In With The Mob - The Power of Word of Mouth by Aruna Natarajan of Mindshare

A picture speaks a thousand words they say. What do you think this picture would say to a prospective customer about the Mercedes brand?

A brand that has spent years and millions of dollars to build its image and assert its premium status in the automotive category. Not really the kind of testimonial that a brand hopes for, I would think. What makes the impact of this picture so much greater, is the fact that it is on the internet where it can be accessed by people across the world, and the fact that this is testimonial from a real consumer who has experienced the brand. There are numerous examples like this of strong sentiments being expressed by consumers about brands and products. It is true that the sentiments are not always negative. There are consumers who have good brand experiences which they share with others. But most of us who follow or participate in consumer forums, bulletin boards and discussion groups will agree that the negative comments usually far outweigh the positives and also have a lot more impact. There are many reasons for this and most of them can be attributed to human nature. We take a certain basic level of service or functionality of a product for granted, that’s what we are paying for. So while the slightest inconvenience or malfunction of a product will arouse strong feelings of anger, frustration and resentment, it would take a truly delightful brand experience much beyond our expectations to arouse positive feelings of similar strength. Add to that the fact that negative energy requires an immediate and effective outlet, while contentment and even bliss we can quite easily live with.

As marketers around the world constantly challenge their advertising and media partners to find new and more effective ways to communicate with their consumers, influence decision making processes and create favourable impressions about their brands, we fail to recognize the importance of a simple yet highly effective tool which we have close at hand, our own loyal and delighted consumers. Positive word of mouth shared by real consumers with prospects or other consumers can prove to be highly effective and credible when it comes to influencing opinions. With the growth and tremendous reach of the internet, channeling positive word of mouth from real consumers to reach large prospective audiences with no barriers, geographical or otherwise, is quickly becoming a reality. This is especially true in a country like China where consumers are getting ever so active when it comes to sharing and expressing their opinions online. The growth and penetration of bulletin board services (BBS) i.e. discussion groups or online forums on specific topics and blogs is faster than the growth of the internet itself in China. And there is a simple reason for why this particular interactive facet of the internet is especially appealing to today’s Chinese consumer. Discussion groups and blogs on the internet offer Chinese consumers freedom of expression which is mostly anonymous and hence safe, a freedom that they do not enjoy in many other spheres of their life even today.

Another reason to sit up and take notice of this trend in China is, as with many other things, the activities on discussion groups and online forums translate with amazing speed into tangible results. In many cases, opinions and interests shared by consumers in the online world, translate quickly into actual sales for manufacturers in the offline world. It’s becoming fairly common in China for consumers who are planning to buy high value products, like automobiles, home furnishings or consumer durables, to shop around online not just for the best prices and deals on different websites, but for other like minded consumers in discussion groups and BBS, planning to buy the same product. These consumers then form a group in the offline world and approach one dealer or retail outlet for a volume discount. Even if e-commerce has yet to take off in China as it has in many parts of the developed world, consumers are using the internet in innovative ways to make purchase decisions and get the best deals.

And this brings us to the crux of this paper, the opportunity that exists for marketers and advertisers in China to use online as a medium to consolidate and magnify positive consumer opinion which can then have a direct and immediate impact on offline sales.

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This article originally appeared in volume 13 of WPP's Atticus Journal.

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About the author

Aruna Natarajan
Planning Director, Mindshare