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.

What Are We All Supposed to Say Now?

The current pandemic has radically changed a lot of things about business, at least for now. Some of the most important to consider are the timing, nature, and format of customer conversations. As one business executive asked, “What in the world are we supposed to say now?” Everyone I speak with is anxious--for themselves, their teams, and their customer relationships. They still need to sell, but cannot come across as tone-deaf or pushy. Leaders want to set an optimistic and energetic tone--even when they have little idea themselves what is around the next corner. They feel the pressure to prepare for a surge in demand, although the timing and degree of a surge is anyone’s guess. Based upon some work I am doing with clients, and good practices I have been seeing across the state and country, I offer two pieces of guidance that might be helpful today. First, your team needs a high level of comfort and confidence in leading conversations, including the virtual type. Yes, while Zoom is for some becoming another four-letter word, it is serving a vital purpose. At the moment we don’t have access to the meetings, conferences, retreats, business reviews, store visits, or even community events that organically lead to valuable business conversations. Therefore, business teams need to be proactive in using what’s available. The second point extends beyond the format of your customer conversations to also include their tone and content. Today’s environment requires a new emphasis on empathy; one's expertise, experience, and network are rarely sufficient to build trustworthiness. As I wrote in my book, "It is only through conversations that you can demonstrate that necessary quality of empathy, thus activating your relationships and putting your expertise to its best can ease customers' anxieties and demonstrate that you will be working in their best interests." In a Zoom-heavy world, our simple humanity is more visible. (I’m thinking of the many unexpected pet and/or child appearances during virtual meetings.) This is often refreshing. But whether or not video is part of a particular conversation, the humanity and empathy should still shine. The leaders I speak with agree this is the time for less “pitching” and jumping to the demo or proposal. It’s the time for more open questions, active listening, and focus on exactly how your offerings help buyers in this time of need. Will this new conversational world extend beyond 2020? Will we be Zooming to this degree forever? My crystal ball is admittedly cloudy. Yet based upon past crises and disruptions, I suspect we are looking at a mixed bag. Things will not go back to the way they were, but the foundations (including our need to gather in community, in person) will remain. I was thinking waaaay back to my undergraduate days, taking a particular (what I thought would be easy) elective in Music Appreciation. One of the few things I remember is the concept of “song form,” in which a given piece of music commonly has a first section (call it A) followed by a related but contrasting section (B) then back to the A section. However, my instructor called that third section “A-prime” to illustrate that it’s a little different than the original A section (such as with more ornamentation, as the instructor called it). Professional life beyond this outbreak will in many ways change. For example, we will reconsider how organizations and associations meet (perhaps with more small and regional events for a while, like workshops and retreats, and fewer big national gatherings). If your business has used sponsorships at trade shows as a primary means to generate demand, then how should you adjust? At the same time, resilient businesses are getting back to basics even as they adjust their product mix or modes of delivery. They might well emerge stronger than ever. Our business world could use more genuinely helpful conversations, whatever our “A-prime” looks like.

Marketing Is Not This

Marketing has always meant different things to different people. For many, marketing is associated with communication to customers and prospects--advertising messages, slogans, and logos. Others tend to focus on the digital or social sides of things. If you have ever taken a marketing class, then you likely learned the “4 Ps” of the marketing mix: product, promotion, pricing, and place. (“Place” generally referred to distribution strategy…but I suppose “4 Ps” sounds better than “3 Ps and a D.”) All of those assumptions still apply, yet they are no longer the complete story. These days marketers are also charged with (among other things) driving leads and revenue, creating an excellent customer experience, protecting the organizational brand and reputation, and building the technology needed for future success. According to the tech-research firm Gartner, chief marketing officers (CMOs) are now spending as much or more on technology than are chief information officers (CIOs). In order to meet new expectations, I’m finding that marketing leaders are necessarily shedding old assumptions and identities. As a former chief marketing officer and now advisor, I have dealt with this metamorphosis firsthand. ...

Five Myths of Messaging

The topic of messaging continues to be a hot one for marketers – at all levels and across industries. Whether your marketing world is B2C, B2B, or a combination (as it was for me while a CMO), the right words, stories, and pictures can set you apart. Messaging drives differentiation, even without you necessarily having to change your pricing, distribution, people, or product offerings. My definition of messaging is simple: the way people talk about the business. Those people doing the talking certainly includes executives as well as customer-facing workers. But many others could be—or should be—talking about the business. What are “back-office” workers, current customers, alumni, suppliers, and various professional friends saying as well? Some executives find the whole topic of messaging to be a bit soft and mysterious. It does involve varying helpings of strategy, branding, communications, and psychology. Still, effective messaging might be more practical and accessible than you think. ...
For Better Sales and Marketing Messages, First Get Everyone Uncomfortable

For Better Sales and Marketing Messages, First Get Everyone Uncomfortable

La-Z-Boy sells a lot of recliners. I don’t believe they win a lot of design awards, but then again their customers likely put a low priority on being fashion-forward in the family room. The recliner buyers wants to be comfortable and those big cushy chairs can indeed deliver comfort. That might be fine at home—but on the job comfort can wreck your marketing and growth plans. Too often I see internal teams running on auto-pilot in the ways they deal with customers and prospects. On the external side, you can be sure that competitors are trying to make your customers a little uncomfortable. And we have to make prospects similarly uncomfortable in order for them to consider doing business with us. ...
How My 14-Year-Old Son Wrote a Better Speech Than I Could

How My 14-Year-Old Son Wrote a Better Speech Than I Could

I was stunned when our 14-year-old son approached me with his idea. He wanted to run for President of his eighth grade student council. That, in and of itself, is not terribly remarkable, but it was certainly a departure for our son. He has struggled with anxiety issues for years. Because part of the process of running involves giving a short speech in front of a large student assembly, my wife and I would never have pushed him in that direction or even expected him to be comfortable with the idea. And my wife was even president of a high school class of more than 700 students! I am a professional speaker. I would typically be the person running toward the stage rather than away from it. Yet I was the one getting uptight. What if it didn't go well? What would be the impact on his confidence? ...
Ask Customers This in 2018

Ask Customers This

Sometimes, assumptions can hold our businesses down. I have come to recognize at least one assumption that often keeps businesses from selling more to their existing customers. The benefit of escaping that assumption can mean increasing your revenue by ten to twenty percent—or more.  The assumption is that your customers—even the loyal, longtime ones—know all of the things you offer. Why wouldn’t they? I mean, how long has your average customer been doing business with you? We are all creatures of our comfort zones. Your customers might be quite comfortable in what they buy from you today, how they have dealt with you in the past, and how they have come to think of you over time. ...
A Big Risk for a City such as Little Rock?

A Big Risk for a City such as Little Rock?

Has your company ever seen a Request For Proposals (RFP) that you knew you likely couldn’t win? Your options might include ignoring it altogether, tossing the “Hail Mary” pass in hopes for a miracle result, or perhaps just doing the basics in order to keep your name out there. This year’s Mother of All RFPs might be Amazon’s open competition for its second headquarters location. According to The Wall Street Journal, the company expects to spend $5 billion on the project over nearly 20 years. ...
Mangled Message: I Never Sausage a Bad Mascot

Mangled Message: I Never Sausage a Bad Mascot

Our latest Mangled Message™ illustrates the messiness of “sausage-making.” Actually, in this case, it is a big mess caused by sausage-mascot-making. Denny’s recently introduced a new mascot that is intended to be a sausage—a more humanized, hat-wearing sausage. Much of the intended audience—at least the loud subset of the audience which is active on Twitter—has interpreted it otherwise. Let’s just say that their descriptor rhymes with “bird.” Or “absurd.” And there are a lot of bathroom references. And hashtags such as #literallypoop. ...

Steph Curry and Nike’s PowerPoint Blunder

“Find” and “Replace” would have saved millions for a particular group of Nike executives.

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