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In practically every customer survey I’ve ever encountered, “word of mouth” tops the chart of responses to the question ‘Where did you hear about…?”. Whatever you’re selling, however you’re selling it, people invariably heard about it ‘from a friend’.

Stats unanimously refute word of mouth’s dominance in marketing:
49% of US consumers rank ‘friends and family’ their top source of brand awareness; 77% are more likely to buy when learning about it from friends and family.*
It’s always been that way.

Posters, TV adverts, press coverage, direct mail – none of it compares to a trusted recommendation. …yet, I’ve always found it odd that those mediums are where we spend so much of our time, effort, and cash. Until now I’ve explained this mismatch roughly as follows:

“Although word of mouth is vitally important, you simply cannot affect it directly. All the other channels provide general awareness that will perhaps eventually pick up in certain social circles. Posters, ads and the like are all we can do.” Me, Until Now

Happily, I now discover that the popular academic Malcolm Gladwell considered the issue of word of mouth a little more thoroughly…

Gladwell’s Law Of The Few

In his bestselling 2000 book The Tipping Point, Gladwell examines what makes a ‘social epidemic’. With frequent correlations drawn to infectious diseases , the book explores how some ideas/concepts/products/brands ‘tip’, spreading through communities.

For a tip to occur, says Gladwell, three rules must occur:

  1. The Stickiness Factor (messages that make a lasting impact on the reciever);
  2. The Power Of Context (the smallest detail can drastically affect reception to an idea);
    and, digging deep into the word of mouth phenomenon,
  3. The Law of The Few

We know that 20% of our effort produces 80% of results. In marketing I’ve always found this knowledge both solace and curse; every action could count fivefold, or conversely fall flat. With word of mouth, however, Gladwell’s Law of the Few asserts that such a trend could be significantly more pronounced. Perhaps 10% of us do 90% of the ‘idea spreading’ work, for example. If so, reaching just 10%, or even less, of a target audience group could be enough to kickstart an idea.

If ideas spread like wildfire, there seems to be a select group of socialites who act as ‘kindling wood’ – the social ignition.

Narrowing the target audience from 100 people to just 10, 5, or even 1? That would put a whole new perspective on communications strategies. A hyper-specific search and targeting campaign.

So, then…

Who Are ‘The Few’? – The Social Igniters

Gladwell profiles 3 characters who, as demonstrated through countless examples, spread ideas by word of mouth. (You can find out if you are one!) All three are a rare breed, particularly the more ‘extreme’ examples of each. Some exceptional people embody more than one trait, but more often they’re independent individuals:

1 – Connectors

Maintain a large network of acquaintances, make introductions and keep people in touch. Ever wondered whether your friend who seems to ‘know everybody’ really does? It’s possible they do – connectors don’t need deep relationships, but consider acquaintances vital. They are massively important conduits for messaging.

2 – Mavens

Information gatherers and dispersers. Likely to border on obsessive, nothing gets past them: coupons; planning applications; share prices. This group is why the detail is important – they’re the ones who’ll call up a shampoo company if there’s a spelling mistake on the packaging. But convince this group of your worth and they’ll become die-hard advocates, passing the information on.

3 – Salespeople

Posses a ‘magical’ power to attune you to their wavelength. It’s all about rapport. They convert, but only by getting you ‘on side’ in ways you might not even realise.

The marketing community has wholeheartedly adopted the definition of Connectors, Mavens and Salespeople. The concept has been applied far and wide.

Changed Thinking: Lessons for generating a word of mouth buzz

Word of mouth is, clearly, an endlessly complex phenomenon. Gladwell’s theories seem to provide an extremely useful structure for navigating this fascinating beast. Since it’s position at the top of the marketing pile looks unassailable, I picked out 4 new-found understandings that I think will help make a difference:

  1. Big numbers aren’t everything. This is joyous news to anyone who’s ever experienced pitiful ‘readership’ or ‘views’ for a piece of marketing material and thought “what’s the point?” The point is finding the right people. Blog post read by just 10 people? That’s fine, as long as they’re 10 connectors, mavens and salespeople.
  2. Following on from point 1, it is therefore worth the extra effort, attention, care and craft to create rich, deep experiences for those key audiences. If 10 people are reading a blog post, better make it the best it can be – you’ll need to convert them into an advocate.
  3. Social media seems like the first time we’ve every encountered ‘influencers’. We’re told that people power is toppling the dominance of media brands. In many ways, that may be true, but Gladwell points out we’ve been trusting each other’s influence since the dawn of time – media has always come in second. Although Gladwell himself has written a follow-up article along these lines, social media has undoubtedly expanded the horizons of Connectors, Mavens and Salespeople. It may not have created social networks, but the internet has amplified them.
  4. It’s easy to understand that some people are more ‘valuable’ than others in terms of marketing effort – we try harder to reach the most influential. It’s harder to understand that this group themselves are segment-able. Devising independent strategies to attract and empower connectors, mavens and salespeople sounds a hefty workload, but a potentially wise move.

When all’s said and done, though, I kind of like that the power is with the people.

* Source: Nielsen, 2003


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