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Word-of-mouth marketing: believing who you hear

JAMAICANS love to talk. From the jelly-man who skillfully slices the top off the coconut while holding forth strongly about global economic issues, to the ancillary worker setting the tea tray in your office, to the 'bigger heads' making their case in Gordon House: we just love to chat. And we don't necessarily need to start off with an audience. Just open the floor with a preposterous statement on a current issue and I guarantee a crowd will gather and everyone will chime in.

And yes, it is official that we have cornered the talk market. Just look at the huge financial successes of all the newly arrived telecom providers who have beaten a path to our doors and are having a giant catfight over our talk dollars. Do you think they are engaging in a marketing war just for fun? Of course not, they have struck gold many more times than Usain Bolt ever will. I am sure if Guinness Book of Records did another survey they would find that along with the most bars per square mile, we also own the most mobile phones. So, thanks to the 'cellie', talk or word of mouth is king, Jamaica's undisputed champion.

That is why word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM) works well here. What exactly is WOMM? Long story short: it is third party endorsement of a product. You know, you, friend of mine, using a product and bragging or giving me the thumbs up about it, enough to encourage me to want to buy said product or use the services that you found to be so awesome. After ruling out 'red eye' think about who encouraged you in your last purchase. According to a recent survey from the US-based Synovate for PostRelease.com, the most common word-of-mouth (WOM) activity is helping someone, either a friend or family member, with making a purchase decision. Also, 40 per cent of the survey respondents said they shared advice with friends and family offline (in-person or via phone) about something they read online.

Jamaica is a very tightly connected society. Everybody is up into everybody else's business. Boundaries are very fluid because if you sit down and check it out our family trees are heavily intertwined and perhaps we are all related to each other in some way. Call a name and someone in the conversation will say, "Yes man, I know him or her from..." Further, we tend to hire and buy from our friends and keep strangers with quality goods and services out the door many times to our detriment.

And so it is that for years we Jamaicans have been honing our WOMM skills. Exhibit A: the success of unregulated investment schemes. One of the reasons these flourished was not because of their multi-million-dollar advertising campaigns, but because of word-of-mouth marketing by people who were either commissioned agents or persons who benefitted from them and told the world and his wife. Now that the bottom of that market has fallen out -- there is nary a peep from neither John nor Tom. Nevertheless WOMM worked, because man, did that business boom.

But as expected it took America to turn something that we Jamaicans have been doing for years, into an industry of sorts. You see WOMM is now supposed to be the next 'big thing'. So much so that there is now a Word of Mouth Marketing Association, founded in 2004, (WOMMA -- www.womma.org), complete with a website, conferences attended by hundreds of participants and all that jazz.

According to its website, "WOMMA is a coalition comprised of hundreds of top marketers who are learning how to encourage and amplify this natural phenomenon while respecting and protecting its honesty and integrity." WOMMA has a Code and an Honesty ROI which comes down to: "Honesty of Relationships: You say who you're speaking for; Honesty of Opinion: You say what you believe in and onesty of Identity: You never lie about who you are." (Really?)

That is all well and good but WOMM is a two-edged sword. Let's face it if your service or product is crappy, no matter how many people you pay or 'encourage' to tell people the lie of its goodness, in the long run the truth 'will out', especially in a small country like ours. The downside to this is that it takes some time for the truth about the crappy product to emerge and by that time the clever snakeskin salesman would have long fled town, leaving the rest of us holding the empty bag.

On the other hand, your goods and services might just be the best thing since sliced bread but, one person (with heavy influence) had a bad experience with it and have vowed to spend their lives talking it into the ground. And they do try to.

I like word-of-mouth marketing as a strategy because in an economic down-turn it is cost effective and so will fit right into you budget. A general rule of thumb when receiving advice about a product is before you take the purchase plunge, check the source of the person giving the advice. What could possibly be their motivation for encouraging you to buy. Dig a little deeper, talk to more people especially the nay-sayers. You know that 'sour-faced group' who never ever have a good word to say. Above all, WOMM not withstanding, to avoid getting burnt don't always trust the hype.


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