Opinions R Us (and What You Can Do About It)

Let's face it. You may be crooning honest-to-goodness marketing truth sans any shred of hype, but these days that can amount to little more than hollering in a windstorm. What do the plugged-in, tuned-in folks making a buying decision today usually do? More often than not, they consult the opinions of other folks who are much more likely to communicate what really matters to them.

Word of mouth is a powerful beastie that doesn't submit to your business concerns. It is a communal watchdog that looks out only for your patrons.

Is that good for them and bad for you? It doesn't have to be!

The Goal is Increased Transparency

Consumer trust in people-just-like-me reviews has grown from 20% in 2003 to an amazing 68% today.1 There are simply no profitable reasons to remain a company that poses for the public and attempts to distort reality. The goal is to embrace transparency.

Perpetuating blindness or ignorance to what customers are saying about you, your products and your services is just plain stupid. If there are customer concerns out there, folks will find them. Awareness and understanding of how customers are talking about you-from their interests to their issues to the very language they use to express themselves-present you with chances to develop specific, necessary content that tackles matters head on. Even negative information gives you an opportunity to develop good will and better meet the needs of your customers by having the courage to address it rather than run from it.

Most companies still think any negative word of mouth is harmful. This is simply not true. The iPod Nano had so much word of mouth energy that when it first hit the market, the news that it scratched easily (and rather hideously) didn't hamper sales. It just created an accessory market for Nano protectors. The 'negative' word of mouth about the scratches had still another positive effect: it managed customer expectations of the product experience!

The Three Word of Mouth Triggers

When it comes to benefiting from word of mouth, it helps to understand the areas of consumer experience that trigger word of mouth. Roy H. Williams identified and labeled these triggers in a Monday Morning Memo.

Recall a time you participated in the word of mouth culture about your experience with a product or service. The experience that motivated you to share your story either exceeded your expectations or fell substantially below them. Either way, that word of mouth was a result of your experience with one or a combo of the following triggers.

Architectural. When a product or service is planned or controlled for a specific effect it is architectural. Aesthetics, a unique appearance and experience are architectural triggers.

Product examples - iPod Nano, Bose, BMW, Halo (video game), Moto Razr, Michael Graves

Experience examples - McDonalds playground, Apple retail store, Starbucks, Krispy Kreme store.

Kinetic. This trigger involves energy and 'performance' in the show business sense of the word. The fish market in Seattle, upon which the well known book/video Fish! was based, is the quintessential example of a kinetic trigger. Hipness, selection, fashion, and outstanding product performance are also kinetic triggers.

Product examples- Blackberry, Tony Hawk (video game), Red Bull, Starbucks products, Airborne.

Experience examples- Any slot machine, Cabelas store, HDTV, JetBlue, iTunes software.

Generous. When the perceived value substantially exceeds the price of a product or service, you've got a generous trigger. Extremely large portions in a diner, oversized seats on an airplane and consistently low prices are all generous triggers.

Product examples- Kia, Vonage, Skype, Hyundai, McDonalds Happy Meal Toys

Experience examples - A Great AYCE buffet, Costco, SteepAndCheap.com, the first generation of the iTunes Music store.

The more remarkable the experience, the stronger the word of mouth. Just barely exceeding expectations is not enough.

Using Customers Reviews

Customer reviews are one of the most potent tools in the transparent company's arsenal. But not all reviews are created equal. What makes for a useful customer review?

  • It has to be honest. Any sense of something professionally polished or edited comes off as phony or 'posed'.

  • It has to demonstrate a real experience with the product.

  • The more specifics and details about how the product helped the reviewer, the better the review.

You want to pay attention to the reviews that meet these three criteria. (You'll also notice the best customer reviews tend to speak to at least one of the three word of mouth triggers.)

Growing Word of Mouth

Turn negative reviews into an opportunity to generate good will. Our buddy Sam Decker of Bazaarvoice, a managed software solution that allows online retailers to encourage and monitor customer-to-customer conversations, shared this story about how one of their clients generates goodwill with vocal and influential customers. The client reached out to a customer who wrote a high quality, detailed review of an item, in which he praised the item's design and features but criticized its workmanship and durability. Because the product was a best seller with a very low failure rate, the client responded by replacing the product and asking to learn more about how the customer used the product. The net result was a very satisfied customer who will likely influence many other customers in a positive way.

Use reviews to create compelling copy for your products or services. Relying on the customer base to drive merchandising and marketing decisions, the same Bazaarvoice client is also using customer reviews to identify which items to promote and how to promote them. They feature highly rated products with copy that emphasizes the "unanimous customer approval" of the product.

Use reviews to improve products and services. The company is also planning to use reviews to identify product issues and then engage vendors in research and development discussions.

Word of Mouth Golden Rule

You can't polish a stinker. Now more than ever, your customers' actual experiences, good and bad, are part of the public domain. Sorry. If your product or service is a loser, no amount of spin, marketing or branding is going to fix it. Nothing is more effective than actually creating a product or service experience that people want to tell others about.

The Golden Rule in word of mouth marketing is to 'be real'. Work at and continually optimize customer experience with your product or service. Then - and only then - should you worry about spreading the word. Because if the experience customers have with you does not match the marketing hype you will get burned.

1 "'A Person Like Me' Now Most Credible Spokesperson for Companies." Edelman. http://www.edelman.com/news/ShowOne.asp?ID=102.

Volume 137: 8/15/06

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