Word of Mouth and Social Media Marketing… “Tipping Point”, or “Jumping the Shark”?

By Bob Troia
(note: This post isn’t meant to be a critique of the recent WOMMA Summit but rather my general observations about the evolution of the WOM industry as a whole.)

I recently returned from WOMMA’s Word of Mouth Marketing Summit in Las Vegas. It was a fun (yet sleepless!) few days and it’s always great running into/reconnecting with familiar faces as well as meeting new ones.

Historically, these events have always left me invigorated and full of new ideas. But this time, something felt… “different” (and it wasn’t the shots of Petron that we did at the Wynn just a few hours earlier after an all-night Blackjack marathon :) )

In the opening “State of WOM Address” given by WOMMA President John Bell, he said something along the lines of the word of mouth marketing industry reaching a “tipping point“. I think what he meant was that WOM is about to transition from a “niche” form of marketing and a tiny part of the overall marketing mix to a more “mainstream” tactic that is on the top-of-minds of any C-level executive.

Yes! I agree 100%! But after two days of panels and networking with people from a variety of backgrounds (brands, agencies, services), I started to wonder, could word of mouth marketing, rather than reaching a “tipping point”, be “jumping the shark“?

Thinking back to the “early” WOMMA events (2005), there was an electricity/excitement in the air. It’s really hard to explain, but everyone was drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid. The excitement wasn’t about what had been done, but about the potential of what could be done. There were far more questions than answers, but that was fine, because it was forcing people to think about things like tactics, metrics, and business models. And for brands, how can they sell WOM to their boss and how do they budget for it?

Flash forward 3.5 years – word of mouth marketing has matured into a multi-billion dollar industry. There are tons of books, blogs, and even awards dedicated to the concept. So although I didn’t find it surprising that audience members (many of whom were new to the industry and first-timers at a WOM-related conference) were asking many of the same questions as back in 2005, the vibe was much less “electric” and more “uncertain”, and what surprised me was the lack of concrete answers being provided, in particular with respect to:

  • Tactics
  • Metrics
  • ROI
  • Ethics

How can that be possible? Are we, as practitioners, really still figuring things out? Or are we hesitant to share too much info with other agencies/potential competitors (since the event was probably 90% vendors/agencies)?

On the agency/vendor front, are folks jumping into the WOM/SM arena out of true passion/belief or are they just trying to latch on the next “big/cool” thing or make a quick buck? Will the industry simply become dominated by a small group of large PR Social Media agencies? If times become tough economy-wise and competition more fierce, will things like ethics be tossed out the window? Please tell me no!

However, I do truly believe that the industry is at a crossroads. The lines are being blurred between PR, marketing, loyalty/CRM, and customer service as these tactics increasingly overlap. Demanding accountability and establishing consistent metrics among both brands and agencies is the only way to ensure things “tip” rather than “jump”. Hopefully this stirs up some healthy dialog – I encourage you to post your thoughts below, or drop me a tweet!

Oh, by the way you can check out all of the live “tweets”/micro-commentary that were posted during the WOMMA Summit by looking for posts tagged #womsum (or just click this link).

  • http://www.cementum.co.uk ricgalbraith

    this is a weird one, i certainly don’t think that the industry will be dominated by a small group of large agencies. I know at least 3 start ups here in london that have come from employees of 1 company, having left thinking they could do a better job.

    the problem is ethics however, and i think this comes from pr companies and marketing companies that don’t specialise in the field approaching it in a backhand and wrong fashion. so either everything will work out, or too much chaos in the industry from too many people trying to get in will cause it to implode. which i really hope doesnt happen or i’ll be out of a job! nice btw :)

  • http://www.beaffinitive.com AffinitiveBob

    I agree and hope that indeed we are at the “tip”. And no, I don’t feel the industry will be “dominated” by a few large agencies – I was being hypothetical! However, do expect significant consolidation in the space as some of the larger agencies/networks begin scooping up specialized firms (it’s already happening). The large agencies (mainly more “traditional” ones) aren’t dumb and know that budgets are being shifted to “emerging” types of media/marketing so they are going to be hard pressed leave part of the marketing mix budget on the table. I agree with you 100% on the ethics comment!

  • http://twitter.com/ihapa Chris

    Great post.

    Although I believe the industry is at a crossroads in terms of WOM/SM, the lines between PR, marketing, etc. have been blurred for quite some time and for other reasons, like IMC practices.

    WOM/SM strategies/tactics are new tools for comm. pros and, like you said, require accountability and to show the ROI. However, in my opinion, these things will occur. If not by PR pros themselves or the agencies the represent, their clients will inevitably demand it — in my experience, they already are.

  • Joanne Zimakas

    Hi: Here’s an interesting story, or at least I think so…..I just finished transcribing all the interviews for The Social Media Bible, http://www.TheSocialMediaBible.com . I became part of the team virtually; I am a virtual transcriptionist. I only mention this as a testament to the power of social media, or as I like to call this combo that happened to me, Social Media ².
    Joanne Zimakas