Word-of-mouth: The Holy Grail of marketing

Despite the sophisticated world of promotion and mega-advertising budgets, still nothing sells a product better than personal recommendation. So what is it about a play, film or book that so many people just have to phone a friend?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It was, in a rather literal sense, one of the most successful word-of-mouth events of last year. It was a commercial and what you saw on screen was an image of what the ad itself conjured into being - a transmission chain of amicable, shared silliness, in which friend passed the word to friend. The word in this case being "Whassup?" - a surprisingly elastic interrogation that was soon being stretched to breaking point in offices and playgrounds all over the country.

It was, in a rather literal sense, one of the most successful word-of-mouth events of last year. It was a commercial and what you saw on screen was an image of what the ad itself conjured into being - a transmission chain of amicable, shared silliness, in which friend passed the word to friend. The word in this case being "Whassup?" - a surprisingly elastic interrogation that was soon being stretched to breaking point in offices and playgrounds all over the country.

It was an object lesson in what the professionals call "viral marketing". An infectious agent conjured into being by an aspirant film director had been injected into the mains supply by means of the Budweiser advertising budget and soon the powerful mathematics of geometric progression meant that it was damn near everywhere. Eleven-year-olds intoned the word "true" with ponderous, doper solemnity, and even culture caught the bug - many victims' first exposure came through the film Scarey Movie, a horror-film pastiche that included a long, and notably respectful, sequence based on the Budweiser commercials. It was one of the very few things that the film didn't send up rotten.

The Budweiser commercial wasn't true word-of-mouth, of course. For one thing, all those people weren't talking about the debatable virtues of Budweiser's product. What they were diligently passing on was a password for an imaginary fraternity, a comic fantasy of male bonding that the advertisers hoped to associate with the beer. For another thing, the phenomenon had been carefully engineered- it was a knowing exploitation of the allure of one-to-one communication rather than a pure example of it. But it did provide an example of the power of word-of-mouth to achieve what no amount of advertising spend could ever guarantee - to get a buzz going that is audible above the steady deafening roar of ersatz enthusiasm. What the word-of-mouth event promises us - and we yearn for it more and more as the salesmen and accountants refine their skills - is the excitement of authentic response.

Fortunately, it does happen for real now and then. The best example in the past year came from theatre - in the shape of Marie Jones's play Stones in his Pockets, a comedy in which two actors depict the disruptive arrival of a Hollywood film crew in a small Irish town. An account of its progress will sketch in most of the essential components of a genuine word-of-mouth hit.

"It's been a continual snowball, this play," says its producer, Paul Elliott, as he confirms its capacity to enlist the audience onto the marketing team with the kind of incident impresarios fantasise about. "I actually took my mother to see it one day," he recalls, "and I drove her down to the theatre and went off to do some work in the office. I was waiting outside later to pick her up and I just wound the window down to listen to what people said... and one guy came out and he was on his mobile as he came through the doors saying 'I've just seen the best piece of entertainment I've ever seen'." (Mobile phones, incidentally, may have amplified the word-of-mouth effect -since they eliminate the gap between the urge to tell a friend and the opportunity to do so. It shouldn't have been entirely surprising that a little guidebook to text-messaging forced its way into the bestseller lists recently - perhaps the first instance of a wrd-of-) hit.)

This wasn't a case of audience enthusiasm triumphing over critical disdain; Stones in his Pockets has had almost universally good reactions, from its early outings in Belfast and Edinburgh, to its London opening, initially at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. And, like most big hits, it began with a more specialised word-of-mouth buzz among an inner-circle: "My colleague said 'I've seen this wonderful play up on the Fringe' and I was dragged up and thought, yes, he's absolutely right."

It's entirely appropriate that the play should have passed through the Edinburgh Festival - an incubation chamber for the kind of raging contagion on which word-of-mouth success depends. By the time he saw the play, Elliott already found himself in hot competition to secure the rights. But he then nurtured its status as an audience-made hit rather shrewdly. He took the play back to the Tricycle, where it had enjoyed a first successful run in London, rather than transferring it immediately to the West End, specifically, he explains, to build up the word-of-mouth momentum before making more tickets available.

Since then, the snowball has grown as enthusiasts pass the word, here and abroad. In the traditionally difficult week just before Christmas, when last-minute shopping generally triumphs over a night at the theatre, it was playing to 92 per cent houses, much of that audience recruited by those who had already been and wished to share the pleasure. Apologising to one customer who appeared to have been given the wrong programme for an alternative cast, Elliott discovered that she had bought it only a week before and was now returning with a party of friends.

That sense of proprietorial ownership of an event is one of the crucial elements of a word-of-mouth success, and it depends on the paradoxical sense that nobody knows about something that lots of people are going to see. Massive advertising campaigns actually snuff out word-of-mouth recommendation, because there is little kudos or pleasure in aligning yourself with the commercial blandishments blaring out from poster sites and television screens. "They feel very proud," says Elliott of his more zealous audience members, and that pride is a compound of glee at having got there first to a sense of incorporation in the event itself. This excitement at being in the know - worth its weight in gold in terms of free publicity - can even survive a major advertising campaign in the right circumstances. The Sixth Sense, a word-of-mouth cinema hit, was heavily promoted before it opened at the end of 1999, having already done good business in the United States, but it then generated a free second wave of publicity because of the excitement with which cinema-goers recommended its last-minute twist to uninitiated friends.

In other cases the sense of resistance to corporate persuasion is intimately part of the phenomenon. Naomi Klein's No Logo has enjoyed steady sales because of the almost religious fervour with which its younger, activist readers have pressed its anti-corporate virtues on their friends. It is a book that should be re-issued with a scratch'n'sniff tear-gas cover, since it was the heady odour of IMF protests and World Trade riots that really fuelled its success. No Logo usefully represents another important quality of the word-of-mouth hit, too; the feeling that a shared admiration for a work identifies you as a member of a community. This sense of solidarity can take all kinds of forms, from the virtual sisterhood of those who follow Oprah Winfrey's television Book Club suggestions (powerful evidence that not all mouths are equal when it comes to handing down the word) to the real reading groups that maintain the success of novels such as Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Birdsong.

In his fascinating study of social epidemics, The Tipping Point (itself the beneficiary of considerable word-of-mouth promotion), Malcolm Gladwell analyses the success of an American bestseller, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, the second novel by Rebecca Wells. The book enjoyed sales in hardback of 15,000 - perfectly respectable but hardly sensational. When it came out in paperback a year later it started by selling well and didn't slow down. It took a year for it to reach the bestseller lists, after which it went on to sell more than two and a half million copies. The explanation Gladwell offers, over and above the book's merits and the hard promotional work of its author, was that it was a perfect "book-group book", the kind of warm, emotionally engaging narrative that unites readers in enthusiasm. Its DNA was perfectly designed to exploit the unique ecosystem of group-reading. Those who passed on the word felt it was "their book" in a way that the reader of the average airport novel never could.

It goes without saying that word-of-mouth hits have to generate a special kind of excitement in their audience. "Americans talk about a one-block show, a two-block show and a three-block show," says Paul Elliott, explaining that these offer a crude measure of the duration of the post-performance enthusiasm. And if they're still talking about what they've seen three blocks away from the theatre, or three days after they've turned the last page, there's naturally a good chance that they'll talk to somebody else about it, setting in train the chain reaction that can boost sales into orbit, above the gravitational drag of waning novelty. Once you've done that, the usual trajectories of promotion and response don't count anymore.

Study what sociologists call the "diffusion model" for the idea that a particular book or play is a must-see event and you'll see a ripple that spreads far more slowly than the nuclear blast of a conventional ad campaign, in which a target audience is simultaneously irradiated with an itch of artificial curiosity. In a market place increasingly impatient for instant returns, this can make things difficult for the true word-of-mouth hit. The partner of one film director I know makes a point of seeing his films on the first Friday of their release, since the distributors sometimes decide the future of a film on just one night's box office take. Such haste to execution makes the slow, incremental growth of word-of-mouth successes virtually impossible, and though matters are a little less brutal in other areas, the world isn't getting more easygoing in this respect. As bookshops calculate the profitably of every inch of their shelf space, the window of opportunity for a title to accelerate from sluggish sales to bestseller turnover is steadily diminishing.

Matters are further confused by the eagerness with which marketing men seek to synthesise what everyone knows only grows wild. Billy Elliot, not really a word-of-mouth hit (since it is an essential part of the definition that it starts small and grows), was presented as if it was one before it had even opened. With other films, attempts similar to cloud-seeding take place, disc jockeys and other broadcasters being invited to early screenings in the hope that their particularly vigorous mouths might get the ball rolling.

Perhaps the most assiduous attempt to simulate word-of-mouth fever was that undertaken by the writer Jacqueline Susann. Undaunted by some of the worst reviews in publishing history ("She is a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, and thoroughly amateurish writer," one response went - and that was her publisher) she set about ensuring that every cog in the publishing machine would act as unpaid salesmen for her book; she got up early to take doughnuts to truckers distributing the books, charmed the warehouse staff and toured small bookshops talking to owners individually (compiling a card index of their wives and children's names as she did so).

In effect, it was a word-of-mouth campaign undertaken by a single shameless mouth. But it was still a heroic kind of direct marketing - not the real thing. And in an age when the sweet smell of success is often chemically applied along with the bar code, the real thing remains powerfully attractive. Genuine word-of-mouth hits are as rare and precious as truffles - and, fortunately, just as impossible to cultivate.