By Paul Rand
President and CEO, Zócalo Group

Today’s consumers are so inundated with marketing clutter—not to mention personal and business e-mails and voice mails—that it’s increasingly difficult for clear commercial messages to get through. Meanwhile, there is a growing lack of trust in institutions, product claims and paid messages, as consumers rely more on authentic voices that aren’t tied to “the establishment.”

For instance, audiences continue to shrink for the network evening news even as more people tune in to “backpack journalists” blogging their observations and opinions around the globe in real time, with just a laptop, a Web connection and perceived credibility.

All this means businesses are working harder and paying more to pursue audiences who, unfortunately, are paying less attention. The ability of the average consumer to remember advertising 24 hours after exposure is at the lowest level in the history of the ad business, according to the Advertising Research Foundation.

The messages that technologically enabled consumers are sending to marketers have become increasingly clear: I’m in control. I’ll pay attention to whom I want, when I want. If you want to talk to me, stop trying to interrupt me. Engage me—on my terms, not yours.

Smart companies are getting the message. And that is leading to rapid and fundamental changes in relationships. Not only are companies listening to customers and other key audiences, they are partnering with them, becoming more transparent by offering an inside view of their brands or business. Companies have figured out that the most effective strategy to address the rising power of consumer control is to enable consumers themselves to own and spread an organization’s messages through word of mouth.

Simply put, WOM is the act of consumers providing information to other consumers. More than 90 percent of Americans say a word-of-mouth recommendation is their best source for ideas and information on products and services. So it’s no surprise that more and more marketers (both B-to-C and B-to-B) are actively working to figure out the best way to include word-of-mouth marketing within the communications mix.

In the beginning, the terms “buzz” and “WOM marketing” were interchangeable. But while buzz certainly helps brands and organizations create their “15 minutes of fame”—and perhaps achieve a short-term sales spike—the question arises: What’s next?

The answer is truly understanding how to create sustainable word of mouth and how to equip the brand evangelists who have an interest in supporting and building a brand, product or service.

There are three basic types of WOM:
• Organic WOM. This is word of mouth that occurs naturally — usually because of a remarkable product or service.
• Amplified WOM. This occurs when a company proactively encourages and stimulates activities that drive word of mouth through specific marketing campaigns to engage existing or new communities.
• Sustainable WOM. This occurs when a company consistently and smartly connects with its key influencers and advocates in such a way that there is ongoing and beneficial word of mouth.

Sustainable WOM is the goal we are striving to reach for clients. From working with some of the world’s leading brands, we’ve learned that there are six major components to creating sustainable WOM.

1. Being able to articulate your “ownable position” and “shareable story”

Why do customers choose and recommend one brand or offering over another? In most cases, it’s because they believe the product meets their needs better than competitive offerings. However, people don’t recommend you by your advertising tagline. No one says, “Hey, Sue. Try this new coffee. It brings the country to your morning cup.” They might say, however, “Hey, Sue. You’ve got to try this coffee. It’s not harsh like some coffee house types but it’s still really rich and has incredible flavor.” How people talk about you is critical. Being able to clearly articulate your “ownable position” means that you’re giving others the language to recommend you. And they will do it in their own words, which will be more authentic and believable.

2. Knowing your influencers and evangelists

At Zócalo Group, we’ve learned how to help brands systematically identify, inform and encourage their biggest influencers and evangelists. It can be done. And if you don’t do it first, it’s likely your competitors will—forcing you to break up that relationship before starting your own.

3.Establishing and maintaining a dialogue

We all know that the days of “interruption marketing” are over. Listening to your evangelists and creating and sustaining a conversation with them can pay incredible insights and dividends.

4. Having the platform and tools to encourage sharing

Your evangelists will sing your praises if you tell them how and give them the shareable resources, product/service details and “pass-along documents” to do so.

5. Including WOM as an integral part of your marketing mix

WOM marketing is increasingly recognized as an integral and defined part of the marketing mix. Along with considering public relations, advertising, direct-marketing, promotion or interactive components, make sure to break out and pursue a WOM component if good word of mouth is crucial to your success.

6. Engaging in “Continuous Provement”

Sustainable WOM is not a one-shot deal. You must continuously engage with and continuously prove your value to your evangelists and the influencers who matter most.

The exciting news is that WOM is increasingly and demonstrably measurable, with notable ROI and ROMO (return on marketing objectives). We’re able to track all levels of online conversations and to benchmark progress against perceptions and behaviors. Also, we have developed advanced online communities that allow us to measure all levels of engagement and pass-along.

The evolution of WOM has begun to impact and influence every form of marketing. At leading companies, the first wave of the future is already here — creating an environment in which the organization, its customers and their influencers are all players, engaged in integrated dialogues about products and services in real time.

It seems in a busy and technologically advanced world, the hottest form of marketing happens to be the oldest.

Paul Rand is the president and CEO of Zócalo Group (, a Ketchum and Omnicom company specializing in word of mouth.