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The Wonders of Word of Mouth

NEW YORK — When it comes to getting the best recommendations on clothing brands, automobiles, movies, vacation spots, investment strategies and restaurants, nothing beats word of mouth.<br><br>But it just can’t be anybody’s...

“The Influentials” by Ed Keller and Jon Berry.

“The Influentials” by Ed Keller and Jon Berry.

NEW YORK — When it comes to getting the best recommendations on clothing brands, automobiles, movies, vacation spots, investment strategies and restaurants, nothing beats word of mouth.

But it just can’t be anybody’s mouth.

According to Jon Berry, vice president of RoperASW, who coauthored a book with Ed Keller, chief executive officer of RoperASW, called “The Influentials” (the Free Press/Simon and Schuster, 2003), there are certain people who are the most active community leaders and leading-edge consumers. This group tells its family and friends what to buy, which politicians to support, what restaurants to try and where to vacation. “The Influentials” aren’t the most affluent consumers, but rather they are the 10 percent of Americans most involved in their local communities, the authors said.

When these people give advice, people listen. Berry believes it’s imperative for businesses, government and nonprofit organizations to pay attention to them.

Berry was a speaker Thursday at an Advertising Women of New York seminar at the New York Hilton entitled, “Influential Americans — Where Word-of-Mouth Begins and the Future Unfolds.” RoperASW is a global marketing research and consulting firm here.

In his presentation, Berry explained that in 1977, 67 percent of American consumers got their recommendations from word of mouth; 53 percent from advertising, and 47 percent from editorial. In 2001, a whopping 93 percent of American consumers got their recommendations from word of mouth, 48 percent from advertising and 42 percent from editorial. (The surveys are based on interviews with 2,000 American consumers 18 and older.)

For example, he cited an “Influential” soccer mom, who is asked for the name of her contractor or window washer, and she’ll tell her friend as well as at least three or four people who are with her at the game. “It’s a different process than sitting in front of a TV and being told what to do,” said Berry.

According to Berry, “The Influentials” are well connected, hear about things, tend to be trusted and are interested in learning and taking the next step. They are actively engaged in media, such as reading newspapers and magazines, watching TV and listening to the radio, and appreciate advertising when it is informative, smart, creative, engaging, humorous, empowering, accurate, portrays real life authentically and indicates links to other media for additional information.

These people are generally connected to at least seven groups, such as their neighborhood and town, religious group, workforce, political group, hobby or alumni association, he added. They are also the ones who complain to companies in person, call, write letters or e-mail. The authors believe companies should pick the brains of these consumers for ideas and improvements and revisit them in the future to see what they think because there’s a high cost if they ignore them — negative word of mouth.

Berry attributed the “word-of-mouth” revolution to the fact that the median age of consumers is now older and these people have more experience and more information. In addition, the consumer is more educated and has more ways to communicate such as e-mail and cell phones. Today, 62 percent of Americans use personal computers regularly, 57 percent have access to the Internet and 55 percent own a cell phone, said Berry.

“Decisions are conversations today. The role for advertising in media has changed. You have to learn how to interact with people now. Advertising has to be part of the conversation,” said Berry. He noted that advertisers have to provide ways for people to interact, through Web sites and 800 numbers.

The book notes that “influentials” tend to be two to five years ahead of the public on significant trends, such as the adoption of major technologies or new ideas, such as the recent movement to rebalance work and family issues.

“In times of change, people naturally seek a guide, someone who’s been out ahead of them, who’s already identified the issues, addressed them in his or her own life, and can offer good, reliable, informed insights, advice and information about what’s going on now and what’s to come, someone they trust,” according to the book.