Almost anytime I talk about viral marketing, the subject of offline word of mouth verses online word of mouth comes up. People ask questions like which is more powerful, which has more potential and which leads to higher conversions and purchases. The truth is, it depends on the campaign and the product. Still, two new sets of data have been released about word of mouth marketing that are worth looking at.

Jackie Huba covers them over at Church of the Customer today in a thought provoking post on the difference between online and offline word of mouth. In it, she talks about the studies that examine the way people spread ideas and advice about products and services they've used.

Here's the data:

Active online researcher All adults
Regularly gives advice 47.0% 29.4%
Occasionally gives advice 49.8% 63.4%
Never gives advice 3.2% 7.2%

Source: BIGresearch, SIMM 11 (December 2007)

After searching, how do you communicate with others about a service, product or brand? (Check all that apply)

Face-to-face 72.7%
Email 63.2%
Telephone 55.0%
Cell phone 35.3%
Instant messaging 17.7%
Text messaging 13.1%
Online communities (e.g. MySpace, Facebook) 11.8%
Blogging 6.8%
Other 1.8%

Source: BIGresearch SIMM 11 (December 2007)

Jackie writes:

"Apparently, the value of eye contact, voice and perhaps even non-verbal communication provides a boost to credibility and the likelihood that we'll do something about what we've learned," said Brad Fay, a study co-author.

Here's what I consider a flaw with that thinking: The frame of credibility. Being credible isn't dependent solely upon the medium in which a recommendation occurs. Credibility comes from an established position of trust, whether it's in-person or online, or from a preponderance of independent evidence, such as a collection of reviews on a product site like Amazon.

I tend to agree with Jackie here. We build up a level of trust based on our past history with someone. Credibility is gained over time as we demonstrate our ability to make solid recommendations and we're able to establish shared interests, tastes and connections.

That said, I see the potential for some of this data to be misconstrued and used against those of us who push companies to explore online word of mouth, or viral marketing.

Here's the comment I left to Jackie's post:

The Keller Fay study says:

"75% of word of mouth occurs in person, 17% on the phone, and just 7% online using instant messages, chat rooms, email and blogs"

But if I understand it correctly, they are looking at this from the perspective of the person doing the WOM and not the person on the receiving end.

I'd be curious to hear it switched around and see how those numbers look, i.e. how do you HEAR about recommendations.

Here's why...

When I tell someone something via offline WOM, I'm generally telling one person at a time. Occasionally I may tell a handful of folks at a lunch or dinner. Once a month or so, I may tell a few hundred something at a speaking gig.

But overall...the impact in terms of my WOM going out is minimal. Sure, I do more telling in person, but the impact of each WOM action is small.

On the other hand, if I make a recommendation via Twitter, I'm reaching 1600 people. If I send it out in my newsletter, I'm reaching 30,000. If I post it on my blog? Half a million or more.

Thus, you can't really compare my offline WOM actions with my online WOM actions and tip the scales in favor of offline. I can reach more people with a single blog post than I will in an entire year of offline WOM.

So even if you disregard the issue of trust and credibility (which is obviously still important) I have to think even that limited amount of online WOM is having as much or more of an impact as that large percentage of offline WOM interactions.

I find the data interesting, but in my mind, it only serves to reinforce how important word of mouth marketing is becoming.

There's already a lively discussion going on in the comments, including some debate about exactly how much extra weight an "in-person" recommendation carries.

July 2, 2008

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.


This is great info Jennifer. After years running a small business in a metro area and tracking call data for chiropractic offices across the US, value can be found in both types of evangelists.

Someone like yourself represents someone of great value in a business like mine. You have the ability to spread the message far and wide, and can be a great ally to many a small business owner.

On the other hand, you work from home, which in my years of experience, is not the typical profile for the WOM mega referrer.

Those people are hair stylists, office workers (especially secretarial), bartenders, and others that communicate with large numbers of local people frequently.

A blend of the 2 qualities (interacting with lots of local people face-face and someone who is active online) can do wonders for many a small business owner. Take care of all your clients as if they possessed these qualities (put service first) and you may be amazed by the new business that rolls in.

LOL, funny that you mention hair dressers. That's the exact example I gave last week at Podcamp when reminding folks that "influencers" aren't always "the blogger with 50K RSS subscribers.)

I think there's great value in both sides of the aisle and I find it funny when we try to value one over the other. They both work and work well in different ways. I think the question shoudln't be which one works better, but how do we do a better job of encouraging both?

I agree that both types of marketing have their relative benefits. I think it's also important to pay attention to the type of message that gets passed along via each channel. I would guess that WOM involves more talk about concepts. We have to provide people with context and relevance, and provide them with enough detail for the information to be useful. Online, we may be able to get away with a "check this out: {insert long and potentially unrecognizable URL here}". People may need less context provided to them, because they have tools that can help them gain the background they need.

As well, WOM marketing is naturally conversational. A teller can modify his or her message based on immediate feedback from the listener. This may help to make the message more personally relevant. This may or many not be the case if something is spread online (this depends moreso on how it is spread: simple link sharing or forwarding, or if it is personally recommended)

Great info with data. Both types of marketing play big part. Actually, I think WOM might play a bigger part since most of the time you get first hand information from a trusted source but the reach is far less. When it come to online marketing, the reach is big but trust remain moderate. At the end online marketing might higher return but not higher return rate. A good example is telemarketers who try to reach people every day. Most people ignore calls from them to the point that there's NO CALL LIST law.
I am not sure if online marketing will get to that point but I think people ignore most of the ads or emails which comes to there inbox especially when the source is unknown.

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