to the technologies because our communication practices are all still motivated by our desire to be recognized by others and have them confirm our view of the world and our place in it).

How did you come to be interested in WOM marketing and build your career in that area?

I started with an interest in how people talk, carry on conversations, and establish, maintain, and sometimes destroy, our personal identities and relationships. I began to notice that brand-related topics came up very frequently in people's everyday, mundane conversations, or chit chat. So I wanted to understand this form of "everyday" WOM. I then learned about companies who were seeking to actively organize and harness consumer WOM. One such company was BzzAgent, based here in Boston, and I wanted to see how this more "institutional" or organized form of WOM compared to the everyday WOM that seemed to happen randomly and without direct or conscious intervention from companies. Through comparing these two broad kinds of WOM I wanted to see what principles organizations could learn to leverage the power of WOM to the mutual benefit of companies and their stakeholders. I then became involved with the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and have conducted a number of studies in the area, publishing both academic articles and industry white papers.

How do you think the WOM marketing field is going to grow from here?

I think more companies are going to move through the phases of being oblivious, to monitoring, to listening, and to a stage I call "joining in" (playing the role of an interesting conversational partner). I see more firms seeking to tie key performance indicators to customer WOM. I see them attempting to engage their "ambassadors" or "evangelists" when they realize what these customers can do for the organization. Unfortunately I predict the majority of firms will screw up the opportunity they have now by not really wanting to invest the resources in making better products and services that meet their customers needs, not really listening to customer feedback, and doing silly stunts to try and generate short-term buzz as a replacement for long-term advocacy.

What is a typical day like for you?

I wake up, stretch, listen to NPR, take the T into my office at Northeastern, read some blog entries from others in the WOM industry or trade publications, respond to student emails, teach class, have office hours with students (though more and more this is done via e-mail exchanges), work on some research projects, more e-mail, more research, take care of some service responsibilities for my academic department, and head back home.

What are two ways that we could all communicate better?

How about three? Mindfulness, dual perspective, and balancing creativity and constraint. These are three principles of human communication. Mindfulness is about being more aware and being centered in the present moment (very Zen). Accomplishing dual perspective is taking the other person's perspective and then your own. And balancing creativity and constraint is a principle of both human and organizational communication. Individuals and groups are in continuous tension between balancing needs for control with creative expression. Understanding the need for both of these to co-exist and dance together at each moment is how individuals and organizations can become successful. Kind of abstract but in class I illustrate it with concrete examples :-)

What do you teach your students about communication that everyone should know?

When designing initiatives to leverage WOM, focus on relational networks of people rather than individuals or demographics. Demographics don't communicate and individuals only communicate in the context of their social and relationship networks.

Identify "structural holes" in organizational networks. These are places where there is no channel of communication between two people or two groups. Understand why these exist and what you can do to facilitate communication across these holes.

Act in ways that are relevant to others. Provide people with opportunities that make them look good in the eyes of others. These are two tips for generating exponential WOM communication.

What is your greatest achievement?

Professionally speaking, I was very proud when I completed my dissertation, or maybe I confused pride with just relief. Either way if felt good to finish it :-) Otherwise I consider it a great achievement everytime I remember to trust my instincts and follow my passions, because I think people often forget to do the former and never fully realize the latter.

Is there something in your career that you would change?

Having to grade. I love giving students feedback but I hate grading.

What is the WOM Marketing Association and who should be/can be a member of it?

WOMMA is an industry association dedicated to advancing the field of WOM in its many forms. I think anyone who wants to learn more about WOM and be around interesting, passionate people who love to do the same should join. Plus, you'll look smart to your boss. :-)

Give me a three sentence description of your latest research on word-of-mouth marketing.

Let me tell you about three different projects, each in one sentence: I am refining a methodology that measures the conversational reach and outcomes of marketing initiatives designed to generate "talk value." I am also working with a colleague on measuring the value of customer WOM to the firm. And I am studying conversational trajectories of WOM episodes (that is, how people sequentially and inferentially move in and out of brand-related topics in the course of their everyday conversations).

How are universities teaching about WOM marketing today?

By saying that WOM is the most powerful form of marketing there is, and then devoting less than half a percent of the time talking about it. I actually calculated this one day to win a bet. My colleague though it was 1% of the time and I wagered that it was actually less. I took the most popular marketing textbook, counted the number of pages devoted to WOM and then divided by the number of total pages. But not every university is like this as there are some notable exceptions, such as Robert French at Auburn University who is doing some very neat things with WOM and social media. And there is more attention to WOM research now at the graduate level (see the WOMMA Academic Advisory Board members). I get about an inquiry a week from international students who want to study WOM so I think they're on top of it more than the US students. When I presented in Turkey last month there were two doctoral students who drove 7 hours to Istanbul to attend the first WOM marketing conference in that country.

Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts Lindsay!