Matching the Medium with the Message in Word-of-mouth Marketing

It seems only logical that the more interesting a product is to consumers, the more they will talk about it. But the latest research from two Wharton professors suggests that when it comes to creating buzz-worthy advertising campaigns, how people communicate (e.g., whether they talk face to face or over email) is a big factor in determining what they discuss.

In their paper titled, “How Interest Shapes Word-of-Mouth over Different Channels,” marketing professors Jonah Berger and Raghuram Iyengar explore the relationship between successful marketing and the methods used to spread it. The topic is especially timely in the digital age, when there is a lot of attention paid to word-of-mouth and social media.

Berger and Iyengar analyzed two unique sets of data involving thousands of everyday discussions across different conversation channels, then conducted a controlled lab experiment in which they manipulated conversation to examine the effects. The results of all three studies point to a single conclusion: How interesting a product is to discuss matters more when people communicate through discontinuous channels, such as blog posts, texts, emails and online conversations. “The punch line of this paper is quite clean,” Iyengar says. “It is one of the first pieces of evidence that we have seen that it is not only the message but also the medium.”

The professors draw a distinction between discontinuous and continuous channels. The latter include face-to-face or phone conversations in which there is an instant response. When people speak in this manner, interesting products or brands are not talked about with any more frequency than less distinctive ones because social convention demands an immediate response, the researchers note. “It’s awkward to have dinner with a friend in silence, or ride in a cab with a colleague without conversing, so rather than waiting to think of the most interesting thing to say, people will talk about whatever is top-of-mind to keep the conversation flowing,” they write. “It’s not that people do not have enough interesting things to talk about; rather, they do not have the time to select the most interesting thing.”

By contrast, discontinuous channels allow the participant to take time to craft a good response — or no response at all. It is socially acceptable for a woman to post a link on Facebook about a new pair of shoes that caught her eye, for example, and have no one “like” it. “A really simple way to think about it is the following,” Berger notes. “Imagine if you’re online and someone sends you something. You don’t have to reply. You’re only going to share things when they cross a certain threshold of interesting. The option of not saying anything is fine in a discontinuous conversation.”

Armed with this knowledge, marketers can be more precise in crafting their campaigns to achieve better results. It’s not as simple as blanketing the web with pop-up ads or blasting the airwaves with commercials, Iyengar points out. It’s about picking the right medium for the right message. When that happens, marketers can hope that the flames of word-of-mouth will ignite and spread like a wildfire.

“Practitioners often believe that products need to be interesting to be talked about, but our results suggest they are only right for certain word-of-mouth channels,” the authors note in their paper. “If the goal is to get more discussion online … framing the product in an interesting or surprising way should help. Ads or online content that surprises people, violates expectations or evokes interest in some other manner should be more likely to be shared.”

The authors point to the example of blender manufacturer Blendtec’s series of commercials, which have garnered more than 150 million views on YouTube. In one commercial, a smiling actor in a lab coat and safety glasses drops his iPhone into the blender to answer the question, “Will it blend?” Upbeat music plays as the blender pulverizes the phone into a fine black powder. The actor lifts the blender lid to expose “iSmoke” and cheerfully warns viewers not to breathe in while he empties the contents into a bowl. The amusing ad has generated more than 10 million views and 24,000 “likes” since Blendtec uploaded it in 2007. “It’s very smart on the part of Blendtec because it’s just a blender. Why would it evoke interest?” Iyengar says. “But they showcased it in an unexpected way.”

Finding the Right Cues

The professors used several research methods to support their proposal. First, they analyzed aggregate data collected by marketing research firm Keller Fay Group, which relied on a large, nationally representative sample to avoid bias. The professors examined how often 1,200 products and brands were talked about by 5,690 people who had both online and offline conversations. While word of mouth was more frequent in face-to-face contact, the opposite was true when it came to correlating the level of interest. In addition, more distinctive products were mentioned more frequently in online conversations. The second study broke down the data to the individual level with similar results, suggesting that “the continuity of the conversation channels drove these effects,” the researchers write.

To explore their proposition further, Berger and Iyengar conducted an experiment in which participants sat together for conversation. Some were told to expect a pause before and between conversational turns (to mimic a discontinuous style like what they would experience communicating virtually). The professors then measured how those pauses affected the relationship between interest and whether a topic was discussed. Once again, the results were consistent that more distinctive products came up more frequently during discontinuous exchanges.

“The experimental approach is particularly useful because it allows us to test the mechanism we believe underlies the effects observed in the field,” the researchers conclude. “People who care more about seeming interesting may talk more online than offline, people may encode or remember interesting conversations that occur over one channel versus another, and some brands may be inherently more likely to be talked about online rather than face to face. Similarly, it may be easier to leave a boring conversation when your conversation partner is not physically there.”

Real-world application is at the heart of the research. “Brands, companies, nonprofit organizations, even politicians are chasing word of mouth,” Berger says. “It’s cheaper and more effective than traditional advertising. What this research shows is how to do it. If your goal is to get offline word of mouth, then interest isn’t going to be as important.”

That doesn’t mean all marketers should rush to create the next viral video. For some products, it seems that offline buzz is more valuable. Berger uses breakfast cereal as an example. It’s not the most exciting topic in the world, but it is top of mind, which means it’s more likely to be discussed in a face-to-face conversation at the water cooler or the playground. “We get up in the morning and eat [cereal] for breakfast, so there’s a good chance that we’ll talk about it,” he notes.

The professors point to data showing that food and dining are the most frequently discussed product categories in continuous conversation, more so than media, entertainment or technology. “Thus for offline word-of-mouth, considering how to trigger people to think about the product or brand may be a helpful approach to generating discussion,” they write.

Another important factor in pitching a product is figuring out how to establish cues for consumers. Again, that differs based on whether the channel is online or offline. Iyengar offers the example of Starbucks, which used an early strategy of market saturation. Multiple stores in close proximity established brand recognition and triggered consumer desire for the product. “What are some cues that people can [use to] remember your product?” Iyengar asks. “In Starbucks, it’s frequency. But there can be other types of cues. In an online context, it might be less about the cues but the content itself that is interesting.”

Berger cites the example of Doritos commercials that have aired during the last two Super Bowls, an event that has become synonymous with creative advertising. The ads are a good move on the part of the manufacturer because they mainly target offline, face-to-face communication, he says. “What’s interesting about that situation is that people watching the Super Bowl are also sitting there talking about tortilla chips, guacamole, seven-layer dip. Those aren’t the most exciting things in the world, but [people] are talking about them because they are right in front of them.”

Iyengar says he and Berger are considering taking their research deeper by replicating it in a field study, perhaps focusing more on online communication, such as Facebook. The results could further assist marketers in crafting campaigns in the fast-changing environment of social media.

“It’s really about understanding what drives people to talk about things on different channels,” Berger notes. “If we don’t understand why they share word of mouth, we can’t make it more likely to get them to share” in this way.

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