World of Mouth. Really?

Positive word of mouth is one of the most powerful forms of marketing and coveted by brands. Why? Because it offers consumers a ‘borrowed experience’, that helps them navigate the purchase decision making process. It is so powerful because it is a referral from a trusted source – a friend, family member, colleague or peer – who have no commercial gain in recommending a product or service.

There is a great deal of comment about how social media has transformed the nature of word of mouth in the modern world. Erik Qualman, author of Socialnomics has called social media a “world of mouth” speculating that it has widened the source of recommendations by connecting consumers and amplifying word of mouth on a global scale. Social media has also been referred to by others as “word of mouth on steroids” or “word of mouse”.

But is it really? Can we really trust the reviews and comments posted by social media users? Are they motivated by a genuine regard to share recommendations to others in our social circle which has been widened by technology or is this connection being hijacked by those motivated by self interest, commercial gain or organisations themselves? Has ‘cash for comment‘ become mainstream and taken out of the hands of radio and television personalities and placed at the disposal of the common person?

A recent article in The Age, shamed a number of authors who have been writing glowing reviews of their own work. According to the article, writer R.J. Ellory’s posted reviews of his own book under fake account names saying that it was ‘a modern masterpiece’ that it will ‘touch your soul’. This is a practice known as “sock puppetry” or “socking” – the process of adopting an online identity for deceptive purposes – such as writing reviews, creating an illusion of support or generating comment online. It can also be used to disparage the products of competitors, something R.J. Ellory did – posting negative reviews of books written by fellow authors of the same genre.

Hotels and restaurants have long been accused of writing their own positive reviews on sites like TripAdvisor or indeed penning negative reviews of competitors. So much so that the UK Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the site could not claim or imply that “all the reviews that appeared on the website were from real travellers, or were honest, real or trusted“.

A quick trawl of the internet shows how easy it is to purchase positive comments or reviews. Freelancer.com has a special section just for review writers. For just $5 you can purchase a range of reviews, testimonials and ratings from around the world on www.fiverr.com. The site www.positive-reviews.com also offers a simple, cost effective solution: “Our team can help your business grow and promote your products by posting positive reviews, articles or blog posts on the internet. It is our responsability to locate specific blogs or websites to promote the products that you need to sell.” Pity about the spelling mistakes – but perhaps that may make the review look more authentic.

These are just a sample of the many sites offering comments for cash and according to research company Gartner, we can expect that by 2014, 10-15% of all social media reviews will be fake or purchased.

On the flipside, what about those savvy consumers who have recognised the power they hold with a few strokes of their own keyboard? I will always remember the original story back in 2009 (a lifetime ago in social media terms!) of the Commonwealth bank customer who tweeted about how their mortgage approval had been held up and after a month of trying to sort out the problem received a priority, personal response from the bank within one hour and 17 minutes of posting their complaint online. There is no doubt that a number of consumers are deliberately posting about brands to elicit discounts, special treatment or ‘jump the queue’. There has even been talk of guests blackmailing hotels with the threat of a bad review if they do not get an upgrade or discount.

So is social media really a ‘world of mouth’ or another beast altogether? From my perspective, I have to admit, I do use review sites in my decision making process – and find them enormously valuable.

Perhaps the solution is to ensure that we all take on the shared responsibility of diluting the fake reviews but actively writing our own genuine ones. What do you think? Do you write or read reviews?

Until next time.

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