Word of Mouth Marketing: Measurable?

Word of mouth marketing is often overlooked in the world of internet marketing, as it is not technically “e-marketing,” and not “new,” so to speak. However, in today’s world of social media, instant messenger, and mobile phones, word of mouth marketing is more alive than ever. It’s becoming more and more of a better and more effective way to market and advertise your product or service.

Viral vs. Word of Mouth Marketing

Let’s take a minute to differentiate word of mouth marketing from viral marketing, as these are a few terms that some people sometimes get mixed up, or even use interchangeably. They overlap drastically, and are defined much differently by various professionals.

For example, Seth Godin, in his blog post “Is viral marketing the same as word of mouth?” says that:

word of mouth is a decaying function. A marketer does something and a consumer tells five or ten friends. And that’s it.”

Viral marketing, according to Godin, takes the phenomenon a step further:

“A marketer does something and then a consumer tells five or ten people. Then then they tell five or ten people. And it repeats. And grows and grows. Like a virus spreading through a population.”

Dave Balter, founder of both the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) and BzzAgent (which we will talk about later) looks at “viral marketing” from a different perspective in an interview with Guy Kawasaki:

“Viral marketing is typically reserved for programs where the advertising is talked about as opposed to the product itself. A good example are viral videos, where the humor trumps the brand, ala Cadbury Schweppes drumming gorilla video—humorous partly due to the Phil Collins soundtrack, of course—and the parodies which followed.

Word of mouth is the actual sharing of an opinion about a product or service between consumers. Your viral marketing only works if it gets people talking about the product itself. If it doesn’t, you might create some laughter and awareness, but there won’t be a change in sales.”

Although both Godin and Balter do an excellent job of defining their individual takes on these two terms, I have a slightly different way of looking at them.

Word of Mouth Marketing

Word of mouth marketing takes place mostly offline (although it can take place online). A marketer does something to impress an individual, and tells a few friends (through instant messenger, telephone, social network messages, or in person) about it.

Those people sometimes will pass on the message to some more friends. This third group may or many not pass on the message. Eventually, the message dies off. It’s basically a downward funnel. The message begins large and trickles down. This can be seen in the image provided (Click for larger view).

It is important to note that individuals could tell either nobody, one person, or multiple people, through instant messenger conversations, emails, group meetings, or any other communication medium. The conversations are usually on the small scale. Instead of announcing the news to a crowd of 50+, you are having a conversation about it with one or a few individuals.

Viral Marketing

Viral Marketing works in the opposite way. A marketer once again does something to impress an individual- whether it be a great viral video, or an extreme customer experience, and that individual goes forward to announce it to larger crowds, generally, rather than have a conversation with a few individuals.

Some mediums that are generally used in viral marketing include blogs, mass / group emails, forums, instant messenger, social networks, etc. It is more of a transfer from one person to a large group of people. Each one of the individuals in that group will continue to pass on the message to either another group of people or to one person.

In viral marketing, the message begins small and grows as more people, “announce,” or “shout” the message to larger groups of people. This can be seen in the diagram provided (click for larger view). The conversations usually taking place here are more one person talking to a large group of people, rather than a one on one conversation. More of the online mediums, such as YouTube, are used to promote a lot of the viral marketing materials out there.

It’s also important to point out that a Viral Marketing Campaign is more purposeful- it’s designed to attract attention and spread, where as word of mouth marketing is more, “accidental.” If an individual experiences an incredible customer service experience, they will share it- this is word of mouth. An example of something that’s typically viral is a video designed specifically to be viral.

But these are only guidelines- there could be a customer service experience that goes viral (Vincent Ferrari’s AOL Cancellation Audio).

As you can see, word of mouth and viral marketing are two very similar types of marketing that could very much overlap at some times, as they do.

Measuring Word of Mouth Marketing

After describing the nature of word of mouth and viral marketing, it might be questionable as to how this type of thing can be measured, and added into our total marketing mix so we can find out its ROI as compared to other marketing mediums, as well as to better track our overall marketing effectiveness.

Well today’s answer is BzzAgent. In Dave Balter’s own words:

“BzzAgent is a word-of-mouth media company. We have nearly 450,000 volunteers who learn about products and services through our network and share them with their friends in an open, natural way… Do you like tasty food or cool cleaning products? Sign up for our network and you may get into a campaign for Back to Nature Nuts or a new plug-in air freshener, and we’ll send you out some samples to try, and then you share your opinion however you’d like!”

This is how it works.

1. A company works through BzzAgent to begin creating “buzz” about their product through the volunteer buzz agents.

2. Eligible buzz agents are invited to the company’s “campaign,” which usually consists of some method of trying out the company’s product or service and some general information about the company.

3. The agents then try the product or service, and begin spreading the word to other individuals naturally, usually as it comes up in conversation. The agent then reports this conversation, or “buzz” about the product to BzzAgent in a few paragraphs.

4.The report is read by a real human, and an individualized response and “thank you,” is sent to the agent by a BzzAgent employee.

5. The reports are shared with the company, which act as the measurement!

More on Word of Mouth Marketing

Dave Balter wrote an incredible, 119 page Word of Mouth Manual: Volume II book, that is available for you to download from a variety of quality marketing bloggers.

You can also purchase your own, physical copy here if you’re like me and like to educate yourself while enjoying the sunshine. 🙂 But hurry! Only a few thousand copies were made and few remain.

I’ve read this book from front to back. Balter’s writing style is easy to read, the words are larger than usual, and the content is intriguing. If you’re interested in word of mouth marketing, this is something you can check out. And why not? It’s FREE!

You can find out more about this book and where you can download it by visiting the BzzAgent page promoting this book.

What are your thoughts?

What do you think about word of mouth marketing and viral marketing- do you disagree with my definitions, agree? Please share your comments and opinions so we can continue this conversation!


18 thoughts on “Word of Mouth Marketing: Measurable?

  1. Erica:

    Great article! I agreed with nearly everything you said, except I think of word-of-mouth as “purposeful” and viral as “accidental”, the reverse of what you had.

    I think what’s often overlooked with viral is the threshold it takes for me to like a video enough to forward it to friends. Viral is feast or famine and it’s mostly famine. For every “Numa Numa” hit, there are thousands of viral-wannabes that never catch fire (YouTube had over 6 million videos in 2006, but I’ve only seen a few hundred of them). The problem is there is no way to predict which video will catch fire.

    So, if I’m doing media buys to market a product I can spend money on a video that may or (more likely) may not be seen by many people. However, if I spend money on directed WOM I can at least guarantee a minimum number of conversation “impressions”.

    In baseball terms, viral gives me the best chance of a home run, but an even greater chance of striking out. With directed WOM, such as BzzAgent, I should at least get on base, maybe a single or a double, and get some return on my ad dollars. Most baseball managers would take consistent hits over the rare home run any day.

    Thanks again for the good article,

    (I don’t work for BzzAgent, but I’d like to 🙂

  2. I agree with Bruce. Viral is more accidental and word of mouth more purposeful. You can’t predict with certainty what will go viral, but you can make a good guess. The problem is in predicting human behavior. Good copywriters have learned that certain trigger words are more likely to get a response to a call to action. Therefore, you see those trigger words in sales copy a lot. But that’s no guarantee the content will go viral.

    Much of what goes viral pulls on people’s triggers in ways that can’t be predicted while some of what goes viral is due to somebody putting forth an intentional effort and making a good connection. While you can’t predict with complete accuracy whether Barry Bonds will hit a home run each time he comes up to bat, you can predict (based on statistics and past history) that he will likely hit a home run in the next game or when he faces off against a certain pitcher.

  3. Hey erica, really nice work. I live for WOM. Have you read two of my favorite books: Zag by marty neumier and also Brand Hijack by Alex Wipperfurth?

  4. I love Viral Marketing, and have had huge success with it, and I love word of mouth marketing and have had success with it as well. What I have figured out too, is that the success with either also depends on the product/service/whatever you are offering. In some cases the word of mouth has done more for me then I would have ever thought possible for some of my sites selling products.

    The kicker is, if you are good enough (at marketing online or in general) you can find just about anything in any industry to go viral with and that’s where all this becomes powerful!

  5. Hi Erica,

    I’m afraid that I have to disagree with your definitions because you fail to account for the time dimension in your diagrams and your description. Word of Mouth marketing is about repeat business as well as new business. With word of mouth marketing, although the numbers receiving the marketing message decrease with each degree of distance from the business, there are still more repeat customers being created. So six initial customers become 12 repeat customers and then 24 and so on. There is steady growth in the repeat customer base, but it takes time for this growth to occur.

    You need to consider a time dimension in viral marketing too. With viral, it’s about new customers rather than repeat customers. You’re trying to get lots of people to try your product or service right now, for the first time. If the product or service isn’t noteworthy, then customer interest will evaporate pretty quickly.

    Agree or disagree?



  6. Everyone- thanks for your opinions. The definitions of word of mouth and viral are most definitely undefined and not clearly agreed upon by many professionals, so it’s great to hear about what others think!

    Paul- I agree with what you’re saying, I think you took the definitions to the next level, bringing more variables in. Thanks for your input! I appreciate your comment, and for visiting the blog!

  7. Wow! You are so right! I think with all the hoopla surrounding social networking sites and the such, people have lost focus on what it really boils down to, word of mouth advertising. Anybody who owns a business, markets one or works for one should know that word of mouth advertising is worth more than a 30 second spot during the Super Bowl. Thanks for spreading the knowledge. Keep in mind, negative word of mouth can destroy a company, can anybody say Pan Am?


  8. It’s interesting to read the responses to this post. In particular “Viral is accidental”, “Word of Mouth is purposeful”, etc. But I think one aspect we all should consider is that viral CAN (and I’m sure is) used in a purposeful manner. The difficulty however (in my opinion) is finding the right person, with the right skills, tools (and the gift) to create effective viral “communication”. (That individual would need to be super tuned into the online community).

    I don’t think word of mouth is decaying however (I just don’t see that). Instead I think it’s an issue wherein word of mouth can help with long-term (steady response over a longer period) and viral for short-term (huge response over a short period).

    Am I wrong? 🙂

  9. @ BloggerSavvy and Scott: Thanks for the comments!! I agree with what both of you said. In general, it’s all relative…people have different definitions for different terms. But I think we can agree that word of mouth and viral marketing aren’t going anywhere!!

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