PR Practices: WOM Still Wins in the End

These days, there are more ways than ever to publicize a product or service so as to increase its popularity and its sales.

And yet … the type of thing most likely to convince someone to try a new product – or to change a brand – is a reference or endorsement from someone they know and trust.

Omnichannel marketing promotions firm YA conducted research in 2016 with ~1,000 American adults (age 18+) that quantifies what many have long suspected: ~85% of respondents reported that they are more likely to purchase a product or service if it is recommended by someone they know.

A similarly high percentage — 76% — reported that an endorsement from such a person would cause them to choose one brand over another.

Most important of all, ~38% of respondents reported that when researching product or services, a referral from a friend is the source of information they trust the most.  No other source comes close.

This means that online reviews, news reports and advertising – all of which have some impact – aren’t nearly as important as the opinions of friends, colleagues or family members.

… Even if those friends aren’t experts in the topic!

It boils down to this:  The level of trust between people has a greater bearing on purchase decisions because consumers value the opinion of people they know.

Likewise, the survey respondents exhibited a willingness to make referrals of products and services, with more than 90% reporting that they give referrals when they like a product. But a far lower percentage — ~22% — have actually participated in formal refer-a-friend programs.

This seems like it could be an opportunity for brands to create dedicated referral programs, wherein those who participate are rewarded for their involvement.

The key here is harnessing the referrers as “troops” in the campaign, so as to attract a larger share of referral business and where the opportunities are strongest — and tracking the results carefully, of course.

What people say: More believable than what brands say.

Word of mouth and review/ratings sites trump branding activityWord of mouth has always been a powerful influencer over the success or failure of a product in the market. So when surveys show that consumers value the opinion of their friends most when it comes to the value of a product, there’s nothing particularly unusual about that news.

But consider the explosion in the popularity of review sites like Angie’s List and Yelp, plus other sources of information and opinion in cyberspace over the past few years. These have made it possible to access the opinions of significantly more people than ever before.

Nielsen’s most recent Global Trust in Advertising Survey, which queried ~28,000 consumers around the world in late 2011, found that ~92% of respondents trust word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family members.

Interestingly, that percentage is actually up from 2007, when Nielsen found ~75% of respondents trusting their friends as a good source of information.

What about online consumer reviews written by complete strangers? Consumers’ trust levels in those information sources has also gone up; it’s ~70% today compared to ~55% back in 2007.

The picture is different with branding and advertising, however. Trust in traditional advertising (TV, radio, magazines and newspapers) has dropped in recent years. Today, only about 47% of Nielsen survey respondents say they trust those sources of information.

Online advertising has actually improved its standing with consumers, but trust levels are still mired in the 30s: 36% trust online video ads … ~33% trust online banner ads … ~39% trust paid search engine advertising.

And when it comes to branded content like company websites, consumer trust in these “owned media” is running below 60%, while e-mail communiqués are scoring even lower on the trust scale (around 50%).

The Nielsen survey results underscore why developing a robust social media presence has become such an important strategy for so many brands. Clearly, recommendations and reviews from friends and strangers alike is having the strongest impact on the purchase decisions that are being made.

Of course, building a social media presence is only half the battle: Whether the content is positive, neutral or negative has huge implications as well. A few negative reviews or ratings can stop a purchaser dead in his or her tracks. Just ask anyone in the hospitality industry, whose establishments are in some senses almost held hostage by TripAdvisor and other rating sites.