17 July 2008

If a direct mail piece falls in an empty mailbox, does anyone read it?

I've been using a break between projects to catch up on my work-related reading on marketing and project management. Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking by Andy Sernovitz was my latest read. The vignettes are enlightening and the unmitigated promotion of honest communication was refreshing.

I found a few references therein to the old 'information wants to be free' mantra that was hotly debated in the corridors of the Umich information services department 15 years back. I'm deeply satisfied to see that people are re-engaging in this dialog, and that it does seem again like the information will be free and there is now a structure vis-à-vis Google which rewards information-providers who unfetter their data by delivering them more hits.

"Giving away free content is a great way to get people talking.

"Give them market research, reports, white papers, webcasts, newsletters, anything. Free information provides rich, meaty topics that are perfect for starting word of mouth conversations. As you put more and more information out there, you feed deeper, more relevant discussions. Someone is much more likely to talk about new research that you have just given them than a one-off promotion." (p. 111)

Contrast this with the broadcast marketing approach, which seems sometimes like shouting out in that primordial forest and then wandering off, not even waiting around to see if any of the trees fall. Imagine for a moment that the tree falling is a sale; and that the tree is an actor in its own right, communicating in its fall to the other trees the benefits of succumbing to gravity. A word of mouth marketer would be out there in the forest, letting the other trees know why the first tree fell, helping to tell the story and engage the other trees. (Forgive me: I recognize this metaphor is a bit wacked, but hang in with me.)

I crave that quantitative data which can show me a connection between the marketing stimulus and the sales response, and worked hard enough fighting to make the system of record in a variety of companies give me that info to have experienced the costs of doing so and still be convinced of the benefits. That is the one area where I would have liked to see Sernovitz's book expanded; he talks a lot about the benefits of word of mouth marketing, but shows very little of the quantitative side of proving the merits of that approach. In future work, it would be lovely to see some more from him in this area.

On the plus side, Sernovitz's philosophical high ground of treating customer service as a potential profit center, driving more sales and increased customer loyalty, rather than treating them as a necessary evil is spot on. Too often the call center (or whatever it is called where you work) is treated as some kind of barnacle on the company mothership, siphoning off resources and headcount which could be better spent on more directly profit-centered activities. Instead, Sernovitz's book leads one to reconceptualize customer service folks as word-of-mouth ignition points, where every customer interaction is potentially a conversion point to get the customer to begin evangelizing your products and services to others based on your excellent service. Good customer service workers do this already, but are often unappreciated for their efforts - again, because it is hard to quantify the effects of word of mouth. We need to start measuring the benefits of a good customer service person in terms of how much positive word of mouth they generate; and then incent them appropriately.

If you're time-crunched and don't want to sit down with the book, first off I'm sorry that you'll be missing all these great vignettes. However Sernovitz is a realist and has prepared a distilled version of the book to share by word-of-mouth. AND bless his heart, he's given permission to share it -

1. Happy customers are your best advertising. Make people happy.
2. Marketing is easy: Earn the respect and recommendation of your customers. They will do your marketing for you, for free.
3. Ethics and good service come first.
4. UR the UE: You are the user experience (not what your ads say you are).
5. Negative word of mouth is an opportunity. Listen and learn.
6. People are already talking. Your only option is to join the conversation.
7. Be interesting or be invisible.
8. If it’s not worth talking about, it’s not worth doing.
9. Make the story of your company a good one.
10. It is more fun to work at a company that people want to talk about.
11. Use the power of word of mouth to make business treat people better.
12. Honest marketing makes more money.