The origins of online word of mouth: Part 1

Dave Evans is the VP of Social Strategy for Lithium Technologies and author of the best selling book “Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day.” This blog post is part one of an excerpt adapted from his book.

Dave Evans' "Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day"

Early online word of mouth

Perhaps in one direct response to the growing sophistication of marketing and advertising — and our own growing consumerism — people began tapping the fledgling Internet as a place where they could share and extend collective thought.

Early member communities — CompuServe, AOL, Tripod, and Geocities, along with legions of focused efforts such as SmartGirl Internette (now SmartGirl.org) — evolved as the forerunners of the Social Web. Common to all of these was the exchange between members of information across a range of topics. On CompuServe it was technical; on AOL it was largely personal interest.

What mattered more though, in the long run, was that members were talking to members rather than reading scripted or editorial content provided by experts.

These early communities were built on the premise that the members would make the content.

Email was the original “killer app,” a term describing an application of a technology that is itself so compelling that everyone simply has to have it. Email pointed the way for an interpersonal-communications-oriented network. Content is just now emerging as the primary activity for those online: Up through about 2006, communications — not content — led in terms of the share of time that people spent online.

Think about the task-focused mom using the Web to compile and evaluate household needs or the family in search of a campground in the mountains. This type of use stood in contrast to media like TV, where entertainment and entertainment-style news ruled.

The shift to content that happened in 2006 was driven at least in part by the growth of consumer-generated content (and a good dose of professionally generated content) on sites like YouTube.

From a marketer’s perspective, the important element driving the surge in word of mouth is “trust.”

Given the damage done by pop-ups and spam, along with the ad industry’s relatively light response to the former and outright embracement of the latter, the value of “trust” between friends and colleagues gained in its role in purchase decisions. It is exactly this sentiment that drives word of mouth, and now social media. The dynamics of trust have long been part of the marketing conversation.

Early studies on advertising and trust confirmed what many had suspected: advertising is a great way to hear about something new, but the information presented is not, by itself, considered “trustworthy.” Hear about it in an ad, but then ask your friends if it’s any good.

Pete Blackshaw bought a Honda hybrid based on the ads and pre-purchase research. A whole lot of people since have purchased a Toyota Prius based on his well-documented post-purchase experience.

Word of mouth, from a consumer, is generally considered trustworthy.

But what about when the source is a marketer? How can you use word of mouth in your own campaign? This same question turns out to be fundamental to the use of social media. Parodies of the “truth in advertising” aside, there is a basic, healthy human skepticism present whenever someone is making the case for why you need what he or she is selling.

It’s the cross-purposes of the transaction — in its most extreme an outright conflict of interest — that gets in the way. If I profit by your purchase, then I have at least one reason to push for closure that may not be aligned with my regard for your best interest. The interest in my making a sale invariably colors the transaction.

Word of mouth marketing firms such as BzzAgent go to great lengths to ensure disclosure on behalf of their clients; that they have to do this in the first place makes the case for why nontransactional word of mouth is considered “trusted.” By comparison, marketers — regardless of otherwise positive attributes of the brand– always have an incentive to make the sale.

This is why transparency — the outright, unambiguous disclosure that you are in fact a marketer — is so essential in both word of mouth and social media based campaigns. It is perhaps the most powerful point on which you can establish trust.

“If I am willing to disclose my own self-interest, then there is good reason to consider ‘truthful’ the balance of what I might say.”

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About Dave Evans

Dave is the VP of Social Strategy at Lithium, based in Austin, TX. Dave has worked in social technology consulting and development around the world and the author of best-selling "Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day" and "Social Media Marketing: The Next Generation of Business Engagement." Dave is a regular columnist for ClickZ, and a frequent keynoter.

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