What do Eminem, Elton John and my 12 year old niece have in common?
Got your attention? Good. Because I want to talk to you today about word of mouth advertising. I think it’s one of the most powerful advertising tactics to ever be invented, and it’s getting more popular than ever. More on that in a bit.
Back at the turn of the century there was a lot of controversy surrounding a young white rapper named Eminem. Everyone had an opinion about him. He was hateful…spiteful… a homophobe, a racist, a sexist. He hated Jews, Christians, Catholics, Muslims. And his music? It was awful… empty… filled only with hate, teaching our kids to do drugs, rape women, kill people… in short, seducing the morals of our youth. (Didn’t they charge Socrates with that and force him to drink the hemlock?)
I first became aware of Eminem in the summer of 2002. A good friend of mine told me all about him. That friend was Elton John. Now don’t misunderstand me — Elton John has no idea who I am. But I’ve been listening to Elton John as long as I’ve been listening to music. When I got my first stereo, one of the first 3 albums I bought was “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” I had a poster of “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” on the wall of my room right near my bed. I spent more than one night sleeping on a street in a ticket line in the 70’s and 80’s to get good seats for an Elton John concert.
For many of us, when Elton John admitted to being bisexual in Rolling Stone in 1976, it changed how we looked at gender preference. When he married a man in 1984, it was another milestone.
Elton is also one of the most avid music fans there is. I remember more than once hearing him talk about going out to the music shops to get the new releases the day they came out. He sounded like a little kid he was so enthusiastic.
So when Elton John said he was a big fan of Eminem, it caught my attention. Here was one of the most famous gay men in the world saying that it was okay to like Eminem, reputed to be one of the biggest homophobes to ever spew hate into a mike. Elton even did a duet with Eminem at the Grammy’s in February that year, saying “If I thought for one minute that he was hateful, I wouldn’t do it.” (Check out the CNN article here.)
The duet they did was on “Stan,” this amazing, self-aware, reflective song on the relationship between a singer, a fan, personal choices, responsibility, etc. It’s the kind of song a talented writer could write, not the kind of song a mindless sprayer of hate could come up with. The music video of “Stan” on MTV was the first Eminem song I heard, and I was instantly hooked. This was a great song.
So I went to my 12-year old niece and asked her to recommend an album. She told me that The Eminem Show was his best, but that The Marshall Mathers LP had Stan on it. She suggested I start with that one. She was right…The Marshall Mathers LP was a good place to start, but The Eminem Show was better. So good in fact that it’s made my own personal 8 “Desert Island Discs” List.
That’s the power of word of mouth, that you will listen to the recommendation of a voice you trust, even if it’s one you’ve never met. (See, I told you this was a post about word of mouth!) If somebody I didn’t know had told me that I would love Eminem, that I would eventually come to consider him one of the great lyricists of all time, I would have laughed in their face and ignored them. But because it was a voice I’d trusted all my life, a recognized expert in music whose own music had brought me literally decades of pleasure, I listened and decided to try out a new product.
Then I went to a person who I knew would be up on current trends to give me some additional advice about which album to buy. (If you ever want to tune into the cutting edge of popular culture, talk to a 12-year old.)
Word of mouth works when it’s honest. When you trust the source of the recommendation. When a guy who runs a reliable lunch place tells you about a new Greek restaurant in Stamford that is good and affordable. (By the way, it’s called Eos, my wife and I ate there for our 9th anniversary this July, and it’s awesome!) When a friend who knows your taste tells you you’ve got it wrong, that you have to see “Fight Club.” Or a friend tells you that “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” is so much more than just a “kid’s book.”
But word of mouth isn’t a magic bullet. It’s not a technique that can be used without the underpinning of trust. And it’s not something that can be manufactured by just “reaching out to the right people.” If something is not worth talking about, you can’t force people to talk about it, even if you pay them.
Lots of people are talking about adding social media, blogs, word of mouth, viral marketing, and more to their marketing and advertising mix. It reminds me a little bit of the early days of websites, when everyone raced around thinking they had to have a website without thinking about what they would do with it, or more importantly, how it would enable and enrich their relationship with their customers.
Out of all these new tactics, word of mouth is the one that most depends on authenticity and trust, two qualities that can’t be manufactured overnight — or manufactured at all.
So can someone please explain to me why so many companies just assume consumers will listen to anything they say, without first working to gain our trust?