Word-of-mouth, PR are a good fit

A recent PQ Media study reports spending on word-of-mouth marketing in 2006 was nearly $1 billion, up from $76 million in 2001, and is expected to grow to approximately $3.7 billion by 2011.

A recent PQ Media study reports spending on word-of-mouth marketing in 2006 was nearly $1 billion, up from $76 million in 2001, and is expected to grow to approximately $3.7 billion by 2011. The findings validate word-of-mouth marketing as an industry and should make PR pros take notice.

Evidence of the boom is in the coverage. A search yields 1,786 articles on the subject in the last two years alone. With publishers seeding galleys to book groups, Broadway show promoters using text messages to engage younger audiences, and Martha Stewart launching a blogging network, it seems there's nothing hotter.

Because word of mouth is about dialogue, it's a natural fit with PR. It's centered on listening and participating, which have always been our focus. Many in the paid/controlled media arenas need to shift their mindset entirely.

The implication: PR should take a proactive, leadership role in the word-of-mouth marketing movement. That said, the landscape is changing quickly. The timing on the PQ Media study is interesting since the new year is traditionally about reflecting and planning. As an industry, let's resolve to:

Re-frame our thinking. It's not about controlling the message or broadcasting out. It's about open give-and-take and sharing the stage.

Earlier this year, I wrote an op-ed about Whole Foods' online communications snafu - CEO John Mackey disguised his identity when posting about his company online (PRWeek, July 23).

The grocer was lambasted for Mackey's actions and responded by banning executives from posting on third-party sites altogether.

Many leaders, including former Word of Mouth Marketing Association CEO Andy Sernovitz, (disclosure: a former client of ours), questioned the grocer's wisdom and suggested training staff to blog correctly instead.

This raises a vital question for every organization: How do we set boundaries without squelching a key pipeline of exchange, innovation, and potentially positive publicity? It's tricky, but must be done in a purposeful, balanced way.

Play the role of creator, but also embrace the shepherd role. Sometimes breakout word of mouth is about creating something out of nothing with an idea that captures the zeitgeist, is well packaged and provocative: Witness "The 4 Hour Work Week" phenomenon.

Other times, buzz building is more about looking, listening, and further cultivating what's been planted. When Victoria Beckham was photographed toting vegan diet guide Skinny Bitch, smart, aggressive management of the buzz turned it into a bestseller.

Educate ourselves on best practices.
We need to share case studies early and often. Word of mouth is dynamic, so what worked three months ago may not work three months from now.

Find strong, ethical partners.
Ethical behavior and authenticity are critical tools for any word-of-mouth marketing campaign. Partners must be held to the same standards as internal employees.

Seize the opportunity. To create effective word-of-mouth campaigns, we must be creative and tuned in. If we get bogged down in bureaucracy, or try to control information with a heavy hand, it won't work. Let's take the reins on word of mouth, but let's do so intelligently.

Victoria Grantham is the MD of Rose Communications.

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