Word of Mouth Marketing: To Tell Or Not To Tell


While test market pilots proved Procter & Gamble's word of mouth arm, Vocalpoint, is a success and increases sales, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and Gary Ruskin's Commercial Alert are not pleased with Vocalpoint's army of 600,000 moms who spread buzz about P&G products and others because Vocalpoint does not require its "connectors" to disclose who they work for, a key tennet in the Word of Mouth Marketing Association's Code of Ethics.

While disclosure certainly appears to be the ethical thing to do, the debate as to whether it affects success can be debated until Paris Hilton can remember the name of the product she's hawking. Vocalpoint CEO Steve Knox says the company takes what he calls the "high road" adding, "We have a deeply held belief you don't tell the consumer what to say." Ruskin calls Vocalpoint and other word of mouth marketing efforts hinder trust and are causing a "commercialization of human relations." WOMMA Founding Member, Nielsen BuzzMetrics CMO and former P&G Brand Manager Pete Blackshaw adds, "There are a lot of word-of-mouth programs in play now, many of which are unsavory. As the leader in the industry, P&G has a higher obligation to set the right standard."

We have mixed feelings. We're pretty convinced better results for a brand will be achieved without disclosure. However, we believe non-disclosure just isn't right, isn't ethical and amounts to lying for monetary gain. It's a very fine line and one which is and will be very difficult to define. If disclosure does become a mandate - as it already is in WOMMA guidelines - through thre FTC or other legal entity, when should disclore take place? Should it be the first thing out of the buzzer's mouth? Should it occur only if the buzzer is asked? Should it offered even if the person being buzzed doesn't ask?

With the vastly changing media landscape, it's entirely conceivable that the majority of marketing could begin to occur through controlled word of mouth marketing. The rise of social networking makes this a no-brainer and with people gaining increased control over the creation and flow of content and commercial messaging, it becomes a natural channel for commercial communication. But do we continually want to wonder if our friend is giving us is an honest opinion or one that is influenced by a third party with a lot of money? Like we said, this can be debated until Paris Hilton gets a brain.

by Steve Hall    May-19-06   Click to Comment   
Topic: Opinion, Word of Mouth   

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From the BusinessWeek article you linked:

"We know that the most powerful form of marketing is an advocacy message from a trusted friend," says Steve Knox, Vocalpoint's CEO.

Steve, as you know from the discussion we had about buzz marketing many moons ago, one of two things will happen:

1) People will disclose their biases. This will have the effect of diminishing the value of the recommendation, or

2) People won't disclose their biases. This will have several negative effects, including the commercialization of human relationships and continuing erosion of trust in companies who use this marketing tactic.

Both paths look bad to me, one significantly worse than the other. But if I had a choice (and I do), I'd do neither.


Posted by: Tom Hespos on May 19, 2006 11:18 AM

This post (and the WOMMA debate) misses a few key points. This is a somewhat self-governing situation. To begin with, there’s a difference between friends and acquaintances. If someone is a real friend you’re likely to know whether they’re up to something like this (e.g. shilling products). If someone is an acquaintance, adult judgment would suggest a certain amount of discretion in buying the pitch. That said, I agree with the WOMMA and others that disclosure is critical for these marketing campaigns.

However the real question is why marketers are pursuing this instead of cultivating true brand advocates? The blogs and social networking tools have sparked thousands of conversations among millions of people. Somewhere there are conversations about any given product, service, brand or issue. Further, there are centers of gravity where a certain amount of critical mass exists on any topic, either due to volume, credibility or some combination of the two. Marketers should seek out these “centers of gravity” and find ways to join the conversation, instead of creating artificial ones.

Posted by: Leslie on May 19, 2006 2:22 PM

"Ruskin calls Vocalpoint and other word of mouth marketing efforts hinder trust and are causing a commercialization of human relations."

Are you serious? As if human relations haven't been commercialized since the beginning of the barter system/politics.

I think WOMMA is just a bit pissed that P&G decided not to following their version of the bible.

Posted by: Peter Corbett on May 19, 2006 2:29 PM

Professor Walter Carl from Northeastern University did a study with BzzAgent showing that results are NOT diminished if the "connector" discloses that they are part of one of these programs. In fact, there were often better results when the person disclosed.

See Carl's study here:

Posted by: Jackie Huba on May 19, 2006 5:51 PM

So let's recap:
-90% of all magazine articles are paid placements, most disguised to look like editorials.
-Almost all blog entries start from a marketer.
-And now our actual conversations with friends and acquaintences are being bought and manipulated.
Too far. This is why people hate advertising and advertisers.

Posted by: Fred on May 20, 2006 8:08 AM