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Who is a word of mouth influencer?

There has been a lot of debate about who is a word of mouth "influencer." 

Influential, buzzer, sneezer, agent, volunteer, activist, advocate, evangelists, maven … I use "Talker" in my book — intentionally trying to stay as generic as possible.

I’m not sure I think it’s even a debate as much as difference variations on the same theme — fueled by authors, professors, agencies, consultants, and organizations all trying to promote themselves by defining the term around their particular expertise. I was at a conference this week where I saw a dozen agencies pitching word of mouth services to a major advertiser.  They all had their own cool charts and names, but it was basically the same stuff.

Here are some of the more popular positions, roughly in order of few to many:

  • Super-connectors: There are certain people who are so amazingly connected and convincing that their recommendations spread like wildfire and move thousands. (Malcolm Gladwell in Tipping Point)
  • The Elite:  Highly connected and talky bloggers and social network players who have huge audiences and networks of connections.
  • Customers & Employees:  Really a subset of regular people,
    these are the stakeholders who are close to your brand and are happy,
    satisfied, and glad to make a recommendation. (Jackie Huba and Ben McConnell in Creating Customer Evangelists.)
  • The Influentials: Certain types of people are more active and connected, but they are regular citizens. These are the 1-in-10 people that others listen to:  The PTA parents, community activists, and talky neighbors.  Ed Keller and John Berry in The Influentials outline certain traits to help identify them, such as whether they write letters to the editor.
  • Anyone: Big networks of buzz volunteers who have absolutely no unique connection or skill. They just like to get free stuff and talk about it. (Tremor)

Columbia professor Duncan Watts suggests that the original talker doesn’t matter much at all.  He says that the variable that matters most is the people who surround the talker. If the network is easily influenced, and its members are the types of people who will repeat a message, then the message spreads — independent of the qualities of the original talker.

My view: 

Word of mouth is spread by all sorts of people, in all sorts of networks. The most important thing to remember in planning a word of mouth marketing campaign is that there is no one magic group that will make you suddenly famous.

To plan a good campaign, you need to identify:

  1. Talkers: Find one or more groups of talkers who are likely to talk about you
  2. Topics: Come up with a WOM-worthy topic for each group of talkers.  Each type of talker will be motivated by something different.
  3. Tools: Use a wide variety of techniques to help the talkers talk. The tool depends on the situation. Sometimes it’s Facebook, YouTube, and blogs. Sometimes it’s a cool t-shirt. Sometimes it’s a good email coupon.

Word of mouth marketing doesn’t have a magic bullet (just like regular advertising). Often, it’s just luck (just like regular advertising). You should try a wide variety of projects to get a wide variety of Talkers talking.  Don’t let anyone sell you a one-shot viral campaign that promises instant buzz. Test anything and everything.  Reach out to anyone and everyone who might talk. A great advantage of most word of mouth campaigns is that they are easy and inexpensive to test.  Test them all.

Conversations start everywhere … don’t worry so much about who you are talking to.

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