When Ted Wright worked for Delta Air Lines, he had a brilliant idea for how the company could fend off its upstart competitor, AirTran Airways, whose cheap seats and irreverent attitude were taking their toll. It was such a fabulous idea, it won him a companywide award for innovation – and, a month later, got him fired.
With 78 per cent of flights for Delta starting in Atlanta, he proposed that the company's many employees put signs on their lawn saying: "Your Delta Neighbour Thanks You for Flying with Us." It was a way to humanize the company and start a conversation between neighbours that might lead Atlantans to consider taking the more expensive flight on occasion to support their neighbours. But his manager hated the idea.
Undaunted, he tested the sign at his home, with people driving by honking in support. So he taped the sign to his own office door. Soon, his boss's boss asked about the sign. Within days, the idea had been adopted, Mr. Wright was given an award for innovation, and everyone was happy. Except Mr. Wright's embarrassed boss, who quickly fired the 30-year-old brand manager for insubordination.
Today, Mr. Wright is promulgating the same approach to marketing, however, as chief executive officer of Fizz, an Atlanta-based word-of-mouth marketing company. Broadcast media are declining in influence and being replaced, he argues, by conversations between friends. He says studies show that about 80 per cent of people don't believe that companies tell the truth in advertising. But 70 per cent believe their neighbours and friends. "We are living in an age of conversation. Marketers, for big companies and small, have to study that trend and need to create conversations," he said in an interview.
Those conversations will be led by influencers, people who seek you out because of their zest for new products and services. You'll encounter them in the various communities of which you are a part, whether a college fraternity, a business association, or a curling club. They share three personality traits: They are compelled to share stories with friends; they like to try new things because those items are new; and they are motivated from within, not outside influences such as discounts or rebates.
"Thirty million to 40 million North Americans are driving the conversation. One out of 10 North Americans tell people what to buy – for everything," he said. Not just beer, but who is the best orthopedic surgeon and what is the best school for your kids if you're moving to a new city.
In his recent book Fizz, he highlights some myths that confound us about word-of-mouth marketing, including the following:
Myth: It doesn't matter where you launch your word-of-mouth campaigns.
In fact, in Canada, Toronto and Vancouver are where these important marketing conversations start, mingling heavily between the two cities because they have so many communities that are similar to each other and linked despite the geographic distance. He has a sense of Canada – his wife is from Mississauga – and adds in the interview: "Calgary is an awesome place but it has less population and less density. It's the same with Montreal. Connections spread slower from them." So yes, the conversations in Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal and other cities count, but focus initially on Toronto and Vancouver.
Myth: Word-of-mouth marketing is expensive.
Again this isn't true, and campaigns can be run by small or large companies that know how to get their products seen by influencers. The myth arises because this marketing approach is different and can seem complicated. The assumption is it's expensive because somehow you must reach every Canadian. But that's a broadcast mentality. In the United States, he has built national brands based on 200 people who loved the brand and shared it widely. That raises an essential point: Your organization does not need to share the story beyond creating a platform for the influencers to find the product or service and become enthused about it. They then carry the ball. And the conversations are surprisingly short, on average, 32 seconds. Two people might be talking over a glass of wine and one says, "I know you like to travel. My feet get cold in airplanes and I found these socks that solved the problem." Message transmitted – probably effectively since there is trust.
Myth: Bloggers and celebrities are more influential than ordinary people.
Sure they may have a platform, but so do ordinary folk, in conversations over coffee, wine, and the backyard fence. He notes that Justin Bieber has millions of followers but doesn't influence the purchase of products. Yes, Oprah does, but that's because we all call her Oprah and treat her like an enthusiastic, honest neighbour over a backyard fence.
She's on TV, but don't let that fool you. Marketing dollars spent in broadcast are declining in effectiveness, he insists. Marketing has shifted from a reliance on broadcast to a reliance on conversations with friends. Unlike his boss at Delta, get with the new program.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org