Is word of mouth marketing the Holy Grail for the GCC marketers?

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By Louay Al Samarrai, Managing Partner, Active DMC, Dubai 

Word of Mouth Marketing or WOMM is one of the most important, most powerful elements in any product, service or even persons marketing and reputation. It is so important that there is even an association specifically dedicated to its practice.

The opportunity to not only be aware of it but to truly understand and use it effectively is one we would all want to have, in my opinion. In a region where family, friends and your personal network play such a central role in many of our choices, thoughts, opinions and attitudes, it is probably the most important skill and service to have and offer.

Nielsen, in a 2015 survey, found that 92 per cent of consumers believe recommendations from family and friends and WOMMA – the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. The American Marketing Association (AMA) surveyed marketing executives and 62 per cent of them stated that they thought it was THE most effective form of marketing but only six per cent could say they had mastered it.

But what is it? How do you “manage“ it when the implication is that it is random, spontaneous, un-manageable?

The Three E’s

Well, let’s look at the reasons why, if this is so important, it isn’t a key focus for social and digital media. In an article by Kimberly Whitler, formerly a CMO at brands like P&G and PetSmart, and presently an Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia, brands have spent more time focused on “collecting“ rather than “connecting“.

Now that is challenge in itself here in the region, where – aside from the extremely expensive “influencers“, who are obviously paid to promote a brand or service and are much like print ads – engaging and thus connecting with your customers can be quite challenging, because they can be quite casual in how they relate and communicate, and thus engage.

It is true that if you have to buy your friends, then are they truly friends? The answer is so obvious that you are probably thinking why I even ask the question. Well, remember the region we live in…

Many digital agencies – including ours – possess tools to listen, analyse and identify the conversations around a topic, a brand, a service or an issue, but how do we then use that to join the conversation in a way that engages our key stakeholders? It’s not easy and it’s not a one-solution-fits-all approach as some may think.

Well, after years of focusing on the 4 P’s in marketing, the thinking that prevails today is that the focus needs to be on the 3 E’s – Engage, Equip and Empower.

Engage: Be part of the conversation.

Equip: Give your key stakeholders a reason to talk – facts, stories, humour and/or even insider knowledge are some ideas.

Empower: Facilitate ways for consumers to talk and share, and show that their opinions and ideas are important to you – help them to share and move the conversations around their own networks.

But is Word of Mouth the Holy Grail for marketers? Well, it’s certainly one of them and here are the three reasons why:

Trust. What we all wouldn’t give to have that from our customers. By employing a solid strategy that encompasses WOM, brands can recruit brand ambassadors. We have already discussed the percentage of people that trust recommendations from people they know directly; well, here’s another statistic – anonymous reviewers have a 70 per cent trust rate when they post online about a brand. That’s huge and I can’t think of one brand or service that wouldn’t be very happy with those numbers. Brands that invest in their customer service and the experience can generate this level of trust. All too often in this region, from banks to retail, the story we hear is of poor customer service – that’s for brick-and-mortar operations, not online.

Loyalty. Winning new customers is not only a real challenge, but can also be quite expensive to achieve. So, customer referrals are incredibly powerful – a Forbes study recently showed that people referred to a brand by their peers were 18 per cent more likely to stay with that brand. That may appear small, but 18 per cent of hundreds of thousands or millions of customers doesn’t equate to small numbers.

Buzz. Yep, that’s right: “buzz“. That is where UGC (User-Generated Content) plays a big role. This is about brands that involve their customers and, better still, invite them to submit content that they subsequently use for the their marketing and thus gain “social recognition“ – GoPro are well known for this type of marketing approach; everyone has seen hair-raising videos of biking, surfing, parachuting, BASE jumping and skiing shared across social media platforms – one can see firsthand how this is so successful. And if you are ready for another stat, 66 per cent of consumers under the age of 34 are more likely to give a referral after receiving social recognition.

So, whilst WOM isn’t a new concept by any stretch of the imagination, social media has made it even more powerful.

This is all marvellous stuff but, before we all stop every other marketing initiative we have, let us step back and look at this from the Middle East perspective.

WOM has been and continues to be probably THE most powerful forms of sales and marketing this region has ever experienced and it goes back centuries. This is a region that has been built on personal contacts and networks. From people to products, brands to business, its all about who you know and not what you know. Social media has hit the region like a proverbial tsunami and the numbers don’t lie, thanks to sources like GO-Gulf: 3.7 per cent of the total worldwide Internet users are from the Middle East, 40.2 per cent of the total Middle East population has Internet access and 88 per cent of the Middle East’s online population uses social networking sites daily.

So with that, you would think WOM would be the ONLY focus for brands.

However, in my opinion, a majority of brands, products and services still see social media as a means to promote and “sell“ their brands and, for the majority of them, “extend“ their global content into the region rather than invest on real regional content. This combined with the relatively poor customer service I mentioned earlier doesn’t bode well for the present.

Some of the world’s best technology platforms that work on the WOM basis – promoting it, encouraging it, driving it and measuring it – are still being “resisted’ by brands and agencies alike, while in Europe, the US and the Far East, agencies, brands and organisations are investing in them.

I am however a total optimist and I hope the future – even the immediate one – is brighter here in the region.

It’s a truly fascinating and effective area of marketing and one that I can very easily go on and on about – I often do that anyway, as many who know me would confirm, but I want to leave it there and conclude by simply saying this: Opportunities are where the best ideas and the most lucrative forms of success lie and Word of Mouth marketing is still a relatively untapped one.

Louay Al Samarrai is the Managing Partner of Active Digital Marketing Communications, based in the UAE and the exclusive Middle East partner for Wayin – a platform that enables some of the world’s biggest brands and publishers to create authentic, interactive campaign experiences that engage and activate consumers across all digital channels.

An expanded version of this article appeared in the May 2017 issue of Gulf Marketing Review. The views expressed by the author are her own and do not necessarily represent those of Gulf Marketing Review.