OPINION: We need to catch up fast if we want to ownword-of-mouth

The industry has an opportunity to reclaim online communications from advertisers and marketers, says Alex Burmaster.

PR people were the first to really understand the value of measuring consumer-generated media online and the impact they could have on a brand or issue. So the industry should already own word-of-mouth (WOM).

WOM fitted nicely into the PR discipline, being based on trust, mutual relationships and, often, influential people. However, PR didn't end up dominating WOM. A few cutting-edge PR firms took it on, but overall the industry coasted - and other marketing disciplines caught up.

It's not too late for PR to claim the growing budgets now materialising. But this will depend on a shift in thinking and approach. PR has three main advantages. Firstly, WOM marketing is all about relationships - a core competency of PR. Brands trust PR people to manage relationships with influential people.

Unlike PR, other marketing disciplines know a lot about broadcasting one-way messages but little about the intricate nature of managing relationships and developing individual conversations.

Secondly, the PR industry has great experience in managing comms where messages are disseminated via unpaid channels such as news media and briefings. PR professionals strategically employ these uncontrolled and, often, participatory avenues to reach and influence target audiences.

Finally, PR has fine-tuned the art of dissecting the essence of brands and issues to position them in a credible way. Advertising people are experts at creating positioning in a controlled model, but PROs are most effective at creating positioning that resonates with sceptical influencers. The latter are the gatekeepers of consumer-generated media.

However, PR has challenges to overcome. Research must become a core competency. WOM marketing requires continuous tracking as consumers are in control - often causing messages to be fluid and unpredictable.

PR must also move out of its media-relations box to get a more holistic grasp of the entire comms mix. WOM is interconnected to advertising, promotions, direct mail, customer service and the product itself. A larger share of the pie requires thinking from this perspective.

The industry must invest in digital media knowledge and skills. The big opportunity lies in pairing existing competencies with a commitment to the tools to keep up with this rapidly evolving landscape.

Alex Burmaster is European internet analyst at Nielsen Online, the web analysis division of The Nielsen Company.

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