When shoppers in US department stores failed to see the benefits of Earl Tupper's products in the 1940s, he hit on the idea of direct sellers showcasing them at parties for their friends. So it was that Tupperware parties came into being and, with them, brand advocacy became an established marketing concept.
Some 60 years on, buzz or word-of-mouth marketing is often talked about as a relatively new phenomenon. While the likes of Earl Tupper's parties or the Avon lady selling cosmetics to her neighbours show brands understood the value of recommendation decades earlier, the change to the media landscape means the possibilities are far greater now.
With traditional media no longer commanding the audiences they once did, the worlds of experiential marketing, user-generated content and online communities are all being seen as viable and valuable parts of the media mix when promoting brands.
Brands are increasingly realising that, if targeted and harnessed in the right way, their greatest exponents are their customers, who can spread the message quicker, more effectively and often at a lower cost.
Indeed, research carried out by the London School of Economics and Political Science in conjunction with The Listening Company shows that the effect of word of mouth goes beyond basic promotion and is highly influential on business performance. Word of mouth (both positive and negative) had a statistically significant effect on sales growth. The research found that a 7% increase in customer advocacy unlocked a 1% additional company growth, while a 2% reduction in negative word of mouth boosted sales growth by 1%. But for many marketers, getting customers to spread the message is a confusing practice that raises fears about reaching the wrong people, losing control of the message and an inability to measure effectiveness.
The consensus, though, is that between buzz marketing, word of mouth, viral and user-generated content, interest is growing fast.
Will Jeffery, managing director at production company Maverick, says: "In the past nine months we have had an increasing amount of enquiries on viral and, in some cases, there is a more sophisticated understanding of the space and how brand messages can be propagated. Clients are still very much set on the above-the-line idea, but what we can see is that more buzz and viral activity is being included so that they work in combination."
Lucy Banks, executive creative director at ZenithOptimedia, says such techniques are increasingly on the radar of media agencies, but she is cautious about how well they are being executed. "Although lots of people like to talk about it, not that many people are brilliant at doing it - particularly in a way that creates effective and efficient marketing that can be measured," she says. "It's a tricky, specialist discipline, and shouldn't be underestimated. Too often, I have heard clients enthuse about buzz campaigns, having just read a great case study on a brand like Red Bull or Puma, without being aware that sophisticated consumers are frankly not that interested in many artificially manufactured ad messages."
The appeal of word-of-mouth marketing is that messages don't have to be artificially created. It can be a simple case of putting a product or information in a place where consumers can interact with it, and if the product is interesting enough the word-of-mouth process will begin naturally.
Retailer Boots has established relevant online clubs to stimulate discussion and referrals of its products and services by offering club members relevant and useful information. It started with its Parenting Club, which was followed by a Health Club, introduced earlier this year.
According to Nicki Hill, board account director at Redwood, which produces the content for the sites, Boots builds its relationship with customers by delivering personalised information at just the right time.
"Parenting Club, in particular, has massive word of mouth because of its strong content and relevancy," says Hill. "We wanted to create a club that people talk about, but we have been surprised at the amount of people who have signed up and the feedback we have received."
While Boots' online clubs are ongoing projects that benefit from word of mouth, activities are usually one-offs, designed to stimulate interest prior to a full launch or rollout.
Google successfully harnessed word-of-mouth marketing by stimulating a huge amount of coverage about its new products in a space at Heathrow Airport. With a minimal budget, it put up a stand at the airport for one month to showcase products such as Google Earth and achieved almost 90 pieces of print, online and broadcast coverage.
JCDecaux Airport's Sphere division created the area where travellers could try out the products. Denise Moore, director of Sphere, says: "Google could see how people reacted to it and how they went on to tell their friends. The airport provides 'downtime' and the audience renews every three hours, so you get different people each day, which is how it differs to, say, a train station. You can hit people almost every hour and get a more in-depth, engaging experience."
JCDecaux's Airport Ethnographic Research shows that the mindset of people in a departure lounge is a learning state, making them more receptive to messages. "It is particularly good for entertaining messages," says Moore.
Google had the distinct advantage that it had engaging products to show. Creating a buzz and getting your brand talked about is certainly easier in some categories than others.
In the online arena, a common misconception is that it is only younger age groups that search and forward clips, so any viral marketing should be aimed at them. But recent research from Nielsen//NetRatings shows that family households make up most of the people searching for online video from home, accounting for more than half of these click-throughs.
Viral marketing is going through a significant change as the technology improves and the opportunities it presents become more evident. Its great advantage to marketers is that it provides an element of direct response, thereby offering a two-way relationship with the consumer. But not everything that is put out there becomes viral. The internet is awash with clips and films, and the work has to be creative and appropriate to the right audience if it is going to spread.
"Online advertising is about giving value somewhere," says Maverick's Jeffery. "It could be by amusing consumers or giving them information. Look at the advertising model and see where you can give back to the audience for participating with the advertising."
In viral, the great news is that creativity means the audience is self-selecting, Jeffery adds. "For example, the Sega Football Manager game is only of interest to hardcore football or gaming fans," he says. "The key is to talk to them in a way that only the hardcore will understand, rather like an in-joke. So you design creative for those specific groups."
Jeffery believes that, one day, above-the-line advertising could be removed from the mix. But at present viral elements are often used in combination with traditional media, sometimes as a way of creating a buzz around a product or ad before it hits the mainstream.
Levi's recently got YouTube viewers gossiping with its clips of giant puppets suspended by helicopter walking through Reykjavik. They were shot as if caught by the public on mobile phones. In this case, it wasn't so much about how many page impressions were achieved, but rather about the buzz generated, as it only slowly emerged that the clips were created by Levi's. The clothing giant isn't the only big brand to have embraced the culture of user-generated content. Coca-Cola is rolling out the redesign of its websites globally to include its "Coke side of life" positioning and user-generated content is currently at the heart of that.
Petro Kacur, communications manager for Coca-Cola in the US, says: "We launched the site in July with a section for user-generated content, as it is important to find the best avenues to engage in a two-way dialogue with people. You don't have the ability to hear back in traditional media. For our target audience, it's an increasingly important way for them to express themselves and it's about how we best communicate to that audience."
Kacur is not put off by the small numbers of people who go to the trouble of creating videos for the site. "Even if it is a small percentage who actively engage, the videos reach huge audiences who enjoy viewing," he says.
In fact, the soft drinks giant even approached the originators of the Mentos/Diet Coke experiment viral that caused so much discussion and partnered with, and sponsored, them to create another one, which is currently high on Google Video's most-viewed list.
In the viral arena, there are two key ways in which brands can go about getting their videos forwarded and seen. They can seed them on an appropriate site - up to 20% of BoreMe.com's content is currently paid for, for example - or they can send them to a target group and hope that those people forward them.
Vividas worked with Carlton Draught beer, where it seeded the TV commercial to 300 people who worked for the brewery. This internal communication went viral with 200,000 page impressions within 36 hours and two million in three months.
But while there is a great deal of excitement about the opportunities that online offers, it is not without its pitfalls.
Simon Collins, account director at Vividas, says: "There's a lot more of it about these days and there is a fine line between viral marketing and spamming someone. You need people to comply with European legislation on data and how it can be used."
A classic complaint has also been that marketers lose control of the message and have no idea if it ends up reaching the right people or not. But Rik Lander, head of research at BoreMe.com, counters that internet advertising does offer better statistics and tracking than conventional advertising if you are clever with the design to ensure you get feedback.
ZenithOptimedia's Banks also warns that the downside of this form of marketing is that when it is done badly it can have a significant negative effect on an already cynical consumer.
But, ultimately, she is optimistic about how this discipline is being used by brands and thinks the trend will continue.
"There is simply nothing more powerful," she says, "than someone you love and trust, whose opinion you rate, telling you X product is brilliant, with no agenda other than your best interests at heart."
Jargon is rife in this market and there is some dispute among practitioners as to exactly what terms mean. This is an attempt to summarise:
- Advocacy/buzz: the consumer is encouraged/bribed/paid to talk positively about a brand in their own way
- Word of mouth: to stimulate discussion about a brand via personal recommendation or referral. Some also separate word of relevant mouth (WORM), where those doing the talking are opinion-formers
- Viral: facilitates and encourages people to pass on a message
- UGC: user-generated content
WHAT PART DOES RESEARCH PLAY IN THIS?
Research is becoming more important in helping to identify those people who are most likely to spread the word.
MPG carried out its first advocacy research a couple of years ago to identify how brand advocacy works, how it spreads and how, as a marketer, you can make it happen. The results showed that it differed hugely by sector and that there were also marked gender differences.
"Advocacy is very low in the wine category, because people fear being seen as idiots," says Marie Oldham, head of strategy at MPG. "Food is one of the best categories for driving advocacy, because people will share things on the grounds of great taste, or health benefits, or if it is for children.
"We also found men are good in categories where they think they can become experts, whereas women become advocates because they see a benefit to friends and family."
The agency explored how to find those who are either "firestarters" or "mavens" - people who will stimulate discussions. As well as looking at TGI data for above-normal interest in categories through media consumption, it is also possible to identify connectors such as those with more than 200 names in their mobile address book. "With the use of database management and CRM, marketers can build their own network of firestarters," adds Oldham.
TGI has also added a word-of-mouth service to help media agencies see how consumers amplify messages in 11 different topic areas. The data helps identify the word-of-mouth champions and highlights what media they consume. But according to Geoff Wicken, TGI product development director at BRMB, in no category does this equate to more than 5% of the population. "In some, it's more like 1%," he says.
Jason Brownlee, research director at media consultancy and research agency Other Lines of Enquiry, says effective word of mouth is dependent on where you are in a product's life cycle, as well as the category and market.
"Word of mouth is not good at changing ingrained prejudices, but it can be good for getting people to try something or where there are few preconceptions," he says. "It can provide valuable reassurance when you don't understand the terrain."