This guest blog post, by Doug Pruden and Terry Vavra, follows up on a previous SmartBlog on Social Media post: How to find and activate your best potential advocates.

Recommendations, raving reviews, word of mouth — call it what you will, positive comments about our brands not only make us feel good, but help to fortify our businesses. Positive word of mouth helps to produce higher awareness, increase brand consideration and even result in greater intention to purchase. As marketers, we love them all and we’d love to have more.

But there’s a dark side too. A large percentage of word of mouth is actually negative in nature, and those who generate it seem to cry out louder than those disseminating positive word of mouth. Studies have shown that unhappy customers achieve greater reach — but why is that? We’ve examined that issue with the goal of not only answering that question, but with the hope of a better understanding of word of mouth in general. Specifically, we’ve questioned how to generate more positive word of mouth in the future. In the process we created a model of word of mouth that explains the imbalance. Our model identifies three components that underlie word of mouth.

The key factors driving word of mouth

Word of mouth is driven by three components. Let’s examine these components from the perspective of dissatisfied customers, those disseminating negative word of mouth:

  1. Motivation. They are emotionally driven to make their comments. They are mad, seeking revenge, wanting their money back, or are trying to prevent others from suffering their unfortunate outcome. Some may even be motivated by a desire to push the brand to make improvements so they can continue to buy the product or service in the future.
  2. Content. As unhappy customers they each have a “story” (the experience creating their dissatisfaction) to tell. Stories range from those about terrible-tasting meals, a salesperson misrepresenting a product or service, a service provider being rude or disrespectful, etc., etc. The one thing they share is that having “lived the moment,” unhappy customers have plenty of details allowing them to spin an enthralling tale.
  3. Opportunity. Their motivation and eagerness to tell their story compels these customers to take the time and energy to find review sites and blogs where they can express themselves. In addition, they don’t wait to be asked by friends or co-workers for their opinion, they eagerly volunteer it. They initiate conversations, both online and offline, telling their friends, neighbors, co-workers, relatives, and even complete strangers about their negative brand experience.

And so negative word of mouth spreads like wildfire. Positive word of mouth depends upon the same three components, but pleasant outcomes — producing happy customers — seem less able to “fuel the process” and therefore stimulate weaker motivation, less detailed content and a lower incentive to create communication opportunities. Simply satisfying customers and meeting their expectations is apparently not enough to adequately motivate them to write a positive review or to post a compliment on their blog. Further inhibiting the formation of positive word of mouth is customers’ lack of content – there’s a less dramatic story to tell. A good portion of the blame for lack of content falls on our shoulders.

All too frequently, as marketers, once we’ve made the sale we incorrectly assume that our customers understand how to get maximum benefit from our products or services; know how they compare to competitive offerings; have a “brand manager’s understanding” of the value offered by our product/service; and/or can knowledgeably tell a friend about our product/service. So we are less active than we should be in thinking about stimulating word of mouth about our successes. This leads to the question, how — other than bribery (which we do not recommend) — can one stimulate customer advocates to be effective spokespeople for your brand?

We’ve developed a process to help businesses identify their best potential customer advocates and to manage the three components of word of mouth: stimulating motivation; creating and passing along content (stories to tell); and creatively engineering opportunities for communication. Specific details can vary by assignment but fully understanding the three components of word of mouth is essential.

Doug Pruden and Terry Vavra are principals at Customer Experience Partners in Darien, Conn. They have experience in advertising, direct marketing and marketing research, and focus on issues related to customer retention, growing share of wallet spending, and word of mouth measurement and management. They can be reached at pruden@customerexperiencepartners.com.

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