Understanding the distinction between online and offline word-of-mouth2012-06-06
Listening to a podcast the other day, I heard an interview with a businessman who had grown his company using social media. He was the keynote speaker at a conference the podcaster was attendings; she was able to snag him for an the interview in which he offered takeaways from his experiences.
Among other recommendations, he observed that social media lets you engage with online audiences the same way you would in the real world, without corporate filters. Most online efforts, he said, were carefully crafted works of corporate marketing. When you’re engaged in real-world conversation, you don’t stop to think through your answer, to massage every sentence and make sure you’re saying something important. His advice: Don’t stop and think when using social media; just converse like you do in offline.
The problem with his recommendation is that few people post to social channels the same kinds of thoughts they share in offline conversation. Even those who fly off the handle or post something ill-advised usually aren’t typing the first thing that pops into their minds.
This isn’t an assumption; it’s the result of research published in April out of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School that establishes a distinction between discontinuous and continuous communication channels. Continuous communication occurs mainly offline:
When people speak in this manner, interesting products or brands are not talked about with any more frequency than less distinctive ones because social convention demands an immediate response, the researchers note. “It’s awkward to have dinner with a friend in silence, or ride in a cab with a colleague without conversing, so rather than waiting to think of the most interesting thing to say, people will talk about whatever is top-of-mind to keep the conversation flowing,” they write. “It’s not that people do not have enough interesting things to talk about; rather, they do not have the time to select the most interesting thing.”
Discontinuous channels occur mostly online (although wouldn’t include Skype or Hangout conversations, for example), in which people have the time to decide how or whether to respond:
“A really simple way to think about it is the following,” (marketing professor Jonah) Berger notes. “Imagine if you’re online and someone sends you something. You don’t have to reply. You’re only going to share things when they cross a certain threshold of interesting. The option of not saying anything is fine in a discontinuous conversation.”
The distinction is important, since most communicators know that the volume of word-lf-mouth offline is far greater than online. Yet research from Keller Fay makes it clear than face-to-face word-of-mouth is more frequent, the greater levels of interest correlate to online word-of-mouth. Specific products also come up more frequently online.
Berger and co-author Raghuram Iyengar argue in their paper, “How Interest Shapes Word-of-Mouth Over Different Channels,” that knowing the difference can help businesses select the right medium for the message. If the goal is offline word of mouth, they say, how interesting the product or service is doesn’t matter as much as it does in the online world. Breakfast cereal is an example, according to Berger, who says it’s not very interesting but can be top-of-mind. “We get up in the morning and eat (cereal) for breakfast, so there’s a good chance that we’ll talk about it.” But that’s in the face-to-face world. He also points to Doritos commercials that have run during the Super Bowl, which targeted offline conversation. “What’s interesting about that situation is that people watching the Super Bowl are also sitting there talking about tortilla chips, guacamole, seven-layer dip. Those aren’t the most exciting things in the world, but [people] are talking about them because they are right in front of them.”
Online conversations should certainly be authentic and candid, but your customers don’t talk online the same way they do offline. Marketers and communicators shouldn’t, either. Know your channel, know the cues that will get customers talking, and engage for results. Posting the first thing that comes to mind is how we talk offline, not how we engage online.