Conversation Starter

Last summer my wife and I spent a couple of weeks in Sardinia and we loved every moment of it. When we got back, we told all our friends about this gorgeous island, but then something happened: we stopped. If you were to plot on a graph how much we talked about Sardinia, you would see lots of activity around August, a little less in September and almost nothing after that.

Many marketers don’t realize that buzz about their brands follows a similar pattern: consumers talk about the products when they use them and then they gradually stop. In their study “How Valuable Is Word of Mouth,” V. Kumar, Andrew Peterson and Robert Leone found that while 81 percent of customers of a telecommunications firm said they intended to recommend the company, only 30 percent did. “The trouble is that most good intentions remain just that,” the study noted.

This is why marketers need to trigger conversations. But while we hear a lot about “joining the conversation,” my focus here is on conversations between a customer and her friends, not between a customer and a company. Clearly, an open, two-way conversation with customers can affect what they’ll tell others, but even one-way communication tools, such as direct mail or traditional ads, can trigger recommendations. In fact, counter to the view that word of mouth is the exclusive result of social media or nontraditional marketing, research from the Keller Fay Group shows that when people talk about brands, they often refer to good old traditional ads.

A trigger can be simple. The LiveStrong bracelet triggers conversations about living with cancer. Samples from the Kiehl’s store trigger you to talk about skin care as you hand those packets to friends or family. In the case of Sardinia, a link to a video or some pictures could have acted as triggers. All we needed was a reminder.

There’s another reason to be proactive:  secondhand buzz. Robert East, a British researcher, found that 33 percent of those who gave negative advice to a friend about a camera never owned that brand. People talk not only about products they have used, but also relay other people’s opinions. My favorite example is a review of a book I found on Amazon: “I haven’t read this book, but judging from the online reviews below, I don’t think it’s a very good book.” Pretty annoying, isn’t it? People who have never owned your product are telling their friends how bad it is. Counterbalancing this trickle (and it’s usually a trickle) of negative buzz by encouraging happy customers to tell others about their experiences is another reason why companies should trigger honest, positive word of mouth.

Triggering conversations, of course, can affect your bottom line, especially if you consider the value of time. Everybody understands the value of having a new customer, but most people don’t think of it in terms of having a new customer early. Barak Libai from Tel Aviv University demonstrated with his colleagues that certain programs designed to accelerate word of mouth can have significant monetary value, especially in a competitive environment. If I become your customer today instead of 12 months from now, you start to enjoy my revenue stream a whole year earlier. Equally important: you enjoy my recommendations a whole year earlier and the revenue streams from my friends who start to use your product. When launching a new product or service, this acceleration can be critical, especially in industries such as entertainment, media and high tech.

The most important driver of word of mouth is the consumer experience itself. But as I pointed out, this buzz is short lived. Later on, conversations pop up pretty randomly. Thinking back, I can recall a couple of times we mentioned Sardinia after September. Some friends told us about their vacation in Hawaii which, of course, reminded us of our favorite island. Another conversation was triggered by sardines listed on a restaurant menu. This got us into a deep discussion with our friends about which came first — sardines or Sardinia (I’m still not sure). People spend a lot of time talking with friends. If you want your brand to be included more often in these conversations, you need to be proactive. People won’t talk about you if they don’t want to. But those who do want to sometimes need a conversation starter.

Publish date: April 12, 2010 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT