Word-of-mouth: a Better Method for the Right Now

I have always been driven to explore why we are motivated to share our experiences with brands. It drove just about every academic decision I made in graduate school. Having just finished my program, I am beginning to explore how my research fits into a larger context. Obviously, a lot of it has to do with marketing research and consumer behavior.

In my work I examined themes surrounding the performance of word-of-mouth. The exciting thing is that online environments provide such fertile ground for consumer sentiments, product assessments and how brands transform. As expressed by Xun and Reynolds (2010), social media platforms are  relevant as research tools in that it offers either open, anonymous or “decontextualized” participation. Secondly, conversations are digital archived. Finally, online environments allow for self-reflection. More importantly, researchers are offered a rich opportunity to observe these conversations in context and as they occur.

Where traditional marketing research fails is that consumers ultimately do not know what they want. We see this fallacy surface in focus groups, surveys and depth interviews. Sure, consumers may express interest or say they will purchase a product in the future, but the marketing literature is littered with examples of how these sentiments have failed marketers. These short comings have been covered ad nauseam by authors like Douglas Van Praet, Stephen Rappaport and Philip Graves. Perhaps Graves made the best argument for why the angle most marketing research has taken is misguided:

“With such a wealth of real-time behavioral data available and far easier ways to test alternative approaches, there should be no need to ask people what they think they think, and it should be immediately evident when such testimony proves to be inaccurate”.

The belief is that traditional marketing asks consumers to evaluate their decision-making process in the future and as an afterthought. Sure, this may produce a key insight, but it doesn’t take into account the “right now”. This notion is something I struggled with as I become more familiar with how we come to understand consumer behavior. I love uncovering these hidden truths, but I wasn’t always sure where a plethora of seven-item Likert scales left us.

With the pervasiveness of social media, the ability to generate insight into what consumers believe is at a near constant. As Josh Chasin said in Rappaport’s “Digital Field Guide”: “Online is the most measurable medium”. Not only are researchers able to find out what consumers are saying, but begin to develop an understanding of how basic heuristics (the ones that cause trouble in traditional methods) may be overcome.

There is much to be learned through simple observation and I say this with two very specific points in mind and a hypothesis on how they may be overcome:


The first stumbling block would be our own habits. A habit is triggered by a strong association of past responses (i.e. movie theatre triggers popcorn). For better or for worse, consumers suffer from rituals and routines. It is the reason why I always find a PROBAR in my basket at Earth Fare. At this point I don’t even acknowledge the flavor or if there is a better option.

One method for overcoming a habit is with the technique known as priming. Our everyday interactions with others has the potential to be the source of priming. With multiple online channels available, there are more people communicating about their experiences with products and services. This constant dialogue allows consumers to gauge whether or not a product is worth it, is popular or fits their lifestyle. Marketers have the ability to capture the dialogue taking place. I actually stopped buying PROBARs after a competing brand kept showing up on Twitter. On a recent trip, I was primed to compare bars and choice accordingly.

Risk Aversion

The second stumbling block would be consumers self-reported  desire for innovation. It is right there in the literature. In interviews or in focus groups, consumers often express their desire for the fancier and more advanced technology. However, when it comes down to the moment of purchase, consumers often go with the familiar. The two primary ways we are risk-averse are when there are financial implications and cultural implications.


We know that social media has the ability to effect consumer behavior. Research has begun to examine how conversations online may help or hinder our purchase behavior. One stream of literature looks at what is called the Twitter Effect. I have written about it HERE. Multiple studies have shown how the relative ease and access users have of early post-consumption opinions have led to financial consequences. Not only can consumers, who are often risk-averse, view the failures or successes of a product, but can view conversations surrounding the product. If I am an “occasional photographer” would I take a chance on a new, innovative camera that has received lukewarm reviews or settle for another Nikon. Similarly, we also tend to favor the popular choice, even at the expense of what is best for us. In Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein use multiple examples of this phenomenon to prove a similar point (look at the chapter on MP3s and the stock market). In the end, we often default to the safest choice, whether that is the most popular or the same old brand of detergent.


We are also risk-averse when making cultural decisions (speech, clothing, appearance). As Bourdieu would argue, we all strive to accrue cultural capital through our symbolic stylings.  I cannot think of two more dominate platforms in communicating what is popular than Pinterest and Tumblr. These platforms are ways in which consumer gain an understanding of what is appropriate (how to style a baby’s room), as well as, a way to test or practice (by the posting of daily outfits). In both cases, consumers can lessen the risk involved in their decisions.

Marketers have the ability to quantitatvely test, in real time, responses to a product. Similarly, the testing can also capture the responses to trends or products. GAP can test combinations of products within Tumblr and Pinterest and gauge sentiment and interest. This may inform in-store displays or whether or not a typical customer may even purchase the product. Marketers can also capture consumers fears within a specific product category and plan accordingly. Literally spend two minutes on a Crossfit forum and you will come away with members’ fear of gluten and their love of bacon (pretty easy example).

Perhaps that intel birthed this bar?
Perhaps that intel birthed this bar?








As marketers begin to capture consumers responses toward a trend or product, they can begin to assess the actual risk factors involved and how messaging may alleviate those risks.

Capturing the performance of word-of-mouth isn’t the silver bullet, but it is one of the more effective ways to capture the right now. If we are looking for ways to correct where traditional methods fail, often times it is at the right now. As I extend my research into something worth publishing, I am going to pay particular attention to how often the performance of word-of-mouth falls into the right now. Furthermore, I would be interested to further develop an understanding of how word-of-mouth may inform us of exactly what heuristics are employed in the decision-making process.


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