The Medium and the Message: The Surprising Role the Internet Plays in Word-of-Mouth - Ed Keller - MediaBizBloggers

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Cover image for  article: The Medium and the Message: The Surprising Role the Internet Plays in Word-of-Mouth - Ed Keller - MediaBizBloggers

It is almost always surprises people when I show our research that finds 90% + of word of mouth conversations about products, services, and brands takes place offline, while less than 10% of conversations happen online through blogs, chat rooms, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. How could that be, many ask, given the meteoric rise of social media sites?

A new study from Yahoo! and Keller Fay Group released last week sheds new light on the role the internet plays in driving word of mouth.

Consistent with past research from my firm, this new report continues to support the 90/10 (offline/online) finding we have seen and reported below. It also finds in the course of an entire day, when taking into account the multiple word of mouth conversations the average person has each day, the internet is more prominent—22% of all US consumers have a brand-related conversation at least once online in an average day, versus 45% on the phone and 93% face to face.

From Special June 2010 Report for Yahoo!
Source: Keller Fay Group's TalkTrack®, August 2009 – January 2010

Still, the Internet's third-place showing may sound surprising in this day and age, particularly in a study sponsored by one of the biggest names in online media.

But it's not the whole story.

Even for conversations that happen face to face or over the phone, the internet plays a big role in providing content to help drive or support those conversations. People use the internet as an information resource before, during, or after a conversation, providing concrete information and credibility in support of opinion and advice. Think about how often you, yourself, have had a conversation about a brand or company and one of you said, "Wait, let's check that out," and used a mobile device or computer notebook to get the answer online.

The new Yahoo! report shows that the internet now plays a nearly equal role to television in supplying content to conversations. Including all types of websites and web resources, in fully 15% of all WOM conversations about brands, somebody in the conversation quotes information they found online—almost equal to the 16% who quote content from TV. No other medium is ranked higher than TV and the internet in providing conversational content.

The proportion of conversations containing online content is also rising fast—up 25% in the last year, driven particularly by teens and young adults, who discuss internet content in 22% of their conversations about brands.

From Special June 2010 Report for Yahoo!
Source: Keller Fay Group's TalkTrack®, July 2008 – January 2010

So the internet is crucial to word of mouth—it just works differently than many marketers assume. It isn't the medium for conversations so much as it fuels the message.

The growing inter-play between online media and offline conversations holds important implications for marketers.

Marketers should be designing web content—including their brand websites—to provide quick, "bite-sized" answers to the most frequently asked questions about their products and services, on the assumptions that many "searchers" will be looking for answers in "mid-conversation." They should also be designing display ads with a goal of stimulating a conversation between friends or family that may be using the internet together or in close proximity. And brands should be pushing out to their most loyal advocates, content that is easy to forward to prospective customers and encourages them to do so.

There is a huge word of mouth opportunity on the internet—but it's bigger than social networking sites, and works hand in hand with the oldest form of WOM: Face to face conversations.

Ed Keller, CEO of the Keller Fay Group, has been called "one of the most recognized names in word of mouth." The publication of Keller's book, The Influentials, has been called the "seminal moment in the development of word of mouth." Ed can be contacted at

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