Amazon has its reviews. YouTube has its star system. Sites across the web invite people to comment, rate and review products, content and even each other. A whole other batch of people make decisions on these ratings. Does this seem unusual to anyone else?
Think about it. No one vets the people making these reviews. They could be anyone. Yet when twenty-five people give an Amazon book 5 stars we’re inclined to believe it must be a good book. Why? Are these people at all qualified to rate a book? They might be professors of literature, sure. They might also be brain-dead dropouts. Or worse (and in high probability), they might be friends of the author signing on to plug the book without having even read it. You just don’t know.
But a book is a $15 purchase; even if you buy it and dislike it, no real harm is done. However, this isn’t just happening in the small-ticket category. It happens among ‘considered purchases’ too – electronics, even cars. Again and again we allow perfect strangers, people we know nothing about, to influence our purchase decisions. It’s one thing to say I won’t trust the advertiser because they’re going to spin the story – of course they are. It’s another to go 180º in the opposite direction and rely on a bunch of strangers who with minimal effort can register their whims on a comment board.
Consumer Reports used to be the resource for people looking for vetted, impartial reviews on products. I’m staggered that said company has not made more noise. This ‘trust a stranger’ social media world is a perfect environment for Consumer Reports to demonstrate its value and become a superbrand. Why they aren’t more vocal is beyond me.
Recently, WIRED magazine’s Jargon Watch introduced me to the term Word of Finger. It’s meant to differentiate social-media style buzz from true word of mouth though I think WIRED missed an opportunity in its definition.
Word of Mouth traditionally has implied dialog (and not necessarily orally, despite the term). This in turn implies the people probably know (at least something about) each other. Historically we don’t express our opinions to strangers unless we’re professionals paid to do so. Word of Finger, as I see it, recognizes the nuance that some social media actions are indeed between strangers. In this sense I would argue Word of Finger isn’t as valuable as Word of Mouth even though the former travels faster and has a broader reach than the latter owing to the dynamics of (true) friend networks vs. simply connected networks of individuals.
In this sense Facebook would be Word of Mouth – even though you actually enter the information with your fingers. Amazon’s comments panel is Word of Finger for most people (unless you happen to know one of the commentators). With the former, you know the people and can gauge whether they have any valid capacity to review a topic. With the latter you have no clue who they are, what they know or if they’re in any way qualified to make a judgement call on the topic at hand. Common sense would dictate that the Word of Mouth references have higher persuasive capacity than the Word of Finger. But is this so? I find scant information on the matter. This post on a Nielson blog was as close as I got. Witness the following chart:
What is surprising to me is not that people don’t really trust commercial advertising (duh.) but that absolute strangers have such a high level of trust. It’s worth noting here though that this is a measure of trust and not persuasion – an important difference. I may trust that you actually believed a certain product was great but whether that’s enough it make me buy it myself is another matter.
To date, most of the social media measurability I have seen is tied much more to reach and awareness issues. I would argue that this is because marketing people, and especially new media marketing people are firmly focused on a technological aspects of what they do. Geeks get a rise out of the idea that Facebook is getting as big as China. A nifty statistic for sure, but for most practical business purposes somewhat meaningless.
I also believe that the discourse around social media has largely been focused on how it displaces traditional media. This has had the effect of funneling the thinking around social media into comparative dynamic which tends to force old categories to the surface. I would even go so far as to say the applications of social media have been largely focused on satisfying the same needs as traditional media – awareness, recall, exposure, impressions. This latter is probably the industry’s way of adhering to the principle of apperception.
Today’s social media industry is an art-meets-math world of stat reporting which offers click paths and session times with little sense of how these are correlated to persuasion or drive. Yet the difference between Word of Mouth and Word of Finger is at least 20% according to Nielson above and I would bet, figuring for persuasion as defined by actually acting/buying/changing behavior, that Word of Mouth (among true friends) delivers added value still.
Persuasion has always been the achilles heel of marketing and advertising in terms of metrics. Since the day ‘www’ appeared in browser windows, we have all promised more measurability, yet surprisingly little ground has been gained in measuring persuasion. We tend to now, as we did two decades ago, measure awareness and exposure because frankly, they’re the easiest measurements to make – especially online with server logs.
The bad news is, while social media can provide awareness and exposure they in fact do it less well than old media did; requiring more in both resources and attentiveness. It was much easier to buy TV time in the 1980′s and just run a campaign than it is to orchestrate a social media campaign across the splintered media landscape.
The original book Positioning written by Jack Trout and Al Ries made healthful mention of psychology, a key science in the understanding or persuasion which in turn is central to the objective of marketing. The newer edition (still over a decade old) embellished upon this even further going so far as to stipulate that a mind that is made up is very hard to change. (Think about the implication of that for a minute brand people.) Here are a few profound little tidbits:
“..short-term memory appears to be more auditory than visual, whereas longterm memory can be both.”
“Material learned while one is happy is better recalled when one is happy, and material learned while one is sad is better recalled when one is sad.”
“Minds tends to be emotional, not rational.”
“In order to change an attitude, then, it is presumably necessary to modify the information on which that attitude rests. It is generally necessary, therefore, to change a person’s beliefs, eliminate old beliefs, or introduce new beliefs.”
“Too many advertisements try to entertain or be clever. The Starch research people can demonstrate that headlines that contain news score better in readership than those that don’t.”
“We tend to think of boredom as arising from lack of stimuli. But more and more commonly, boredom is arising from excessive stimulation or information overload.”
It’s amazing to me what happens when you step outside of one industry and its lexicon (for example, marketing) and look at the dynamics from the perspective of another industry and its lexicon (pyschology in this case).
Related to this is the interesting if controversial Transtheoretical model. Conceived to help psychologists help people make healthier choices, it nonetheless provides some interesting insights into the idea of readiness and persuasion that could be applied to other fields.
Yet except for the occasional article here and there or the tromping around of the rare psychologist hired by an agency as a brand planner, there isn’t a sense that marketing is conducted as a behavioral science.
Shouldn’t it be?
Shouldn’t we be spending as much time studying the nuances of Word of Mouth vs. Word of Finger as we do oohing and aahing about the ability to ‘check in’ at a local Dunkin Donut’s to get a coupon? Shouldn’t sociology, anthropology and psychology be departments within agency walls? Wouldn’t these skillets enable a keener understanding of what all these new media opportunities truly afford us?