If you receive a message on your mobile phone from a good friend of yours, would you open it? Surely. If the message contains some sort of a commercial message, would you read it? Most likely and certainly if your friend refers to it. Would you be offended or disturbed by this message? Most probably not. On the contrary, the odds are that you are interested in it because your close friend, who knows you, thought so. In addition, you are probably pleased that your friend thought about you, and you are flattered that he or she took the time to contact you, maybe even to the point that you will act upon the commercial message either by forwarding the message further or by purchasing the product or service promoted.
The scenario above explains why mobile media as a personal communication tool would seem to be the optimal platform for word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing. Still, groundbreaking mobile WOM campaigns are yet to be seen. Why?
Five years ago, I was doing my master’s thesis for Starcut Ltd. I studied how it would be possible to generate WOM around motion pictures using mobile devices. Back then, the buzz about WOM was only starting. The vast majority of mobile devices were still black & white and could hardly display an image. The content industries were in panic because of piracy and peer-to-peer distribution. It was clear that the industry wasn’t ready for mobile word-of-mouth marketing campaigns that needed understanding about WOM mechanisms, sophisticated mobiles devices, and a willingness to trust consumers to distribute branded content.
Since those days online word-of-mouth marketing has gained a lot of momentum. The fragmentation of media channels, the growing importance of reaching niche audiences and markets, and the poor return on investment (ROI) figures of traditional marketing methods have forced marketing professionals to look for alternative means to attract consumers’ attention.
Marketing techniques relying on word-of-mouth communication, that is non-commercial person-to-person communication concerning a brand, product or service, are not, however, a new or even a recent phenomenon. They have been studied since the 1950’s both by academics and marketing research companies. The interest towards word of mouth communication originates from studies trying to analyze consumers’ purchase decision behavior. Practically all studies demonstrated that the most influential advice and information regarding buying decisions come from the consumers’ peers.
Further research proved that through WOM, information can spread fast to different consumer clusters without loosing its persuasiveness and that WOM is especially influential in service industries where customer experience is paramount.
Over the years, many trials were made to harness the word of mouth concerning a given product, brand, or service. Although the results proved that within certain boundaries WOM can be influenced, WOM marketing strategies remained marginal within the over-all marketing mix, mostly because of the difficulty to measure the impact of WOM campaigns.
The digital revolution of the 90’s gave a new start to WOM-based marketing solutions. With the help of Internet and email people could communicate a lot easier and faster with much more people than before. The digital communication tools provided also new means to measure WOM and service providers could benefit from customer feedback and ratings to improve their service. This online WOM gave rise to such successes as Hotmail, Amazon.com, and Ebay. In academic circles, digital networks gave rise to a new interest in network analysis, links, and the small world –theory, all tightly connected to WOM research.
After the year 2000, the number of business books published on WOM has exploded many of them specializing in one form of sub-genre of WOM, such as viral, buzz, stealth, guerilla or influencer marketing. Numerous companies have specialized on WOM marketing, and the industry has organized itself around Word of Mouth Marketing Association WOMMA, founded in 2004. In addition, all successful web 2.0 services from YouTube to Facebook seem to be using WOM mechanisms as building blocks of their service offering. I must say, it is an exciting time to continue my research, now as a doctoral student, on word-of-mouth mechanisms and service design.
But coming back to my starting point, why hasn’t WOM reached the mobile media on a large scale? My guess is that the mobile industry has had a dubious attitude towards all sorts of marketing due to the fear of spam. It was because of spam that European Union enforced its opt-in regulation back in 2002 and for the very same reason industry organizations elsewhere in the world took similar self-regulating actions.
This fear is certainly well grounded when it comes to mobile advertising, but NGO-driven mobile campaigns have shown that WOM works also on portable devices. Only ten days ago, a worldwide SMS campaign urged people to wear red on September 28th in order to support the demonstrators in Burma (Myanmar) and last Friday I received a text message originating from Amnesty International inviting people to light candles in front of Russian Embassies to remember the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. I forwarded the messages, not to everyone on my contact list, but only to a selected few that I thought would appreciate it. I bet I am not only one acting this way.
Last September showed some signs that also mobile industry is slowly getting rid of its fears. September 17th Nokia announced the acquisition of Enpocket, a company providing mobile advertising campaign systems and management. A week later, Blyk, the first free ad-supported mobile phone service went live in the UK. Who knows, maybe next week we will hear of the first mobile WOM campaign. But no matter when it takes place, I am sure that the first company succeeding in making users forward its ads to their peers on mobile media is going to be on everybody’s lips.