WOM UK Guest Post: Dr Martin Oetting explains why online marketing needs to become WOM advocacy

November 16, 2009 at 5:10 pm | In Events, Guest post | 1 Comment
Tags: martin oetting, online marketing, trnd, wom uk, word of mouth

To whet your appetite for this Wednesday’s WOM Thought Leader event featuring Dr Martin Oetting from trnd presenting his doctoral thesis The Ripple Effect, Martin has written us an exclusive blog post about how online marketing is migrating to a focus on word of mouth. Click here for details and registration for the free evening networking event then read on…

OettingOnline marketing is all about data: clicks, hits, downloads, visits. Consumers are no longer strolling incognito but on digitally supervised grounds. They leave countless traces that savvy marketers mine, analyse, understand and leverage – to divide the audience into little pieces, turn them into handy segments, provide each and everyone with their own click-path, most conducive to purchase. This number-crunching game, undoubtedly, must be the online marketing story. Right?

Personally, I don’t believe this. I don’t believe that modern marketing is made most exciting by the sheer amount of data that we collect and mess with. Yes, this is amazing, but I think the wonder of the web, with regards to online marketing, lies somewhere else.

I think the real story is this: On the web, a Mom and Pop store can scale.

Let me explain. Word of mouth is thought to be the most powerful force in marketing. A number of researchers have found that there is an interesting factor that stimulates it: better, closer relationships between a company and its customers. It seems like a no-brainer (of course I’ll recommend the friendly guy more often than the idiot), but no one was interested in this research from a mass marketing perspective – after all, it sounds like advice you give a local restaurant or your favourite barber’s shop. If you are Unilever, Volkswagen or Barcley’s Bank, you cannot worry about forging real relationships with your customers. You have millions of them, and you’re too busy devising cunning advertising strategies, to reach each one of them at least 17 times over. So that they finally remember that one ad which “penetrates your strategic position deeply into the target group“ (or something like that). Under these circumstances, there is no way to build real relationships like the little corner shop can.

Prof. Robin Dunbar agreed. In 1992, he proposed what became known as Dunbar’s Number. As he was researching the cognitive capacity of humans, he estimated that a normal human being can have and maintain something like 150 meaningful relationships. On average, our brains are not capable of really keeping track of more people than that. Close or not so close ties with 150 people seems reasonable: they range from your spouse (as, arguably, the closest) all the way to the guy down the pub with whom you have a brief chat every so often but don’t remember his last name (as number 150). Now let us say a marketing department of a large multinational has 35 employees. Taken together, they can then maintain relationships with 5,250 people (35 times 150). If they market to millions, that seems awfully little. Besides, most of these 5,250 people are their friends (“Art, don’t start with that marketing bullshit of yours again.“). No way to heed the Academics’ advice, to stimulate word of mouth through relationships.

And then the web happened.

Let’s have a look. You now have a LinkedIn profile, two email accounts, a blog, a Facebook page, and you’re on Twitter. If we assume that you are really actively using these tools, and if we take all of these devices together, to count the number of people with whom you are in touch, know of, hear from every now and then, might look up in your account and remember, reply to on Twitter, briefly: engage with in some way, we might easily conclude that your number reaches 1,500 people. Maybe more.

In other words: the web allows us to multiply Dunbar’s number by ten. (And you don’t need to be Robert Scoble for that – he’s probably closer to 100 times Dunbar.) Now let’s go back to the fictitious marketing department from above, and let’s assume that each of the 35 employees actively and passionately use the tools I mentioned. Then they can – taken together – create, build and maintain relationships with 52,500 people. Relationships in which they show that the company listens. Provides answers. Is caring. Understands its customers. Admits faults and rights them. Responds. Just like, in former times, only Mom and Pop could, in the little cobbler’s shop on the corner of the street. The web allows us to scale up these relationships. To a level where it becomes interesting for the largest marketers around.

Because what’s going to happen? 52,500 people in that market become its distributed network of communication hubs – people who know the company. Who will defend the company in times of trouble. Who are out there in the market, who listen and report back what’s going on. Who can have an influence on the buying decisions of ten people each – that’s 525,000 potential new customers!

And rather than wasting another day in yet another strategy meeting, or pouring over the umpteenth market research deck, the marketing people can actually start to do real marketing – by learning from the world around them, by taking that insight into the company, and helping to turn it into the type of product that the world out there is waiting for.

I believe that is the real power of online marketing.

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