brand buddies in tough times

557840620_12701c1225From trusted referrals to sponsored conversations—the most powerful online marketing messages during this recession are peer-to-peer and word of mouth, studies find. Marketers respond with social adverts and Web 2.0 tools, but also sponsored conversations and synthetic brand buzz.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Survey released a new report last week on The Internet and the Recession. After conducting and analyzing thousands of interviews they found that 9 out of 10 regular Internet users have gone online for recession-related reasons over the past year. About 40% of the time, those online sessions are about job hunting, but the number one reason people report going online in hard times is bargain hunting. Almost 70% of recession-related web visits are about price comparisons, according to the Pew data.

And what kind of information about prices, values, and brands do bargain seeking surfers trust the most? It’s not exactly news that people do not believe in advertising, and that we practice tuning out the commercial clutter in everyday life. But are there some forms of promotional messages that consumers find more palatable and believable than others?

Word of Mouth Trumps All

Turns out that the new experts are other shoppers, fellow consumers who can likely empathize with the difficulty of stretching shrinking incomes in belt-tightening recessionary times. Roughly half of those recently interviewed by Nielsen pay attention to and are swayed by professionally-produced commercial messages on TV, radio, or in magazines or newspapers—but that figure jumps as much as 20% when they were asked about recommendations from friends on and offline. Seems amateur, grassroots, peer reviewed, word of mouth marketing is the promotional communication that consumers believe above all else.

These online P2P trusted referrals, often in the form of user-generated content (such as comments, reviews, ratings, diggs) are the new way of assessing brand value for the majority of those interviewed in a massive study of over 25,000 online consumers from 50 countries, released last week by Nielsen. Over 90% of us will trust a recommendation from someone we know personally, and 70% will trust an online recommendation from a virtual stranger.

Brand Buzz, Authentic & Synthetic

This means the task for marketers is to make it easy for shoppers to engage with each other online with Web 2.0 tools. But at the same time, they are seeking out brand ambassadors for online word of mouth (WOM) campaigns that will be perceived as authentic and valuable by the shopping public. The result is, among other social advertising strategies, sponsored conversations by paid bloggers and celebrity tweeters to generate buzz and drive trends in social shopping.

This is the case among one of the most powerful P2P social shopping networks online, namely the mommie bloggers—as was explored recently in BusinessWeek (“Pitching to Mommy Bloggers”), and in a recent piece about the purchase-influencing power of “a real mom with a real voice” published in The New York Times (“Approval by a Blogger May Please a Sponsor”).

The Value of Friends

Similarly, over at Facebook, IBM, and MIT, researchers are investigating how friendship networks can be most quickly and profitably monetized. “They’re finding that if our friends buy something, there’s a better-than-average chance we’ll buy it, too,” observes Stephen Baker at BusinessWeek, “It’s a simple insight but one that could lead to targeted messaging in an age of growing media clutter.” Social networks are human capital in a digital culture, and they can convert if just the right communications tools are used.

That insight was the inspiration for a slick viral reverse-logic campaign earlier this year, when Burger King turned the trusted referral model of soc-media marketing into a brief but memorable Whopper Sacrifice Facebook app. The campaign invited Facebookers to dump ten online friends in exchange for a burger. The campaign was quickly outlawed and discontinued by FB but not before thousands of friends had been sacrificed for a free fast food fix. Ouch.

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About Sidneyeve Matrix

Professor, blogger, trendwatcher. I share research & news about digital culture & commerce on Google+, Pinterest, and Twitter.

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