Why Word-of-Mouth Still Dominates Post-Pandemic

What is happening with good ol’ word-of-mouth?

This question is vitally important for the growth of nearly any business. Word-of-mouth (WOM) tends to drive your reputation and consumers’ choices far more than do other communication channels. But because mouths have often been behind masks during the past twelve months, it makes sense to examine whether the nature of WOM itself has been altered.

A couple of years ago, when I began updating research for my book, I found multiple credible sources revealing that more than 90 percent of word-of-mouth (WOM) happens offline. The research generally defined “offline” to include face-to-face conversations as well as phone, email, texts, and video chat (in other words, communication channels other than social media posts). And within that large category, face-to-face dominated.

For an update, I turned to a 15-year review from the firm Engagement Labs. (I have no connection to them, but their data seems reliable and it is consistent with what I see in practice.) Their review, released in January 2021, has several important takeaways for your business:

Face to Face (remarkably) still dominates. A few years ago, nearly three-quarters (74%) of all offline WOM was happening face-to-face. Today—yes, through a pandemic—a strong 66% of WOM is still face-to-face. The proportion by phone is holding steady at 17%, Texts and IMs have risen to 8 percent, with the remainder spread across video chats and real-time social media communications.

One side often feeds the other. You might reasonably ask, “Isn’t there overlap between the things people post and see in social media, and the things they talk about in real time?” You would be right. These days nearly a quarter of offline WOM includes people talking about things they see in digital media. The implications I see for business growth include (1) making sure your team knows what is being posted in social media, and (2) equipping your team to extend the conversation.

Most industry categories are up. By industry—as Engagement Labs defines them—the top categories for WOM have more or less held steady since 2007. Their top industry categories, in order, are: Media/Entertainment; Food and Dining; Beverages; Retail and Apparel; and Technology.

The fastest-growing categories are: Household Products (up 102% in volume); Home (up 53%); Health and Healthcare (up 38%, and notably up 22% before the pandemic); and Personal Care/Beauty (up 34%). Automotive, telecommunications, and travel all declined.

Offline WOM accentuates the positive. Any good marketing or communications pro will attest: It’s not just the volume of WOM that is important but also its tone. Is the conversation helping or hurting?

If you have spent any time on social media, then you can appreciate its polarity. People share (or even concoct) the best of their lives and are quick to gripe about, well, almost anything. In contrast to social media, offline WOM is generally positive (and increasingly so). In 2007, nearly two-thirds of it was “mostly positive” with less than 10% “mostly negative.” Today 69% of offline WOM is mostly positive and only 7% is mostly negative.

What is the implication of all this, post-pandemic? Recognize the primacy of offline WOM, and don’t leave the management of it to chance. Your potential messengers (including employees, customers, distributors, partners, and friends) will indeed talk about you in their everyday conversations—if they feel comfortable in knowing what to say, and if you are top-of-mind in those moments.

You can’t control that outcome, of course. You can, however, make sure your marketing and sales messages are carved into interesting, bite-sized conversational nuggets. You can then share those nuggets with a wide range of potential messengers, and feed the system through thanks and acknowledgment.

The offline world retains its oversized influence. Your business can shine in the many offline conversations that are happening this very day.

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