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The word: by mouth

When marketing messages spread rapidly, how much is owed to the WoM effect?  I have a confession: I had it wrong.

word of mouthWhen marketing messages spread rapidly, how much is owed to the WoM effect?

I have a confession: I had it wrong.

As a former global product manager and now agency director, I (like nearly everyone else), thought that the best way to develop a global brand was to (simplified):

1. Figure out the brand position we need to occupy
2. Get a concise list of key messages to support it
3. Ask a cross-section of customers if these messages would convince them that our product is the best
4. Bombard our customers with the approved messages via advertising, PR and med ed programmes, and then;
5. Watch sales roll in.

It's hard to fault this. Indeed, any number of marketing textbooks will tell you that if you can do it consistently across markets, you will build a successful global brand. However, I just don't think that this relates to how it works in the real world. If you're like me then you'll have had this sneaking suspicion for a while, but will not have been able to articulate it.

So how does it work? Well, think of what happens when you make a purchase that needs consideration - like a car, computer or holiday. What do you believe has the biggest influence on your choice?

Is it a piece of advertising, a salesman, or a website - all delivering their key messages directly at you?  Or, is it more likely to be the advice of a friend, colleague or family member who, when hearing of your plans to buy a new car, recommends brand A because of reasons B and C?

This person knows you, your needs and, most importantly, has your interests at heart. What could be more customer-focused? Suddenly all of the other information you've been hit with falls into place and, after a little more thought, you're ready to buy.

Trust your friends
It's the same for our customers. I can't tell you the number of different pieces of research I've seen in which physicians have been asked what influences their decision to prescribe a new product.

At the top of this list is always the phrase recommendation from a colleague, or seeing a colleague use it. Trailing behind would be medical press, sales reps and advertising (not necessarily in this order).

For most of my career, I've thought well they would say that, wouldn't they - proud doctors not wanting to seem swayed by promotion. Yet they were telling the truth. It makes sense - why make a potential mistake with a new product when you can watch someone else try it out first?

Pioneering ways
This is born out by Diffusion of Innovation (Everett M Rogers); a piece of behavioural research first published in 1971 that segments people according to how they react to innovation. It tells us that only 2.5 per cent of an average population will be innovators - defined as people wanting to try things that are new and untested.

The other 97.5 per cent of us naturally wait for others to try things, and then recommend what to use and how to use it. This kind of recommendation is otherwise known as Word of Mouth (WoM).

But what has this got to do with how we market drugs? I believe it changes the whole way we approach planning and communication - at both strategic and tactical levels. Today, common logic says that we create messages and try to hit our customers with them as much as possible.

However, WoM tells us that this isn't the full picture. It's what our current customers tell our prospective customers that has the greatest impact. They even tell us this in our own research!

What story are your current customers using that works well to convince your prospective customers?  Look at your key sales messages: do you really think they're passing those on to their friends and peers? (you're doing well if your reps are!)

Being honest, do you really know what this successful word of mouth story is? If not, don't panic, there are ways to find out.

What's the story?
Once you know your real WoM story, the tactics you're using right now (reps, KOLs, publications and advertising) will become far more focused and powerful. Knowing your story also enables you to generate far more innovative and customised programmes.

If you do your analysis right, you'll find a certain combination of words/phrases that are powerful in the WoM setting. These phrases will make your publication planning, sales aid creation and press

release crafting so much more effective. Yet, this is just at a basic level. There have been studies conducted into the science behind WoM - why some ideas spread virally, while others go nowhere.

Applying these findings to what we do changes the way that we look at healthcare marketing. You realise that opinion doesn't start when the company is ready to launch a product, but from the moment it's introduced to the scientific community. Categorising thought leaders by their scientific standing and positivity towards your brand is at best only half the story.

Once you understand the rest of it, you'll then know who you need as KOLs and exactly what you need to do with them. In a modern pharma marketplace where more noise no longer always means more sales, WoM is more powerful than ever. Ignore it at your peril, or harness it and thrive.

The Author
Matt Rowley is managing partner at Central

2nd September 2008


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