Social media and word of mouth are not the same thing

06 Mar 2012  |  David Brennan 
The Media Native

A series of blogs about the broadcast industry, narrated by David Brennan...

Ever since the emergence of Web 2.0 there has been a tendency to confuse social media and word of mouth. In reality, as we have discovered through valuable tools such as Keller Fay's TalkTrack research, one (social media) is very much a sub-set of the other (word of mouth).

Indeed, word of mouth is hardly a new phenomenon at all; it is simply that we have only recently begun to recognise its marketing power as a result of the transparency of social media. In fact, word of mouth is much more powerful than social media - it includes the 90%+ brand mentions that occur offline and there have been signs recently that it is this offline element of word of mouth that has been the main contribution to brands' success since social media first emerged as a mass market phenomenon.

Molly Flatt, social media guru of 1000 Heads, writing in the latest edition of ADMAP, suggests marketers need to take off the digital blinkers when it comes to word of mouth. They need to look at the overlap between consumers' online and offline friendship networks and how the two interact. This is reinforced by a fascinating presentation from Paul Adams, a senior researcher at Google called 'The Real-Life Social Network', which suggests our social media networks are a poor approximation of the depth, richness and complexity of our multi-layered, real-life social networks.

Although the offline element of word of mouth is more difficult to monitor and evaluate, this should not be enough to deter brands from simply focusing on the tiny minority of brand conversations that surface online.

Meanwhile, the social media metrics that have driven the market for several years are finally being properly evaluated and are found wanting. The value of a Facebook 'fan', for instance, has been questioned, considering that only a tiny minority of a brand's fans interact in any way with the brand via the social media site.

Only one major brand managed an interaction level among its fans of more than 2%, according to a study from the respected Ehrenberg-Bass Institute of Australia, in a report entitled 'Big Brands Snubbed by Brands on Facebook'.

The study reinforces a similar study by Keller Fay, which shows that the proportion of 'active fans' for the most popular brands is less than 0.5%. Dr. Karen Nelson-Field, who led the study, said: "Many brands moved quickly onto Facebook when it emerged as the new frontier for reaching an audience but it has since proved a challenge to engage with those who claim to 'like' them. This doesn't mean we don't think Facebook is an important part of the marketing mix - we do - we simply encourage marketers not to spend a disproportionate amount of time and money trying to facilitate engagement or drive loyalty when we know that's not going to happen with the push of the 'like' button."

So it is no surprise that Unilever has recently announced that it was moving away from a social media strategy to one embracing all elements of word of mouth - perhaps the only surprise is that it was noteworthy in the first place. Debbie Weinstein, senior director of social media innovation at Unilever, revealed that the FMCG giant has shifted away from using social media simply for fan acquisition, adding: "We are now looking to develop broader social CRM programmes and trigger advocacy through word of mouth."

This takes me back to a presentation at the 2008 (I think) Media 360 conference from Rachel Bristow of Unilever UK, who questioned the sales value of their social media activities, citing PG Tips as a prime example.

This is yet another example of online technology boosting and enhancing behaviours that have existed for centuries, millennia even, but being seen in the context of having created a revolution.

Until the industry takes a wider view of word of mouth, and adapts marketing strategies to embrace the full range of our interactions with our entire range of social, friendship and family networks, our ability to maximize its contribution to bottom line performance will be severely restricted. A good place to start would be with better measurement and analysis of what happens beyond that Facebook thumbs-up sign.


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