When Ads Don’t Work – Harnessing The Power Of Word of Mouth Advertising

We look at why word of mouth and product sampling are the future for brands.

What do you think prompts targets to try or buy your products? Your advertising?

Possibly not, even if it did cost tens, even hundreds, of thousands of pounds—even big-budget Christmas ads are now failing to strike a chord with the UK public.

There’s a solid and growing body of research that says consumers, particularly the millennial and later generations that make up a growing proportion of FMCG buyers, are turning away from brand-owned marketing and look instead to learn about brands from their peers and families.

In particular, they look to trusted people who have direct experience of the product (in other words, people who have actually tried it, rather than been paid to promote it).

Today’s consumers, who increasingly take ethical, environmental and health issues into account when deciding what to buy, are less wealthy than previous generations were at the same age, so they allocate money carefully and take time to decide from a growing range of options.

In doing so, they trust recommendations from family and friends above all.

That’s a very big change indeed, especially to the world of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), where traditional mass-market brands are already under attack from challenger brands and discounters, and trying to meet the many new demands of a connected, digital marketplace.

While the shift to customised products, product sampling and personalised consumer engagement and marketing has opened doors for niche and very small (often online) brands, it demands major cultural and behavioural change on from SMEs and bigger companies, many of whom are used to the more ‘broad brush’ approach of traditional, regional or even national advertising and marketing campaigns.

The good news is, that if brands can get word of mouth engagement right, especially in conjunction with a product sampling programme that targets their customer base with real precision, they can thrive—and that’s as true for the well-established, big-name brands as it is for new entrants and innovators.

At The Family Loop we know this, we’ve seen it happen—repeatedly.

Because however ‘old school’ the approach may seem at first, the benefits of word of mouth and peer-led engagement extend way beyond the initial interaction, and are good for consumers and brands alike.

There’s even reason to suspect that while consumers are willing to act on positive word of mouth, they may have a tendency to filter out negative comments, if they are interested in the brand anyway.

Give those wavering targets a nudge in the form of a risk-free chance to try your product, and there’s obviously a great chance to convert. Repeat that many times over in the form of a campaign, and the payoffs are clear.

Word of mouth advertising means more than just social media

The key to word of mouth success is to do much more than just talk to customers on social media, maintain a Facebook page, drop snippets about your products into online forums or link your products with football teams or TV shows that you think your targets might like.

No, you have to actively engage, to meet people where they are (quite literally) and then leverage people’s natural enthusiasm, to build a chain.

Think about it: if you are a keen cyclist, not only are you in the market for cycling stuff, you probably know lots of other cyclists, and you probably talk about cycling items and products you have tried.

If you’re a mum, who has primary control of the household grocery and clothing budgets, and you stand at the school gate at 3.15, chances are you are standing there with many other mums in the same situation—and chatting to them, both in person and online.

The crucial difference between advertising, or even the use of social media influencers, and word of mouth engagement, is that word of mouth involves peer-to-peer conversations.

These are dialogues, not preaching or persuasion by people with vested interests. So, interactions are generally authentic and unfiltered.

Word of mouth also reaches the smaller, more niche demographics that are interested in your brand but may be swept over by wider, less targeted campaigns that are designed and enacted by people who aren’t part of that target group, don’t know them personally and have little real-life experience of the product.

Family Loop research shows that on average, consumers have more than three times as many one-to-one conversations about products they have tried, compared to products they have merely seen advertised.

84% of consumers are influenced by their friends’ and family members’ social media posts about products and services

We also know that 84% of consumers are influenced by their friends’ and family members’ social media posts about products and services, while a massive 93% have been influenced to buy a product or service thanks to a positive report by a peer or relative who has tried it.

In stark contrast, just 11% have followed a celebrity’s recommendation.

What is more, these ‘chain’ effects persist. Over two-thirds of the Loopers, we have asked to trial and hand out a product continue to recommend it, a year after the original campaign ended.

That’s consumers within your target demographic, talking to other consumers within your target demographic, who will, in turn, talk to even more consumers within that demographic, about your product, for more than a year.

Can you imagine a conventional advertising campaign that could achieve that in one hit?

Nope, we can’t, either.

Don’t talk at your customers, talk with them

The take-home message is very simple.

Brand promotion is changing rapidly to focus on personalisation, customisation, meaningful two-way engagement and authenticity.

This means the old models of marketing and addressing targets simply don’t work anymore—you have only to look at the number of foundering high street names to know that.

Customers who live connected lives now make decisions based on those connections, including their purchasing decisions. They want informed recommendations, not dictation. Don’t talk at them, talk with them. Then, and only then, will your brand be able to face this changing world with confidence.

Not Everyone Is Online

There’s a lot of buzz around influencer marketing at the moment, it’s a hot topic in the marketing world and lots of brands are sitting up and taking notice. But there’s one worrying aspect – everyone seems to think we’re all online, all the time.

Before someone thought up the natty title of influencer marketing it was called word of mouth marketing. It’s about the oldest form of advertising there is – one person telling another person to try something out. And it existed long before paid for media.

Despite the intervening years and advances in marketing, word of mouth still remains the most credible form of advertising. 83% of people trust the recommendations of friends and family.

Depending on which figure you choose to believe we’re subjected to 2000-5000 messages a day. With every new platform, app or advertising invention that number grows and lessens a brand’s ability to cut through the noise and win consumer attention. So using trusted connections and word of mouth becomes more important and should be a key marketing activity.

Lots of clever brands have cottoned onto this (and have some brilliant agencies helping them) but many seem to have forgotten the roots of word of mouth marketing – real people talking to each other.

It’s easy to understand why influencer marketing has an online focus – the top line stats are overwhelming –  The Family Panel carried out research with 3000 families and found 90% had a Facebook account and 60% a Twitter account. It’s also, unlike ‘real world’ influencer marketing, easy to measure. You can see how many followers people have and measure the overall reach of a campaign. And finding people in real life is harder, it takes a lot of leg work to build up connections you can go to.

Should influencer marketing just be online?

But what if those overwhelming stats hide a truth? Maybe not all family members with purchasing power are online. The Family Panel research found 70% of parents that have a Facebook or Twitter account don’t really use it much. (Certainly, not as much as those working in advertising and marketing).

So even if you get the right influencers online and have the right message that’s a boat load of people who still aren’t getting the message. Sure they’ll hear it through other mediums if you’re using them but they aren’t getting an authentic message from a source they trust.

If you think that statistic sounds high think about your own Facebook page (if you have one). Keep in mind we’re talking about families here, not 19 year old singletons. It’s probably a bit like mine – the same 10-20 people posting most of the time and the rest you hardly see. Or the people you message on Facebook and then meet face to face and they say ‘oh don’t bother, I never go on there’.

There’s a gap here, a world away from social media and constant connection. It’s a world where mums chat at the school gate about what to put in lunchboxes, where people at work discuss where they are going on holiday, where friends discuss car purchases at an exercise class. And in all those conversations recommendations are happening all the time. These are messages from people we know and trust and they won’t get lost in ever moving timeline, algorithm update or overnight social platform shutdown.

One thing we can be sure of is that people still talk to people, and the online world hasn’t entirely eaten us up yet. So before you turn to your screen for influencers maybe it’s worth looking out the window to check you’re not missing out on where your audience really is.