WOM confusion

A NYTimes article titled Advertising Is Obsolete. Everyone Says So. reports on the WOMMA conference held at the end of last week titled "Word of Mouth Vs. Advertising". And as usual, WOMMA is telling people "Don't advertise."

First off, isn't word of mouth a form of advertising? Why, yes, yes it is! Well, imagine that. Even on WOMMA's blog, people have been arguing the fact that WOM is advertising. So why even bother pitting the two against each other? One word: buzz.

And second, word of mouth cannot work solely on its own. To say so is just stupid. WOMMA seems to think that they are the magical marketing and advertising solution. And the sad thing about it is that it tarnishes the entire image of word of mouth.

On their blog, one poster writes:

WOM has been around longer then anything we currently call traditional advertising. So, wouldn’t it actually be more traditional then what is generally classified as traditional advertising? I mean, conservatively, WOM is what, tens of thousand of years old, compared to radio/TV, which is around 100 years old? Wouldn’t that technically make WOM traditional and TV non-traditional?

George Silverman also writes on the blog:

The lessons here are that the creation of buzz for its own sake is fruitless. Word-of-mouth without product benefits, as is the case with most viral and buzz marketing today, is fruitless. Advertising that does not emphasize product benefits and give people a reason to buy is fruitless. Getting clients to spend their money on fruitless "cool" stuff borders on the criminal.

Seems they don't even know what they are talking about themselves, since their experts are contradicting their "vs." concept.

The other part that is interesting to note is WOMMA's rampant stance on disclosure. Back in Feb of 2005 in an article on WOMMA ethics:

Another industry group, the Viral & Buzz Marketing Association, claims that the WOMMA proposed ethics code focuses too heavily on deceptive marketing practices, and dodges the issue of marketing to minors. Justin Kirby, the co-founder of the VBMA, said that condemning deceptive practices wholesale precludes some of what viral and buzz marketers do.

"What we're talking about is an ethical spectrum that goes from deception to transparency. There is this bit in the middle, which is like 'April Fool's'," said Kirby. "They say you can't fake word of mouth. Well, how do you do an April Fool, then?"

Sernovitz responded that WOMMA's code includes a clause specifically to exempt such a campaign. Sernovitz cited the "honesty of identity" portion of the ethics code, which reads in part: "Manner of disclosure can be flexible, based on the context of the communication. Explicit disclosure is not required for an obviously fictional character."

And yet now, WOMMA appears to be the champions of disclosure. From the NYTimes article :

"People engage in word of mouth because they want to look good," Mr. Silverman said. "Word of mouth is the most honest advertising medium there is. People don't want to hurt their friends and family and colleagues with bad information."

The importance of ethics and full disclosure was also a recurrent theme at the conference, as speakers repeatedly warned attendees not to misrepresent themselves when, for instance, pitching a product on an online message board. In other words, do not try to be stealthy, said Robert Ricci, the director of Web relations for Weber Shandwick, a public relations firm that is part of the Interpublic Group of Companies.

"If you're working on a video game, and you go onto a video gamer's blog, let your contacts know that you are an employee of said company," Mr. Ricci said while leading a session titled "How to Work with Bloggers and Communities, the Ethical Way." "Always let them know what your intentions are up front."

Yet, BzzAgents, a member of WOMMA, last year began to require their agents to disclose the fact others are aware that they have "volunteered to be a part of a marketing effort" around the same time that WOMMA issued their ethics code. Their new code also requires their agents to click a box confirming that they have read the company's policy on disclosure and will adhere to it. This was the result of BzzAgent's study as well as a study done by Walter Carl (can be downloaded here), an assistant professor of Communications at Northeastern University and on the advisory board for WOMMA.

There is something strange about this study though. It's as if they feel they have to prove the fact that disclosure is important. In September 2005, Intelliseek released a report in which their findings showed:

Intelliseek's research also looked closely at consumer attitudes toward artificial buzz or so-called "shill" marketing, in which consumers are paid or offered incentives to recommend products or brands. One-third would be disappointed if a trusted contact did not carefully disclose a paid or incentive-based relationship, 26 percent said they would never trust the opinion of that friend again, and 30 percent said they would be less likely to buy a product/service.

It would have been interesting to see if the results had come back differently if these WOM groups would have stood by the decision for disclosure. Adage.com reported on the news of the study and included this tidbit:

BzzAgent didn’t initially require disclosure, but its leadership learned that it is more effective and more ethical to do so and eventually changed its policy.

“When we started the business in 2001, everything we read told us that in stealth and anonymity there is power,” said Founder-President Dave Balter in a interview with Advertising Age last year. “Are there cases where if people didn’t disclose they would influence somebody else? Yes. But it’s not appropriate and disclosing doesn’t hurt the process."

Although as Justin Kirby points out in this AdLand post:

I guess it's a question of whether you think it's OK to say that after having made recommendations to your Bzzagents transparently it is out of your hands as to whether they are transparent or not. However, if you are going to call for total transparency then you should have to ensure that you can enforce it otherwise it can be seen as being disingenuous."

What is interesting is that all of this puffery about disclosure seems to be a nice way to distract from the fact that WOMMA endorses the use of kids for WOM. Even at 13, they may be called teens but they are also still kids.

In this PR Week article from October 2005 they write about Commercial Alert's complaint to the FTC. The article states that Tremor is not a memeber of WOMMA:

One group singled out in Commercial Alert's complaint is Tremor, the buzz marketing arm of Procter & Gamble that targets teens. Tremor is not a WOMMA member, although its 250,000-strong force of young buzzers certainly makes it a force in the industry. And contrary to WOMMA's guidelines, Tremor doesn't require its teens to disclose who they are working for. "We don't require them to communicate that Tremor is part of the information that they're talking about, but we don't dissuade them from saying it either," says P&G spokeswoman Robin Schroeder.She said that P&G is waiting for the FTC to contact it regarding the issue. Tremor is in touch with WOMMA, she said, but has not made any move to join.

You can read the complaint here. Another article from March 2005 also claims Tremor is not affiliated with WOMMA.

Yet, we can seeTremor is listed as a member from Jan 2005 (when they were welcomed as a Governing Member) through March 2005, which is around the time WOMMA put out their ethics code. It's around this time they stop showing up in the list of members (current memebers can be viewed here). Either Tremor left after a falling out over the ethics code, or they are still a member but have an agreement not to let it be known.

WOM as a medium is new. What's interesting is the large amount of backpedalling going here. In many ways one could say that all of the reversals of opinions and all is just a part of the growth proccess. And sure it is.

But let's not pretend that we are 100% on a topic when it's a constantly evolving thing. To do the "we don't we don't" dance makes people think the lady doth protest too much, rather than just admit that in the past you did, but now you don't. Just like the BzzAgents admitting to the fact that they thought being decpetive was great back in 2001.

And, just like the web (remember it's only 10 years old- advertising wise), it's still in it's infancy. We learn from our mistakes. Let's not pretend to be experts on a topic that is still not completely understood.

Other related posts on Adland:
Is buzz illegal?
How young is too young to be a marketer?
Don't make WOM become SPAM!
WOMMA ethics draft not well received
NIMF attacks WOMMA for "buzzploiting" children and teens
The Hidden (in Plain Sight) Persuaders debate
Justin Kirby sheds light on difference between viral and deception.
Word of mouth marketing - do we need regulation?
Bzzagent doing everything wrong - comment spam on the rise

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Anonymous Adgrunt's picture
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Dabitch's picture

Sometimes they backpedal so fast you'd think they're trying to reverse time. ;)

viralmeister's picture

Wow, so many different issues here the biggest being the ratio of viral, buzz and word of mouth vendors to clients! Perhaps this discrepancy is the real reason two of WOMMA

AnonymousCoward's picture

"First off, isn't word of mouth a form of advertising? Why, yes, yes it is!"

Well, no, it isn't. WOM is the precise opposite of advertising: Advertising is advocacy of a product in a rented medium. Word of mouth is recommendation (positive or negative [the first point of difference]) by people who are independent. Of course, there are relative degrees of independence. The reason that WOM agents or paid medical experts are trusted even though they are incentivized, is that they are perceived as independent, and demonstrate that they are by giving what is obviously a non-salesy picture, often stressing the negatives, even when recommending a product.

"And second, word of mouth cannot work solely on its own. To say so is just stupid. WOMMA seems to think that they are the magical marketing and advertising solution. And the sad thing about it is that it tarnishes the entire image of word of mouth."

There are many examples of products that made it only with WOM. All the products through the millenia before conventional marketing was invented. Hershey's, Noxema (major brands before they started advertising), Google, Amazon, even illegal drugs (despite anti-advertising).

Also, it can be "magical," although I agree that too many people look to it as a magical solution. It's more than 1000 times as powerful as conventional marketing and it can spread explosively and almost instantaneously. See my post for proof at:

I disagree with my fellow WOMMA people when they say it's more traditional because it's been around longer. WOM

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