Busting social media myths one by one

by James Duthie on December 17, 2008

mythbusters.jpgA few weeks back I published an analogy I often use to explain the social web to our less than savvy prospective clients. Once clients grasp the concept of social media, the next question I often hear is ‘Why on earth would I want to get involved in that?!?’. Fear often sweeps over management types as soon as they hear words like ‘open conversations with real customers’. It scares the living bejesus out of them! So today I’m beginning a series that aims to debunk commonly held misconceptions that mainstream managers use to block corporate entry into social media. The first misconception that I’ll tackle today is that that social media affects only a vocal minority of their customer base…

A few work colleagues recently attended an online marketing conference which included a session on the corporate application of social media. At the end of the presentation, a member of the audience asked a question that typifies the thinking of many old school marketers:

‘Why should I bother interacting in a community if it only has 46 members?’

Perhaps the best way to answer the question is with another question. Who would you rather talk to; 46 customers or thousands of randoms with no interest in your business? I’d take the 46 customers. But I suspect many wouldn’t. After all, speaking with your current customers isn’t going to help you win new customers is it…?

You bet your ass it is!

Word of mouth for the masses

I’ve often heard social media described as word of mouth on steroids. And it’s true. Before the days of the Internet, purchase decisions were often based on:

  1. Recommendations from family & friends
  2. Product reviews in independent media outlets

In short, our alternatives in gathering a range of trustworthy and informed opinions were severely limited. This very much benefited marketers. With few reliable information sources, marketing messages retained some level of relevance with customers. But then Amazon went and changed everything…

Amazon introduced online product reviews, and all of a sudden customers had access to independent and unbiased opinions from fellow consumers. No spin. No rhetoric. Just real feedback. And boy did they love it. The emergence of new user generated platforms only increased the flow of consumer driven analysis. Today, customer opinions and product reviews can be found on blogs, Twitter, social news sites, social networks & more.

The absolute freedom of information has forever influenced the way people make purchase decisions. The simple fact is that consumers rarely trust marketing messages. Instead, they turn to each other for unbiased insights. Indeed, recent studies by Forrester and Rubicon Consulting both found online word of mouth to be the second most important influencer of purchase decisions.

Forrester Research:


Rubicon Research:


The true impact of the vocal minority

Niche online communities may be small, but the reach and impact of their conversations is unlimited. While a direct discussion itself may engage only a handful of customers, it will be watched by many, many more. A product related discussion between 5 customers may ultimately influence hundreds (if not thousands) of purchase decisions. The Internet gives word of mouth an infinite life span…

Rubicon’s report provides perhaps the best metaphor of the role and importance of the vocal minority. They compare online discussions with theatre performances:

Online discussion is a poor way to communicate with the average customer, because average customers don’t participate. But it is a great way to communicate to them, because average customers watch and listen.

Most content and discussion sites should be viewed as performances, in which the site’s organizers interact with a relatively small number of users in order to educate, persuade, or entertain everyone else.

A new opportunity for marketers – Influence the influencers

Whether they know it or not, the vocal minority have become major influencers of product purchases. The voice of 46 customers in an ‘insignificant’ online community is far more relevant than any marketing message. Most marketers view this as a disaster.  But the reality is that it presents an amazing new opportunity.

Until now, word of mouth has been invisible to marketers. Dissatisfied customers occasionally voice their concern, but most simply refuse to buy again. They are lost forever, but the business is unlikely to ever know. Social media however brings word of mouth into the direct visibility of those willing to watch and listen. Dissatisfied customers can be identified and targeted by customer support staff.  For the first time ever marketers have the opportunity to monitor, respond to, and influence word of mouth.

Effective responses to online discussions can turn the biggest of detractors into brand advocates. Dell has proven it. Positive actions breed positive word of mouth. And positive word of mouth breeds customer purchases. In the last 10 days alone, Comcast has scored PR coups via interviews on John Batelle’s blog and the Top Rank  blog. The authors of these two blogs are amongst the most influential marketing voices on the planet. The glowing interviews would have been read by tens of thousands of subscribers. And they would have been shared with hundreds of thousands. Talk about influencing the influencers! And all Comcast did was answer a few customer complaints via Twitter…

And on that not I declare that we have a… Myth busted!

The vocal minority may be the only ones contributing to online discussions, but the rest are watching… and they’re making their purchase decisions based on what’s said.

Let’s return to the original question to close the discussion – Who would you rather talk to: 46 customers or thousands of randoms? If you can’t see the value of interacting with those 46 customers by now, you probably never will. In which case it’s probably best you just went on making TV ads…

Stay tuned for the next couple of weeks as I continue to bust other social media myths!

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