Word of Mouth Marketing is overrated

Two women in conversation in an open market
Two women in conversation in an open market – Photo by Alicia Steels on Unsplash

Of all the overused maxims about brands and marketing, Word of Mouth is at the pinnacle. It presumes that most brand users are eager and willing to talk about their product experiences to friends, family and an extended social network.

Marketing plans that rely on brand salience through ‘free publicity’ are headed towards the cliff. The oft-quoted examples, Google and Facebook spend far more on marketing and advertising that is commonly known.

The Proof of the Pudding

How many messages do we get every day?  Photo by Yogas Design on Unsplash
How many messages do we get every day? Photo by Yogas Design on Unsplash

Try this simple test. Scan the received messages on your messaging app. Every day, there is a new ‘breakthrough’ in product innovation, the treatment of cancer, a way to rid the world of plastic and the perfect diet that leads to weight shedding in a matter of days.

With breathless urgency, the sender asks you to forward it to all the groups you know and ‘help’ others. How many of those messages have you acted upon? None? But if just one of those messages had been forwarded, the world would have been a different place. That is presumption. And sadly, it holds true for all aspects of living. We have a theory of how things work and build our world around it.

Ask the organizers of a college event the struggle they went through to get speakers and then an audience for an event. Conducted for free, mind you. If it was a paid event, the odds are exponentially higher – of failing!

How many times have we decided to buy a product and paused just before paying for it? Or forgotten to restock groceries? Or kept reminders to pick things up and forgotten after being reminded? Typical behavior? That’s how most people function, not as perfectly programmed buying machines, much as companies would like them to behave. 

No sale is a straight line – Marketing Funnels and AIDA Marketing

Marketing conversions aren't straight lines  Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash
Marketing conversions aren’t straight lines Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash

The four-step theory of building a marketing funnel through AIDA – (Awareness, Intent, Decision, Action) is like most theories, great in the classroom with embarrassing gaps in real life. If you don’t believe this, take a deep breath and think of the last purchase you made. It could have been anything, a thermos flask or a hotel booking. In your mind, detail the steps you went through and note them down.

Finished? What do you see? A straight line? Or a series of stop-start, forward-backward, remembered-forgotten steps? That’s pretty much how it is for everyone. Taking decisions decisively is not one of mankind’s strong points. And the reason is simple. The imagined experience of purchasing a product is far better than the actual experience. It doesn’t follow a logical process. 

Haven’t we all had this experience? In decisions where the whole family is involved, for example, in the purchase of a TV, brand names are tossed back and forth based on the knowledge, hearsay, experience, and recommendations from each of the family members. Everyone pitches the brand they most prefer. At that time, each one becomes a brand salesman and the intent is to help their personal choice prevail. Then, they troop into a showroom, meet a super-smart salesman and end up buying a brand none of them had originally intended.

Now, which theory were we talking about?

Word of Mouth Marketing Scenarios

Brands as part of conversations  Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash
Brands as part of conversations Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash
  • A recommendation from a friend: Now let’s say that a person you know suggests a certain brand of face cream. Are you going to buy it right away? So many factors influence your behavior. How close you are to that friend? What is your past experience of acting on her recommendations? Do you consider her an expert? What are the dynamics of the relationship? Does she listen to you or the other way around?
  • Recommendations from the boss: Now this is one scenario where the Word Of Mouth works perfectly. Especially with a boss who is completely dominant. Even if employees think the purchase is a terrible idea, they are unlikely to push back. 
  • You overhear a conversation about a brand: This is one area where you are likely to be influenced, even if you don’t know the people concerned. If they spoke authoritatively, dressed well and articulated the brand characteristics, chances are you would remember and consider the brand favorably in the future. Why? As a bystander, you don’t have a stake in the conversation or the relationship, so you think the recommendation was impartial. 
  • Recommendation from a person you don’t trust: No matter how good the product or service is, it is permanently doomed to be on the don’t-ever-buy list. Simply because the character of the person makes all their choices are suspect
  • Recommendation from a person you dislike: This is a little trickier because you may not like the person but you admire their choice in clothes and food. And it can go both ways – you decide that you are not going to imitate them, or buy precisely what they have suggested and pretend you didn’t know they had recommended it.
  • Recommendation through social channels: In the early years, when product recommendations were through influencers who first seeded their network with genuine effort and value, they worked well. But automation and click-through bots have made a mockery of what used to be a pertinent metric. Good luck finding an influencer whose followers are highly involved, real and willing to buy everything that is sold to them.

Even Word Of Mouth champions spend massive sums on marketing

What Facebook spent on marketing from 2010 to 2018
What Facebook spent on marketing from 2010 to 2018

In a revealing article from the Motley Fool, the marketing spends for brands that claim to have grown ‘organically’ is suspect. These are brands like Slack and Dropbox. If you haven’t heard of them, those millions spent haven’t made an impression on you yet. The IPO filing for Slack, at a $30 billion valuation shows spends over 50% of their turnover on branding and marketing! Where’s the Word Of Mouth here? It’s all old-fashioned marketing and advertising being used for building the brand. Even if they want to hide behind a fig leaf, that’s fine. The truth is that no marketing outreach is free

Facebook limits the organic reach of posts to less than 10 people or less. LinkedIn is a little more generous because they want to build a social feed for business to counter Facebook. Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram ensure that they distinguish between personal and businesses posts on their networks.

So can a brand be built for FREE?

Can a brand be built with Zero spends?  Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash
Can a brand be built with Zero spends? Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash

The one-word answer, NO. You can probably create a brand presence in a street, a locality or a very limited market at a minimal cost. Gyms, Local salons, etc. But if your customers are spread across cities and countries, tough luck. It also depends on what your definition of ‘Brand’ is. If it means that you want to be known for a certain product or service by name and you hawk it personally on your time and effort, you may be successful enough for sustenance but if you stop promoting it, no one is going to seek you out and ask for your services.

Sad but true.

There are ways to make your money go further through optimal spends and consistent messaging. For more details, drop us a line: contact@ideascape.in