How will word-of-mouth marketing affect genuine influencers?

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Picture courtesy of JUN.

I’ll be upfront, I don’t have answers just a sense of unease about word-of-mouth marketing so I thought I would throw all this material up on this blog post and encourage whoever reads regularly (that includes you Mum) or if anybody whose just dropped in from somewhere else to add their contribution in the comment section.My sense of unease was pushed into action when I read about the success of BzzAgent in an article on have some questions without answers below, but here’s the scene setting:

We know that people have become media literate, so advertising messages don’t have the degree-of-impact that they used to have previously.

We know that our living environment, particularly in cities has become saturated with marketing messages, for example from outdoor advertisers, street marketing teams, fly-posters, ambient advertising, multimedia bus shelters, mobile marketers and Bluetooth-broadcasting (and I am sure that there’s lots that I’ve missed out).

Here’s some of the questions that I don’t have the answers to:

  • When do evangelists become salespeople?
  • When evangelists can expect rewards, are they still evangelists?
  • What effect will word-of-mouth marketing have on the real value of influencers over time?
  • Will we become blind to word-of-mouth marketing in the same way that we no longer notice outdoor advertising in the same way?
  • What impact will it have on our society in the medium to long term?

A lot of the time word-of-mouth is created by careful seeding of products and messages for example:

  • Getting your brand of vodka in the flashiest West End bars
  • Putting your viral content on the right sites
  • Collaborating with an influencer on a product like designers Oki-Ni, (examples of Oki-Ni’s work is discussed here and here)
  • Celebrity gift boxes at major awards
  • Communication through online communities like MySpace

This bleeds into other areas of brand association like sponsorship, public relations creating your own events (like Red Bull’s Art of Can) and experiential marketing since influencers live in the same marketing saturated environment as the people they in turn influence.
Much of the approaches have focused on communicating directly with the influencers and then hoping that the influencers consumed, had their consumption noticed or advocated their consumption pattern for others to copy. The returns on this are uncertain, if PR is hard to measure, this is another abstraction beyond it.

The attractiveness of word-of-mouth marketing for management teams is that it’s considered the mar.coms equivalent of money for nothing. Text-based online advertisements and search engine optimisation provide users with a call to action but there is no evidence that they can help build a brand. With their marketing budgets hedged with extremely measurable online campaigns, marketers are looking to word-of-mouth to provide ‘cheap’ sizzle to their campaigns.

Where people like BzzAgent seem to be taking this is incentivising ordinary people to become influencers. Very few people are going to admit that they have no influence in the circles that they move in.

I think that this may crank up the noise in one-to-one relationships and reduce the dependence that people put on recommendations and the power of influencers. Ultimately this would be bad for brands as they would have less perceptual differences between themselves and no brand or store brand products.

Whilst BzzAgent discourages people from selling on their site, those that aren’t really influential may unwittingly do just that.


  • BzzAgent to their credit had collected some interesting links, documents and presentations on their website, here’s a link to their resources page (warning: their site doesn’t work well with Safari).
  • PBS online (the website of the Public Broadcast Service of America) have a documentary called The Persuaders, which was part of their Frontline series which covers marketing saturation and how advertisers are trying to get ‘cut-through’ utilising different ways to reach consumers. You can view the documentary here in segments using RealPlayer.
  • The Word of Mouth Marketing Association is a US-orientated industry body that has a website with some interesting reading materials here

Let me know what you think by posting a comment below.