Let's Give Them Something To Talk About

Word-of-mouth marketing comes of age

Buzz marketing--intentionally influencing and amplifying word-of-mouth--can help campuses bypass the overload of media and advertising messages assaulting the public. Two approaches to creating buzz are (1) to make your constituents so happy that they take it upon themselves to spread your message, or (2) to identify good stories and then find and cultivate good storytellers.

In an age in which the word on the street has shifted to word on the Internet, the old "she told two friends" line can be more like she told 2,000 friends. Campus communicators always have understood the power of word-of-mouth—the good, the bad, and the ugly. And many marketers believe that word-of-mouth has become the most effective way to reach a world of savvy consumers inured to traditionally delivered marketing messages.

In a 2005 survey by Alloy Marketing + Media and Harris Interactive, 91 percent of U.S. college students said they pay the most attention to word-of-mouth-based marketing, and 70 percent said word-of-mouth holds the most sway as they make decisions. Consequently, such peer-to-peer "talk" has the ability to actually penetrate the estimated 3,000 daily marketing messages teens encounter.

Although campus communications efforts always have been designed to ripple the word-of-mouth waters in a positive way, a new marketing industry is growing up around the idea of intentionally influencing and amplifying word-of-mouth.

"There's a reason you hear more about word-of-mouth these days," says Paul Rand, global chief development and innovation officer at Ketchum, an international public relations firm. "Advertisers and marketers are throwing every ounce of spaghetti they have against the wall to see what sticks," he says, "and saying, 'good God, nothing's working.' What does work—and what we know works—is building and sustaining relationships that allow people to do the work for you and spread it because it's what occurs naturally."

Although campus officials can't order up good word-of-mouth the way they can a case statement, viewbook, or Web site, some institution communicators are learning to manage and nurture it with measurable success.

Illusion of control
According to research by George Dehne Associates, eight of 10 students say they originally heard about the institution in which they enrolled via word-of-mouth rather than through institutional efforts. (A ProfNet search for campuses engaged in intentional efforts to shape word-of-mouth, however, turned up very little.) But what makes the medium so influential also might make many campus marketers feel powerless to affect it: Individuals, rather than the institution, control the message.

George Dehne sees another issue at play. "Unfortunately, few senior administrators instruct their communications people to make word-of-mouth a priority. They think if they are not working with the press or producing a publication, they are not doing anything."

Although publications, media placement, and other traditional endeavors might seem more controllable, word-of-mouth experts say that attitude is largely an illusion. Now a well-placed blog entry can have more impact than a prime-time television commercial.

Marketers warn that the value of word-of-mouth marketing is increasing as target audiences filter messages. "It's becoming increasingly difficult for companies and organizations to figure out how to market on a mass scale, which is forcing them into the area of word-of-mouth communications," says Rand, who began Ketchum's Influencer Relationship Management Program about two years ago. He says that organizations that don't grasp word-of-mouth marketing techniques soon are going to lose out to those that do.

Andrew Maydoney, a communications strategist at Boston-based Sametz Blackstone Associates, finds that the big eye-opener for many institutions in today's branding era is the realization that they don't actually own their brands—their constituents do. Ultimately, it's the people with whom an institution is trying to connect who determine the institution's value. "If you think about it that way, branding becomes a very different challenge," Maydoney says. "You have to ask 'What role does the institution play in that ownership?' Because if you just let them own your brand blindly and loosely, who knows what it could come to mean." The challenge is to help constituents develop a sense of the value and meaning of the institution, which leads directly to building a strong word-of-mouth program.

Splitting hairs?
Scratch the surface of any discussion about word-of-mouth marketing and you will find disagreement about what it is and how to do it. Does it mean creating a buzz? Is that buzz only meaningful when "influencers" do the talking?

The recently founded Word of Mouth Marketing Association offers this two-part definition:

Word of mouth: The act of consumers providing information to other consumers.

Word of mouth marketing: Giving people a reason to talk about your products and services, and making it easier for that conversation to take place.

The distinction identifies the threshold campus communicators must cross if they want to shape word-of-mouth efforts. Another helpful clarification is the difference between what WOMMA calls organic vs. amplified word-of-mouth.

Organic word-of-mouth happens "naturally when people become advocates because they are happy with a product and have a natural desire to share their support and enthusiasm," according to WOMMA. Practices that enhance organic word-of-mouth focus on delivering quality and fostering customer satisfaction and loyalty. That includes asking for criticism and responding to it, Dehne says, a step few clients are willing to take, despite his assertion that "the greatest damage comes if you do not know people are unhappy."

To that end, Dehne recommends distributing student and parent campus-visit evaluations, reunion evaluations, and "goof kits" with campus T-shirts, event tickets, and other goodies intended to make up for mistakes.

In addition to soliciting feedback from external constituencies, Dehne recommends providing regular opportunities to hear from insiders. "Faculty, staff, and students play an important role in word-of-mouth marketing," he says. "If current students say your institution is not challenging, it is likely that they are saying that to friends off campus as well. If staff members feel mistreated, they are telling friends this, who then tell other friends."

Ketchum's Rand says that opening such dialogues is no longer a nicety but a necessity. "Today, dissatisfied people have other outlets if they don't feel they have been adequately heard by the institution," he says. "An unhappy parent can post his grievances on message boards, campus listservs, and blogs. The grievance can become even bigger if part of the complaint is that he was ignored in some way."

Positive word-of-mouth as a byproduct of an institution's best efforts to deliver quality is where most campus leaders' thinking on the subject seems to begin and end. Amplified word-of-mouth turns up the volume by launching campaigns designed to encourage or accelerate word-of-mouth in new or existing communities. It can look and sound a lot like classic public relations at first—cultivating relationships with influencers across key categories, gaining visibility by connecting an institution to high-profile news of the day, and hosting special events and promotional giveaways. But there is one important difference: Word-of-mouth marketing leaves room for the constituent as a player in the message.

The brave new world of word-of-mouth marketing understands that constituents are not the audience for campus stories. They are protagonists in them. To accelerate positive word-of-mouth, constituents must become both players in and tellers of a campus story.

Recipe for success
A powerful word-of-mouth campaign relies on two ingredients: good stories and good storytellers. Success requires cultivating both.

Mark Hughes, author of the book Buzzmarketing: Get People to Talk About Your Stuff, says it's counterintuitive, but in word-of-mouth marketing the rules of engagement are story first, brand second. Good stories "go viral" (pass from person to person), he says, because they are interesting and therefore make the teller interesting. "People want to be in the know. They want to start a conversation with 'did you hear' or 'you're never going to believe,'" he says.

According to Hughes, the same topics that get people talking also get the media writing. The five stories that appear on the front page most frequently are surefire conversation starters: David and Goliath stories, controversies, the outrageous and unusual, celebrities, and stories that piggyback on an already hot story. The list is instructive in thinking about competition for conversational airtime, ways to frame institutional stories, and the negative campus stories that can catch like wildfire. Hughes says if he were a campus communicator he would focus on the remarkable and the David and Goliath stories—"the kid who came from Bulgaria with five bucks in his pocket and won the Nobel Prize. Everyone wants to hear a story about making it," he says. Define the institution's niche and find the compelling stories that exemplify that niche. "If you give [people] a good story to tell when they get together with friends at a cocktail party," he says, "they will carry your message."

Denver-based public relations firm JohnstonWells' signature program "Cocktail Talk" is designed to do just that. Cocktail Talk trains board members, staff members, and volunteers how to incorporate an organization's messages into social conversations—not by spouting off facts and figures but by becoming good storytellers. The program begins
with some basic branding techniques—defining an organization's distinctions and backing them up with proof that they can then translate into a memorable acronym. But Cocktail Talk's innovation lies in allowing participants to connect their organization's brand attributes to their own stories.

"[As we work] through every piece of the acronym we ask them 'Okay, tell a story that really exemplifies this point,'" says GG Johnston, president of JohnstonWells. "Incredible stories unfold—many of which participants haven't even told each other." The process builds internal consensus among leadership, staff, and volunteers, she says, which is critical because people seldom successfully use messages handed off to them. "They communicate messages enthusiastically when they've had an active role in creating them," Ketchum's Rand says. One can easily imagine how powerful such storytelling sessions could be for admissions tour guides and alumni and parent volunteers because they would have the opportunity to make an institution's brand story their own.

When asked if volunteer participants balk at being encouraged to promote their organizations in social situations, Johnston says, "It's not about asking people to dominate conversations with organizational messages. These are smart, busy volunteers who are passionate about where they spend their time. What happens is they gain practice talking about things that are important to them," she says.

Joshua Searle-White, a professional storyteller and psychology professor at Allegheny College who has taught many storytelling workshops and classes, says the one common element he finds in good stories is that they connect with some truth about the teller. "Something in the story feels important to the teller and the listener senses that," Searle-White says. "The listener has a sense of being invited in."

Structured for results
That invitation is exactly the kind of opening Sametz Blackstone's Maydoney says is missing from a lot of today's brand stories. "It's probably the most important part of the story for a word-of-mouth campaign," he says. A brand story has four parts, he says, but most institutions stop at the first one: facts and history. "They leave out how that institution differentiates itself from its competition. They leave out the institution's value and meaning to the world. And finally, they leave no room in the story for the role that the alum, the student, the prospective donor, the post doc, or the new faculty member will play in the story."

Maydoney is working with a liberal arts college in New England that wants to expand the geographic diversity of its student body. The college draws students from the region and two additional areas outside New England due to a critical mass of alumni who have settled in those areas and are spreading the word. Campus leaders would like to leverage that success by accelerating good word-of-mouth. The Sametz Blackstone team met with alumni, guidance counselors, and prospective students and their families in those two areas to get a sense of what they understand about the campus. After comparing what constituents know to what institution officials hope they know, the team started writing stories aimed at alumni in target areas to help them tell an authentic but better story about the college.

Once the firm finished the research, it developed "cheat cards" delineating five easy ways to tell the story. The cards are not prescriptive, but principles-based, and they outline an exchange between storyteller and constituent that begins in "empathy" and ends in "follow-up." For a real dialogue to build, Maydoney says, "you can't lay out rules that don't acknowledge everyone has his or her own way of telling stories." Alumni of different ages will tell the story in their own vernacular, as will people from different backgrounds. "It's not as straightforward as a publication," he says. "You have to get out there and talk to your constituents and do some role-playing. The work is actually in the dialogue."

While Maydoney emphasizes that word-of-mouth campaigns shouldn't tell people what to say, they do revolve around memorable messages that people can make their own in part because constituents have helped develop them. For an education organization serving disadvantaged youth aspiring to go to college, Sametz Blackstone developed the tagline: "Get in, graduate, go far, success depends on you." Without coaching, those affiliated with the organization began folding the messages naturally into their language. The campaign is credited with bringing coherence to the organization's story—a coherence that doubled donor support.

From buzz to influence
It's important for campus communicators to discern between "buzz" and "influence" as they think about word-of-mouth marketing, Rand says. "Institutions want to take advantage of buzz where and how it's appropriate," he says, "but unless you are a hot new consumer product, generating a buzz might not be the right way to think about approaching word-of-mouth. No college or university wants to be hot today and cool tomorrow," he says.

Most organizations want to foster relationships with people who can help drive and sustain positive word-of-mouth, Rand says. He divides these people into three groups—ultimate influencers, influentials, and "bees who buzz." The ultimates are the 100 to 200 people in any industry who shape most decision makers' opinions about an organization and its products and services. A step below them are the influentials, Rand says, citing a 2003 RoperASW study of more than 3,000 visitors. The study found that 10 percent of the people hold the power to influence the habits of the other 90 percent, and that online influencers readily pass their information around. "Public relations practitioners, marketers, and advertisers must find and cultivate those relatively few people who understand each industry and influence others about it," Rand says.

How do campus communicators reach key influencers? Through old-fashioned networking and relationship building between institution leaders and opinion-makers on a national and local level, participating in and hosting "insider" events for select influencers and, in general, giving influencers greater access to the institution. Access is like a secret, and secrets are powerful generators of word-of-mouth. Influencers also can defend the institution in ways campus leaders could not if the word on the street takes a negative turn.

Below the influentials are the bees, who might not drive the conversation but can increase its hum. Dehne says one way to expand the hive is to ask current students to identify possible prospective students. He suggests that campuses broadcast an e-mail nomination form to all student addresses requesting the name, telephone, or address of a prospective student. Or hold a "friends from home weekend" in which current students can invite juniors or sophomores from their high school to campus for a weekend. "The institution should pay for all activities and make it a big event to reward students for participating," he says.

The Institute of Design, one of the Illinois Institute of Technology's seven colleges, has found that nothing works for driving inquiries and applications quite as well as word-of-mouth. "We focus a lot of energy on viral campaigns based on e-mail and special events," says Vincent T. LaConte, director of communications and marketing. For an upcoming conference about design in China, the institute offered constituents on its mailing lists a 50 percent discount and the ability to extend the same discount to up to three friends using a special code. "In just a few weeks we added dozens of names to our mailing list and sold enough seats to make a profit from the conference that will fund future programs," LaConte says.

Dehne also suggests identifying campus champions—people who continually say great things about the institution. They can be alumni, current students, parents, high school guidance counselors, employers, and the media.

It's not brain surgery, Rand says. Basically, word-of-mouth marketing means applying the same outreach methods and skills a communicator would use for cultivating the media to other constituencies. Much like media relations, Rand says, the first step institution leaders need to take is to formalize the process as a dedicated function. In the same way that campuses monitor media hits, firms like Ketchum and Sametz Blackstone monitor word-of-mouth in chat rooms and on message boards through search mechanisms like Technorati and BlogPulse. "We look at discussion threads—what people are saying, what their tone is, and who they are talking to," Rand says. In other words, they suss out the storyline.

For good or ill, institution leaders long have accepted the media as tellers of their stories, designating staff members to help shape the story that gets told. Word-of-mouth marketing simply recognizes that institutions have far more shapers of the institutional storyline than they used to.

This article is from the November 2005 CURRENTS