Word of Mouth marketing, now without the Mouth part

Bruce WilsonFor old school marketers, “word of mouth” requires mouths. For the rest of us, not so much.

Last night I enjoyed attending a networking event hosted by a local product design firm specializing in medical equipment. While there I met quite a few friendly folks from materials fabrication companies–sheet metal, plastics, and such. The reactions I evoked after saying that I provide social media marketing for small to medium-sized businesses were telling.

The first fellow I spoke to said “We could never use that social media marketing stuff. We do all our marketing by word of mouth.”

The last guy I talked with said “This would be great for us. We do all our marketing by word of mouth. We just haven’t done anything with it yet.”

This actually fits my business model to a T. Because while there are many high profile examples of companies that are successfully using social media to promote their companies, there are many more who haven’t figured it out and haven’t yet gotten a clue about where to begin.

Companies that do most of their business promotion over the internet (like Amazon) and companies marketing ubiquitous consumer brands (think Coke) by this time have well-developed social media marketing strategies. Like the last guy I talked to, they know that “word of mouth” today includes customers telling their friends — and their friends’ friends — what they like and don’t like using Facebook, Twitter, and a myriad of other internet connections. These companies are making the most of that kind of “word of mouth” by making it easy for their customers to hear about them regularly and pass on good messages about their products to potential customers.

On the other end of the spectrum, many small to medium sized companies that are not primarily internet-based haven’t come to grips with the power of social media to increase their business. In these financially difficult times, where the low cost of “word of mouth marketing” makes it more attractive than ever, they probably should at least take a look at it. But many think like the first guy I talked to: word of mouth means literally words coming out of mouths. Perhaps they believe thathey can’t connect to their customers on the internet because they don’t sell much on the internet.

Marketing that seemed straightforward in the past, like YellowPages and print ads, is not nearly as focused and flexible as what we have today. Even for businesses that aren’t primarily web-based or global consumer brands, it’s time to understand and consider the “word of mouth” opportunities presented by the rising tide of social media online.

Now PR like journalism is really Social Media

Bruce WilsonNot surprisingly, public relations (“PR”) is undergoing revolutionary change right along with journalism. I just attended a Seattle Lunch 2.0 presentation based on the premise that social media is now the primary vehicle for PR.

Panelist John Cook is a journalist-cum-blogger, a former Seattle Post Intelligencer beat reporter and blogger for venture capital, now co-founder and executive editor of TechFlash. He made two particularly interesting points:

1) In response to an audience member who expressed the widely held view that press releases are mostly useful for SEO purposes nowadays, he said he still WANTs to receive press releases, they help him assess potential stories.

2) His “sources” for investigative journalism stories he’s covering now include people who read about his investigation online and give him tips via posts (comments on his blog, Tweets, and emails I assume) in real time.

Jaime Riley from Deloitte said that since it’s inevitable that the “Gen Y” future leaders of Deloitte will wind up using social media in the ordinary course of business, they’ve started incubating a healthy social media culture now (Deloitte has two Twitter accounts, she said–not sure if that’s company wide or Seattle or where).

Thanks MWW Group for a tasty lunch, an eloquent panel, and interesting attendees. (For more insights, and plenty of plain old redundant Twitter chatter from attendees, tweets concerning the event can be found at #mww2dot0.)

New FTC guidelines are not quite law and not fully baked yet

Bruce WilsonThe FTC has announced new guidelines which concern “endorsements” by bloggers (21 of the document’s 81 pages have some direct reference to blogs or bloggers). If I understand correctly, under the guidelines which become effective December 1, 2009, a blogger can be fined for failing to reveal that they received payment or kept an object they were given to review–even a book–if they publish a review of the item or the company that made it.

Three points:

First, we all (not just bloggers, but everyone) should just do this anyway. Your credibility will suffer if you endorse something to me and I find out later that you received something of value from the folks you endorsed, whether or not YOU think it influenced you! So FTC or no FTC, this is a good reminder about minimum ethical standards for communicating about products and services.

Second, there is a lot of confusion about the power the FTC is packing behind these new guidelines. To vastly oversimplify the US regulatory system: this thing that we’re talking about isn’t part of the Constitution (obviously), Federal Statutes (passed by Congress) or Federal Regulations (passed by individual Federal Agencies). It’s more of an announcement by an agency, the FTC, clarifying how they intend to interpret and enforce the laws and regulations that already exist in this realm. Keep in mind that until the FTC actually goes after someone citing this guideline, and their enforcement action challenged in Court, its implications are murky. And in the mean time the FTC can simply change its interpretation or otherwise enforce this (and related) principles in a wide variety of ways.

Third, the FTC seems remarkably poorly prepared to deal with this area of regulation. Which might explain this embarrassing interview between a blogger and a representative of the FTC (thanks to blogger Edward Champion at Reluctant Habits for digging deeper) revealing that the representative (and very likely the FTC) hasn’t really thought this through yet. (Bloggers would be able to open used book stores? Come again?!)

So I’m predicting that these guidelines won’t be featured in any enforcement actions any time soon. But I’m hoping that any bloggers (and non-bloggers) who aren’t disclosing their relationships with the products and companies they review take the hint and begin doing so!

(By the way, these guidelines are by the FTC, the Federal Trade Commission, who are responsible for consumer protection, not to be confused with the FCC, the Federal Communications commission, who are responsible for regulating communication via radio, television, wire, satellite and cable, and are central to the “net neutrality” debate.)