Public vs. Private Word of Mouth

Posted on 11. Apr, 2012 by in Customer Research, Word of Mouth

Customer centricity (a management philosophy growing in popularity and acceptance) means aligning one’s business and products/services with one’s customers’ desires and needs.  In the past, marketing research initiatives (including, but not limited to): customer satisfaction surveys; comment card programs; and shopper intercept interviews have been used to collect the required insights.  But, these processes are expensive and skeptics have questioned (because of their reliance on sampling techniques) if they fairly represent the vast number of unsurveyed customers.

The recent growth of the public social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) has seemingly “revolutionized” the monitoring process.  Customers now can voluntarily express their satisfactions and dissatisfactions with business organizations.  This “posting” appears to alleviate companies from having to actively pursue and collect them. The reaction from companies has been to greet the opinions posted on the social media as a “gift”….one that’s free; without obligation; and captured without any formal marketing research.  But while the accessibility of customers’ opinions has greatly improved, this access is not without its own problems.

Problems with the New Customer Feedback Process

The first problem is the visibility of customer feedback logged in the public social media. When negative word of mouth is posted an infinite number of other customers are impacted.  A personal issue suddenly becomes public.  A second problem is customers’ expectations.  Recent studies, including one from Conversocial, remind us that when customers post a question or a problem they expect a response – and they expect it fast. Yet more than 60% aren’t getting a response because proper monitoring of and timely response to customers’ unhappy posts has proven more expensive than imagined.  Companies either haven’t put the needed response-processes in place, or have deferred from the effort based on its costs.

But, a more important issue (one reminiscent of the criticisms leveled at the traditional marketing research initiatives) is just how representative are publically posted opinions (word of mouth)?  In my work at Customer Experience Partners, we’ve repeatedly cautioned that public word of mouth is only a fraction of total word of mouth.  A current study from Microsoft reiterates this message with the finding that 90% of word of mouth takes place offline in what we call the private social media (text messaging, phone calls, emails, and face-to-face conversations).  Is the tonality and are the themes conveyed in the private social media representative of those in public social media?  I’m willing to bet there are some considerable differences – which means that audits of only the public social media are probably misleading corporate initiatives and responses!

The Obligation

Marketers really owe it to their brands to monitor total word of mouth.  That means auditing the public social media and conducting some marketing research to sample private social media.  Those who aren’t so thorough: 1) can’t identify the key strengths they could be leveraging and critical problems they need to fix,  2) don’t really understand whether word of mouth is helping their business grow or ‘poisoning the well’ for the future,  3) can’t know how their word of mouth compares to the word of mouth of their competitors, and  4) lack a process to quantify whether the money they are spending to stimulate additional word of mouth is delivering positive results.  But they could.

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