Finding the First Mouth in Word-of-Mouth Marketing

Word-of-mouth marketing such as viral or buzz initiatives are in vogue these days thanks to the popularity of social media networks and the ubiquity of wireless device.  Word-of-mouth techniques are about getting customers and key influencers to spread the word about a new product through their social or professional networks. This type of marketing has generated significant interest within industries that leverage the power of customer referrals such consumer goods, hospitality and software services as well as more recent applications in the pharmaceuticals, gaming and movie businesses.

There is one problem: marketers often don’t know what works, what doesn’t work and how can you define a ROI.  Trial and error has been the standard approach but a new study is providing hard evidence to aid in program design. New research from the Wharton School of Business explored the effectiveness of typical word-of-mouth advertising for new drug prescriptions in some key markets  Researchers tracked how prescriptions of a new drug spread from one physician to another, depending on who talked to whom and referred patients to whom.  The researchers mapped the connections to understand social/professional relationships and referral patterns as well as  identifying and measuring the role of key influencers or “seeders.”

The study’s key conclusion was that typical word-of-mouth targeting against self-selected key influencers or those who had the most connections may not be as effective as previously thought.  Instead, program success or failure is often dependent on finding the best “seeders” who typically fly below the radar.  These people are well-connected and respected evangelizers existing at the hub of social networks, who will embrace a product and promote it widely among the people they know.  

As evidence, the researchers found that the entire network actually divided into two sub-networks split by ethnicity.  One physician, number 184, who was way down the Key Opinion Leader (KOL) list in terms of number of connections and public prestige, ended up being the key connector linking both networks.  Without the connecting power and informal status of physician 184, a pharma marketer would have not have been able to drive the maximum effectiveness and efficiency of a word-of-mouth marketing program in the total market. 

Other study findings should influence strategy and program design:

  1. Product word-of-mouth effects can and do happen over social networks.
  2. Target networks and seeders come in many sizes and shapes based on a variety of socio-economic and psycho-graphic criteria.  One important factor in identifying the best “seeders” is how their peers perceive them, as opposed to how people self report their status (a common way of identifying KOLs).
  3. Of specific interest to pharma marketers, the most influential person may not be the most visible KOL but rather one that carries significant yet informal prestige and connectedness among their peers.
  4. Word-of-mouth effects can impact opinion leaders as well as followers, in contrast to what is often believed (that only followers are affected by social influence).

Clearly more research is needed that links word-of-mouth flows to actual marketing programs and ultimately to measurable purchase behaviours.  However, this Wharton research is a start and should provide some evidence-based principles to improve viral or buzz marketing planning and design.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.


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