Greg Nyilasy

Henry WGrady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Georgia

If you're a marketing professional in the 21st century, word of mouth seems to be one of those buzzwords you can't live without.Trade books and articles often tout word of mouth as one of the 'next big ideas' for the troubled marketing communication industries. The main reason is that traditional advertising just doesn't seem to work that well anymore. Advertising experts and their clients are becoming more and more concerned with audience fragmentation, ad clutter, consumer annoyance and avoidance of advertising. Industry prophets talk about the need for a paradigm shift in marketing communications: permission marketing instead of intrusive advertising, pull instead of push, one-on-one instead of mass messages, relationship marketing instead of isolated communication events, integration of promotional and entertainment content instead of a clear identification of the advertiser. In the midst of these cataclysmic changes, word of mouth seems to represent hope and one of the guiding lights.

But what does word of mouth really mean? Do we really understand the term and the phenomenon behind it? As happens with marketing practice, word of mouth is yet another technical phrase that is defined differently depending on whom you ask. Is it the reputation of a product, or companies trying to secretly spread rumours about themselves? Is it PR, or is it consumers talking about products? And what about other related terms such as viral marketing, buzz campaigns, opinion leaders, consumer evangelists, alphas, Influentials(SM), etc.? Is there a consensus in the meaning of such terms, or are we hopelessly lost? Further, what do we really know about the word of mouth phenomenon? How does word of mouth work? How does it influence consumers? What are the factors that would make it more effective? What causes it and what effects does it have?

To be able to answer these questions, one possible tactic is to survey the available academic literature on word of mouth. Academic research serves as the key source of legitimization for any occupational practice, so this is where questions about knowledge should ultimately be asked. It's academic research that provides the theoretical base for any occupation trying to achieve the much-respected position of being a 'profession'.1 This idea is generally applicable to marketing even though many marketing practitioners would disagree with it, and even though historically there has been quite a bit of antagonism between practitioners and academic researchers in this field. Practitioners think that academicians are irrelevant, old-fashioned and too theoretical; academicians blame practitioners for sloppy thinking, logical inconsistencies, frequent use of unreliable information and an overall anti-intellectual stance.2

Discussions about word of mouth could be a fine example to illustrate the truth to both sides of this argument; instead this chapter takes a more constructive path. It summarizes what is known about word of mouth at the level of academic rigour, and holds up this knowledge to assess what is directly useful for marketing communication practice. First, it reviews how academic researchers define word of mouth, since without a clear understanding of the concept itself it is hard to make any claims about it. Second, it summarizes what we really know about how word of mouth works, enumerating the known causes of word of mouth behaviour as well as its effects. Finally, it assesses the implications of academic knowledge about word of mouth for marketing practice.

The hope is that, after all, advertising and marketing are not that different from other occupations which, by using solid knowledge bases, have successfully become professions. It is not only possible but also necessary to conduct meaningful conversations between theory and practice. As is the case with other information-based occupations, our survival depends on this dialogue. And if word of mouth is part of a new paradigm for marketing communications, why not start with better relations between academia and practice?

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