I attended a very interesting session on Word of Mouth (WOM) this morning at ACR titled "What Drives Word of Mouth: A Multi-disciplinary Perspective". I'm sure the buzzphrase "media of the masses" is old news to many, but I appreciated the twist on mass media as a corporate vocabulary rendering of "user generated content" and long tail many to many communications.
It's challenging to summarize the results directly, so I'll cherry pick some of the more concise insights. If you only take one thing away from this post, realize that word of mouth marketing was challenging to study prior to the internet. It's now something that can be quantified and, potentially, manipulated.
Novelty and originality may generate buzz, but usefulness trumps all.
Heck, a Technorati buzz chart showed up in one of the presentations.
The first study, "The Different Roles of Product Originality and Usefulness in Generatoring Word of Mouth" by Moldovan, Chattopadhyay, and Goldberg, showed that across a range of laboratory experiments and a real world look at products, originality drives the amount of word of mouth activity, but usefulness is still the key determinant of market share and of the polarity of commentary. In other words, you may be able to get people to talk about a novel product, but if it's not useful, the commentary won't be especially productive. This may not seem counter-intuitive, but to be able to reproduce it in the lab and across numerous product histories shows that even marketing can't trump usability.
Positive word of mouth outnumbers negative by 3 to 1.
The 2nd study, "Opening the Black Box of Buzzing Bloggers" (Kozinets, De Valck, Wilner, & Wojnicki) looked at a case of a company distributing a gadget to a set of bloggers. The bloggers were given the device and asked to talk about the product. In general, sponsorship generated a different type of buzz than organic word of mouth. While 80% of the bloggers wrote about the product, they typically included a least one thing they didn't like.
The final study is too deep for casual summary but the presenter did reference a very tangible and well established finding: positive word of mouth outweighs negative across numerous research projects and cultures 3 to 1 (East, Hammond, & Wright in IJRM 2007). This contrasts only slightly with the first study, and suggests to me that if you've got something useful to promote, do everything you can to drum up word of mouth. The odds are in your favor.
Here's a shout out to my (few) fellow ACR bloggers at Brandthroposophy & the UCR E-Lab (fix your RSS Feed!), and DecisionScienceNews.com