Word of mouth is powerful but lacks some important qualities

by Nigel Hollis | May 27, 2019

Last week I was in Monterrey, Mexico, invited to speak at the internal marketing conference of packaged goods company Sigma. First up on the agenda was Jonah Berger, professor at Wharton Business School and author of the book ‘Contagious’, who, not surprisingly, was talking about the power of word of mouth. He delivered a great presentation, but I had to question some of his assertions.

Before I launch into my critique, let me say that I agree with the vast majority of what Professor Berger had to say, although the data geek in me would have liked to see a little more evidence behind his stories. However, there were a couple of things that I thought were designed to evoke interest in the book more than being a level-handed assessment of the power of word of mouth.

First off, let’s start with an assertion that Professor Berger made at the end of his presentation,

“Traditional ads do not work the way they used to.”

I am sorry Professor, but with access to pre-tests for over 200,000 ads (many of them in traditional media) and thousands of tracking studies and econometric models measuring the impact of advertising, I think we need to clarify that statement.

If traditional ads do not work the way they used to it is not because they are becoming less effective, it is because they are reaching less people. And, when it comes to reach, word of mouth still lags behind traditional media. Our CrossMedia findings clearly identify the power of word of mouth compared to traditional media but you cannot influence people if you cannot reach them.


So, is word of mouth a powerful means to reach people? Yes. Does it reach a lot of people? No. Professor Berger tried to frame the latter point as an advantage, and, again, to some degree this is correct, we are likely to tell people about brands and stories which we believe will be relevant to them. However, if you are a mass-market brand like those marketed by Sigma, word of mouth is more a nice bonus than anything else.

Having got that off my chest, the intriguing thing about Professor Berger’s presentation was that everything he said was important to promoting word of mouth could equally well be applied to creative executions designed for traditional or digital media. Identify the kernel of truth that you want to be conveyed by the word of mouth. We might call it meaningful difference, but yes. Show rather than tell, absolutely agree. Only use influencers if they offer a cheaper CPM by which to get your brand in front of people, makes sense to me.

And, lastly, one point on which we can definitely agree. Someone asked about negative word of mouth. Professor Berger asked whether it was the word of mouth that was the problem or the problem that caused the person to complain. Most people complain about brands for a good reason, and in which case, the best way to fix bad word of mouth is to fix the problem.

So, what do you think about word of mouth as a means to market a brand? When does it really make sense to pursue this at the expense of other marketing activities? Please share your thoughts.

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  1. Anand Parameswaran, May 28, 2019

    Hi Nigel,

    Interesting thoughts and I do agree with you that WOM tends to have a limited reach. Infact when we do NPS surveys we found out that even among the promoters only on-third have ever spoken about the brand to others. So intent to talk about the brand need not necessarily turn into action. Having said that there are categories where we see WOM playing a bigger role, Mobiles being one and also Credit Cards. Cards depends a lot on BTL activities and WOM is that carrier to talk about the features of the card, people tend to brag on the superior features if they are happy about it (related to they having used that feature - Golf Membership, Airport Lunge access etc)



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