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Viral vs. Word of Mouth – what’s the difference?

I know I haven’t blogged in eons, but I have been supremely busy with new clients and programs at TFC and have been putting theories into action so to speak, and my blog has suffered. For that I do apologize. I hope to rectify the situation after returning from a week in the sun in early May, although I do have one other post brewing I hope to squeak out before I leave (how’s that for some mixed metaphors!). :)

All that aside, in reading Sean’s wrap-up from the CMA’s recent “From Mass to Grass Conference”, I was struck by something I’ve been noticing recently – a blurring of the lines between viral & WOM when speaking about the success of a “word of mouth” campaign. In too many instances they actually are describing a viral campaign. And there is a distinction worth noting – viral occurs when you’ve passed the tipping point; WOM gets you to the tipping point.

I hate to be blunt about this, but if you’ve purchased TV ads and billboards and are blaring your URL to the world, it doesn’t qualify as word of mouth. It can definitely qualify as viral if enough people dig what you’ve produced online and send the link to their friends, tag it, or post about it on their blog. But it’s mass audience, not influencers and organic.

The essence of WOM is that it spreads organically; you are earning the publicity, not paying for it. If your microsite URL is on TV you’re the one spreading the word, not your customers.

If we’re talking to our client’s about generating word of mouth, we should also be making the distinction between getting the WOM via advertising vs. getting it because their customers were evangelizing to their friends.

[Update - June 15, 2007] I’m adding this as an update here to Sean’s post on his blog as I don’t feel like signing up for a typepad account in order to comment… btw Sean, my comments are fixed, it was a database issue (spam will take over the internet before we know it!).

I don’t have a ton to say except that I don’t believe I said above that WOM couldn’t be orchestrated, I just obviously have a fundamental disagreement with Sean as to what constitutes true word of mouth. Semantics do matter if you’re working towards long-term and big picture goals. I’ll reiterate my thoughts – if you are using mass advertising to drive people to your website and then push or cajole them to spread the word, that’s not meaningful word of mouth that builds true influential brand evangelists and contributes to long-term customer loyalty (the fundamentals of a WOM program). It’s an ad campaign with an online driver… same as it was in 1999, 2002 or 2005.

Word of mouth happens when people are compelled to share their positive (or negative) experiences with your brand or product within their circle of influence. Word of mouth can be orchestrated, but it has to come from a position of equality and respect… not blaring an ad on TV. Mass isn’t sexy – exclusivity is (as I pointed out in my WOM presentation at SES, available here). Viral isn’t a bad thing by any means, it’s just different.

[photo credit: moose477 on Flickr]

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