PR Training

From Word-of-Mouth to Word-of-Mouse

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The 2008 PRSA International Conference got off to a swinging start today—literally—with a gospel choir (befitting a Sunday) energizing the attendees before Craig Newmark’s keynote session began. Yes, “that” Craig, i.e. Craig of Craig’s List. Suitably revved up, I then moved on to Jeffrey Graham’s Word-of-Mouth Online and Off session this afternoon. It was packed—no surprise, given the resurgence that WOM is enjoying, and the increasing attention being paid to results-based, influential communications.

In fact, there seemed to be a common thread running through many of the sessions I attended today: from Craig Newmark’s emphasis on “continuous engagement,” to Katie Paine’s emphasis on measuring relationships in the session I co-presented with her. As a discipline, we seem to be remembering the importance of the “relations” part of “public relations.” You might say attending Jeff’s session was a natural progression for me.

Jeff had enough data to satisfy the biggest quant-geeks among us, beginning his presentation with a brief history of WOM (no, it’s not new) and the fact that it is the single-most influential contact point one can incorporate in communications planning. So why is it, then, that it receives the least investment when putting a marketing plan together?

True to the title of his presentation, Jeff went through the differences between On- and Offline WOM Marketing, illustrating that most WOM occurs offline (about 73%). Online WOM occurs most among the young, and is most important for the entertainment, sports, telecom and technology sectors. In addition, most online WOM is fueled by marketing; 70% of online chatter comprises bloggers reacting to what they have read or seen in the media and marketing. At the end of the day, offline WOM tends to be more positive than online, and it’s also offline WOM that is perceived as more credible, leading to a purchase intent (and that, at the end of the day, is what marketers are concerned with, right?).

The New York Times (Jeff’s employer) has been researching influencers, and Jeff shared an interesting insight into these “marketing multipliers”—38% of affluent women, these are women who actively influence others, and who find fulfillment in doing so and in sharing their views and experiences. Offline WOM rules among these multipliers, and they are also Web contributors (as opposed to just being readers). These multipliers are inquisitive and caring, valuing exploration and open-mindedness. One of them, in a video interview, compared herself to a town crier. (I thought that was excellent imagery for the PR industry.) And with a few different case studies, Jeff showed how these multipliers positively (or negatively) impact ROI, teaching them to put WOM at the center of communications planning.

Bottom line: It’s a myth that WOM can’t be influenced, bought in scale, targeted, or measured. When we know that WOM is the single-most influential point of connection, it must be at the center of our plans. The basics of such planning doesn’t change, but don’t forget to incorporate the “influential” or “multiplier” angle and re-think the way you put your plans together—it might just make the difference between success and failure.

Shonali Burke, ABC, was named one of the top “40 Under 40” PR professionals in the U.S. by PRWeek in 2007. A self-confessed measurement fiend, she is reveling in submerging herself in social media, Web analytics and other extra-curricular activities while taking a sabbatical to ponder the next stage of her career. Shonali is a part of the PRSA 2008 Conference Blogging team and putting faces to the Twitterati she follows. (Yes, on Twitter.) Owned by three former shelter dogs, Shonali lives with her husband in the Washington, D.C., metro area.

For coverage on the PRSA 2008 International Conference: The Point of Connection, visit

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Lauren Vargas

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