The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) is arguably among the fastest-growing trade groups.
Now 300 member companies strong, this November alone it added 30 new ones. But with growth comes challenges, as well as an opportunity to educate the marketing industry, media, big business, and critics about what it is that WOMMA does - a large part of which falls to its CEO, Andy Sernovitz.
As Sernovitz will attest to, the word-of-mouth marketing concept is not new. People have been suggesting favorite restaurants, products, and stores to friends for years. But as a marketing tactic, it has exploded in popularity within the past two years, something that makes an entity like WOMMA all the more necessary.
"I think word-of-mouth marketing is a more important marketing innovation than the Internet was," says Sernovitz. "Word of mouth is saying that we, the marketers, no longer control the message; we're going to hand it to people and let them do whatever they want. Nothing like that has ever been done in the world of business."
As with any marketing tactic, word-of-mouth marketing has had its critics. The disclosure issue has gotten broad recognition of late, given the recent incident with Edelman's blogging work for Wal-Mart. While WOMMA put Edelman on probation for six months, some criticized the group's response as not being harsh enough.
Sernovitz says that such slip-ups are natural, however, and that WOMMA's ethical guidelines calling for full disclosure by all its companies are of utmost importance.
"Companies will make mistakes as they learn," he says. "It will keep happening, and we will keep teaching them the right way. We won't let this business be corrupted."
The existence of stealth marketing companies, whom Sernovitz refers to as the equivalent of word-of-mouth spammers, is a constant challenge. "WOMMA will fight them and keep pushing them out of business," he asserts. "We'll make sure our members don't accidentally hire them."
Communicating that WOMMA is "one of the good guys" can be a daunting task, but a rewarding one.
"People are skeptical of corporate organizations," he explains. "But when we talk to the skeptics and they realize that ethics is something genuine here, they're surprised, [but] then we make good friends. We probably have more friends on the anti-business front than any other marketing group."
Scott Wilder, group manager of Intuit's online communities and VP of WOMMA's board of directors, says Sernovitz possesses great insight into how all companies can leverage word-of-mouth marketing to their benefit.
"He's extremely approachable and so passionate about this space," Wilder says. "It comes through whenever he speaks. You can't really fake these things."
He adds that Sernovitz excels at turning to WOMMA's board to bounce ideas or develop policies.
"He positions it as if he works [both] for the board and for the WOMMA community," he adds.
As WOMMA grows, there are certain issues it must tackle. Like most other marketing disciplines, measurement tops that list. Sernovitz notes that the group has been making real progress on that front.
Ultimately, WOMMA's role is to set examples for its member companies and take the hits when controversy arises.
"What makes our job harder, but more interesting, is that word of mouth and social media are about freedom," he explains. "[They're] about real people saying what they want to anyone, yet word-of-mouth ethics is about teaching restraint. It's not sticking your marketing message in other people's faces. We are always looking for ways to make sure we simultaneously teach how to participate and how to participate correctly."
Founder, Association for Interactive Marketing