The Water Cooler is Not Online

Thursday, 30 July 2009 / Published in Blog, Insights, Offline WOM, Social Media

The overwhelming majority of word of mouth about brands takes place offline (90%+), while less than 10% occurs online.  Further, less than 2% of word of mouth takes place via blogs, chatrooms, or social networking sites; the remainder of online WOM is via emaiils or texts people send to each other.

  • Face to face = 76%
  • Phone = 15%
  • Email = 3%
  • Text/IM = 3%
  • Chat/blog/social networking site = 1%
  • Other = 1%

These findings from my firm’s ongoing word of mouth research have been very consistent, to the surprise of many.  Nowadays, because of Twitter-mania, they frequently provoke a question: “How can that be in light of the meteoric rise of social media?”

While 1.3% sounds like a small number, our estimate of the share of word of mouth that happens in online social media doesn’t diminish in any way the importance of online WOM.  We project that every day in America, there are 43 million brand impressions created through word of mouth conversation on blogs, chatrooms, or social networking sites.  The only reason the online WOM number seems small is because it’s 1.3% of a much, much larger number – more than 3 billion total WOM impressions created each day, when we also factor in offline conversation.

It’s also important to make a distinction between having an account with Facebook, Twitter, or another social networking site, and actively using it to post content.  Here is where new research by third parties provides revealing new insights and perspective.

Digital agency Razorfish recently released the result of Fluent, a Social Influence Marketing Report.   In a survey of 1,000 Americans, they find that 2% share recommendations online on a daily basis – a figure that is very comparable to the 1.3% figure in our research about brand word of mouth.  Further, the study finds that trust in offline friends is very high (73%), whereas trust in online friends is considerably more muted (33%).

In a study of Twitter users, Sysomos finds that 75% of all Twitter activity comes from about 5% of users.  In other words, while there is a core of avid users who contribute frequently, most users post very infrequently.

Two more studies lend additional insight.  “How People Use Social Media” was conducted by Knowledge Networks and released in May 2009.  It found that while 83% of the online population uses social media, fewer than 5% of social media users regularly turn to these sites for guidance on purchase decisions.  According to Knowledge Networks, “Social media users do not have a strong association between these sites and purchase decisions; they see them as being more about personal connection.”

The Harris Poll (June 2009) has also weighed in with a study that finds “offline social word of mouth influences on brand decision making is more frequent and powerful than online social media.”  Two thirds of Americans, Harris reports, communicate face to face after a product purchase, while fewer than 1 in 10 post anything online on social networking sites, or in chatrooms/blogs, or on customer review sites.

The conclusion I reach in reviewing all of these studies is not that social media and online social influence are insignificant or unimportant.  Far from it.  However, it’s important for marketers to make decisions based on all the facts, not just a partial view of things.  And the facts say that social media alone is not going to be the pathway to word of mouth success for most brands.  It is a pillar, an avenue for conversation.  The role of social media for consumers is, for now at least, more about connections with other people than connections with brands.

If you truly want to be consumer centric and listen to what consumers are saying about your brand, you should recognize that the far larger (and more trustworthy) platform for conversation about brands and sharing experiences is taking place at the literal water cooler, over the neighbor’s fence, and at the kitchen table – in other words, offline.  These offline voices may be harder for brands to hear, but for your consumer they ring loud and clear.

This post first appeared in Jack Myers’ Mediabizbloggers.com on July 30, 2009.

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