A new study from BIGResearch has shown that Word of Mouth continues to be the most influential factor in consumer decisions.

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There’s nothing too earth shaking about this. But consider how Word of Mouth is defined today.

The Web has taken Word of Mouth, which used to be restricted by geographic realities, and exploded it outwards in all directions. Even the very phrase implies a face to face conversation, which by necessity restricts how quickly word of mouth could spread. But now, word of mouth encompasses consumer generated media, which means that stated opinions can spread much further and faster than ever before.

Perhaps the easiest way to judge the implications of the web effect on word of mouth is to strip it back to it’s essential meaning, and then work outwards again.

Word of mouth implies that you’re getting an opinion from someone who:

    1. is familiar with a product or service through personal experience; and,
    2. can be objective because they have no vested interested in whether you buy the item or service in question.

If it meets these two criteria, word of mouth has the ring of authenticity, which is rapidly becoming a valuable commodity on the Web. Historically, word of mouth came primarily from friends and family, so our circle of potential influencers was limited to a few hundred people at the most. We received our word of mouth recommendations in two ways. Either the person giving the opinion had become an evangelist for the product and was offering their opinion whether it was asked for or not, or we would seek out someone we knew who we trusted and who we knew to have previous experience with a product or service. For me, the second type of word of mouth was generally a little more influential. In either case, the reach was restricted, because there was no way for the average person to expand their communication network beyond their normal contacts.

If you took an evangelist and tried to expand their coverage, the value of the message eroded. If the vendor facilitated this, the authenticity decreased and the message became a testimonial. Influential, yes, but not truly word of mouth. Or if the person happened to have a forum that allowed them the spread the word farther, i.e. a newspaper columnist or a TV personality, the authenticity was lost and it became another celebrity endorsement. Again, influential, but missing the grass roots power of true word of mouth.

For word of mouth to be truly powerful, it has to live close to the ground, come from real people, and not have the faintest whiff of commercialism about it.

Now, look at what the empowerment and connectivity of the Web has enabled. If a person chooses to be an evangelist, they still sacrifice authenticity, even if distribution of the message is done digitally. But search allows consumers to connect to real people, just like you and I, who have shared their opinion on something with us online. This maintains authenticity, and opens up the new power of word of mouth.

Think of what sites like TripAdvisor has done for travel. If you were going to go to Florence and you wanted to find a hotel, what would be the odds 15 years ago of finding someone in your social circle that would have the personal experience necessary to give you the advice you were looking for? Probably slim. But now, through search, you can find a number of people who have all stayed at hotels in Florence and have shared their experiences, both good and bad. TripAdvisor uses this collective “word of mouth” to rate the hotels. It’s tremendously influential and it’s available to all of us.

This tying together of consumers into ad hoc ideological communities around a product or service is becoming tremendously powerful, and is completely redefining the principles of marketing and branding.

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