Word of mouth offers alternative to ads in public affairs

Be it vacuums or political candidates, the opinion of someone you know and trust always counts more than that of a stranger. In the realm of public affairs campaigns, among others, word of mouth can be cheaper than ads.

Be it vacuums or political candidates, the opinion of someone you know and trust always counts more than that of a stranger. In the realm of public affairs campaigns, among others, word of mouth can be cheaper than ads.

As Charlie Jones, CMO for Alexandria, VA-based RedPeg Marketing, notes, the media market in the past 20 years has gone from relatively monolithic - three major TV networks, two or three papers per market - to totally fractured. A public affairs campaign depending on ads to convey its message can't cover all the practically uncountable sources of news today.

Instead, why not offer a real-life, tactile experience much more likely to stick in people's minds than an ad viewed passively or in passing? For instance, an environmental conservation group might put together a demonstration with tanks full of polluted vs. clean water for people to view in urban downtowns, says Jones, whose company specializes in experiential marketing.

"You need to create an experience," he explains. "With efforts like this, it's word of mouth from others that attracts more people.'"

Mike Krempasky, a DC-based director of blogging projects for Edelman, says word-of-mouth strategies that work in real-world situations can also be applied online. Republican political organizers did well in 2004 by using local residents to get out the vote instead of busing in paid professionals, and the same principle applies online with political Web sites like Townhall.com, he notes.

"The whole theme there is, what can we do to help people talk to their neighbors better?" says Krempasky.

In applying those strategies online, PR pros must find the right Web sites to target. Evan Kraus, the head of APCO Worldwide's APCO Online division, says it's helpful to find a messenger unconnected to the organization.

For oil and gas companies looking to explain rising prices, for example, a public affairs campaign would do well to identify online experts, such as economists or bloggers who frequently write about the issue and have a following, Kraus says. If they can be persuaded, they then might go discuss it with their own voice.

"It's not always just outreach to reporters," Kraus says. "We have to look as broadly as possible at who has credibility and who is out there speaking."

Key points:

Word-of-mouth efforts can be cheaper than ads and create more emotional connections with people

Online activity can bolster word-of-mouth efforts

Third-party messengers carry more weight than companies or paid professionals pushing a position

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