Online Versus Offline Word of Mouth: A Pointless Debate


Near the end of day one of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s WOMBAT conference, there’s one misguided marketing framework unfortunately getting too much attention: that most word of mouth occur offline versus online. I agree word of mouth in the marketing industry too often is associated with online, probably because it’s measurable and its impact is very noticeable as of late via blogs, social video and many other platforms. These platforms often represent quick tactics that marketing agencies can upsell their clients on.

But the problem with this either-or framework – “online versus offline” – is that it’s irrelevant and artificial. The reality is that online and offline all work together holistically. What the “offline” proponents conveniently omit in their discussion is the latency inherent in online word of mouth – that is, the permanent digital trail of consumer word-of-mouth behavior left behind for infinity. It acts like media and has a tendency – fueled by search engines – to empower passionate information seekers to quickly connect with motivated and expressive information speakers.

Moreover, the offline proponents frequently compare “face-to-face” word of mouth with online. The reality is that word of mouth happens among people we trust, regardless of the communications platform or medium. What matters is trust in the source. Characterizing online word of mouth in that manner is as silly as categorizing “telephone” or “smoke-signal” word of mouth. This face-to-face versus online comparison is based on an ad recall model; it has a place, but too often answers the wrong questions.

Fellow WOMMA members: Let’s move on from this pointless debate!

And for more relevant debate around the strong validity of online consumer-generated media, I direct you to a recent debate between Millward Brown’s Nigel Hollis and myself, here and here. Also, see my recent rebuttal to Bill Neal’s criticism of CGM research here.

Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

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