PR can - and should - take lead in word-of-mouth arena

When we started BuzzMetrics five years ago, PR people were the first to understand what we were doing - word-of-mouth research.

When we started BuzzMetrics five years ago, PR people were the first to understand what we were doing - word-of-mouth research.

They grasped the relevance of person-to-person communications and the impact that this type of advocacy could have on a brand or issue. Word of mouth fits into PR's construct: It is based on trust, mutual relationships, and influential people. PR pros seemed destined to lead this budding industry.

Five years passed and PR has yet to claim the driver's seat. What happened? First, a little context: Media fragmentation is wreaking havoc on the mass-marketing model. With the cost of traditional channels increasing while reach and effectiveness are decreasing, marketers are demanding new strategies. The reality for the marketing services sector is that budgets are increasingly being reallocated from traditional channels (especially TV) to alternatives - and word of mouth often tops the list.

There's a lot of money at stake, and therefore a word-of-mouth land grab is ensuing. This is evidenced by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), which boasts 120 member companies only seven months after launch. WOMMA members include the largest PR firms, as well as agencies in advertising, media, interactive, and other areas. Almost all are creating word-of-mouth practices.

Where does PR fit in the mix? While a few PR firms have taken word of mouth seriously, most have coasted as other marketing disciplines have caught up.

I'm still optimistic, though. PR has a legitimate shot at this channel. One thing is certain: PR's word-of-mouth leadership is contingent upon a fundamental shift in thinking and approach.

What does PR have going for it? First, word-of-mouth marketing is all about relationships, a core competency of PR. Every day, organizations look to PR pros to manage relationships with journalists, investors, analysts, academics, industry associations, and government leaders. Word-of-mouth marketing is strikingly similar, built largely upon relationships with influentials in communities of interest.

Second, PR pros are experts in unpaid communications. They strategically use uncontrolled and participatory channels to reach and influence target audiences, often with greater clarity and credibility than controlled channels.

Finally, PR has perfected the art of dissecting brands and issues, and positioning them so people will talk about them or perceive them a certain way. They are masters of creating persuasive messaging that resonates with skeptical influentials. These influentials are the gatekeepers of social networks. They control not only reach, but if, when, and how a message will be passed along to others.

While PR has many advantages, recent years have shown that it also faces shortcomings.

First, PR must make research and databases a core competency. Media planners, advertisers, and direct marketers have them in their DNA, but PR rarely does. This is a problem, as word-of-mouth marketing requires constant tracking and consumer insights more than any other tactic. Consumers are in control, and messages and perceptions are fluid. Moreover, research and databases enable scale and performance evaluation.

Second, PR pros sometimes admit they miss their higher calling - "managing relationships with stakeholders" - by overemphasizing media relations. To own word-of-mouth marketing, PR must move beyond media relations and develop fluency in the total communications mix. Word of mouth undeniably is interconnected with media relations, but it's also tied to advertising, promotions, direct mail, customer service, and the product itself.

Third, PR must reach beyond the corporate communications department because word-of-mouth budgets will live with the brand teams. Of course, this is an oft-stated goal of PR executives and is easier said than done.

But mastery of word of mouth is PR's ticket to those larger budgets. This also means PR must recruit diverse talent with a broader range of marketing acumen.

Finally, PR must invest in digital communications. The internet and open-source networks are amplifying word-of-mouth's impact enormously. They are forming a massive pool of consumer-created content that not only seeps into our lives, but represents the best proxy we have for studying word of mouth in the first place.

Consider wikis, blogs, message boards, chat rooms, product feedback sites, e-mail lists, and various other platforms. Consider the pervasiveness of this content and the people behind it whenever you research anything online. This is not a "geek thing" that can be relegated to the interactive group. It goes far beyond "blog relations." Digital media networks represent windows into how people communicate.

Some really smart PR people are making word of mouth happen today. But will the entire industry join these trailblazers? I don't know, but PR has a unique and enviable position in this emerging arena. It should take advantage of that.

  • Jonathan Carson is president and CEO of BuzzMetrics and co-founder of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association.
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