Word of Mouth is the title of a poorly reviewed and poorly received album by Mike & The Mechanics . That is an ironic fact that is tangentially related to the subject at hand today. The first two albums by Mike & The Mechanics had been smash hits, featuring such enduring hits as “Silent Running” and “All I Need Is A Miracle” (from their debut) and the #1 hit “The Living Years,” from their second album. Expectations were high for the third album, and despite front-loading the album with its best songs and releasing them as singles, the album flopped, quickly finding its way in the discount bin. What happened? Bad word of mouth, ironically enough.
In our commercialistic culture, word of mouth seems very neglected and underrated. We are constantly bombarded with commercials no matter where we go–we have bulk rate sales pitches direct mailed, billboards on roads, advertisements before movies, on television or on radio or in newspapers. It is impossible to escape marketing, and a great deal of the marketing, I have learned, is not really all that interested in me personally. When it is (see a lot of the Dear Playstation advertisements) I find it funny even when I do not buy the product. But this sort of marketing is only attempting to coerce or deceive someone to buy your product that would not otherwise do so. To that end, the best marketing attempts come from those products (like beers and junk food and jewelry) where there is the least difference between brands. The larger the gulf between competing products, the worse the advertisements (see cars and politicians in general campaigns).
Word of mouth advertising is not something that is controlled like that. It can either be very good or very bad–it depends on customers, listeners, readers and their own opinions, and it is far more powerful and lasting than advertising campaigns. Those friends of mine whose opinions and judgments I regard highly have a very large amount of power to support a band, a book, or a movie, and I have such power with those who regard my own judgments highly. That sort of power is not something that a company has when it tries to promote its own products. That power comes from knowledge in recognizing quality and in knowing what kind of people will like what products and services.
I read a book review not too long ago from someone who really loathed a book, with good reason, and after reading that book review I pondered why the (unimportant) semi-famous author had gotten paid a large review to write an abominable piece of puff political trash when many people could write a vastly better book. The book review apparently had gotten something like 60,000 hits, more than four times the amount of people who bought the book, and none of whom (myself included) would think to buy it after reading the review, which was pretty devastating and pretty complete. If a publisher releases a terrible work, word will get out, because few things anger people more than being fooled or cheated. Likewise, good works will eventually have word spread about them, so long as someone reads or hears or sees them who gets the word out.
And it is not only culture where the word gets out. Word of mouth advertising is key to politics and religion and the spread of any kind of worldview. But here, just as in the (more trivial) examples of selling products, first one must develop credibility with others and then one’s words and positions will be respected. Too often people think that by studying mere rhetoric and focusing on such techniques that one wins success, when the most successful sort of advertising is also the most subtle and the least attention-getting, respect gained the hard way, from a good track record of excellence.
And perhaps that is why despite the power of word of mouth that it is so little remarked upon. There are no short-cuts to trust and credibility, especially not in this cynical and suspicious world. Even at our best, there will be some areas where we are considered to be expert, many more areas where we are competent (hopefully), and a few areas where we have no particular expertise or credibility. Nor will our own personal style and approach win us friends and influence with everyone, for some people will appreciate the way we think and some people will not, for entirely private reasons. And so let us do what we can to build up the credibility such that we can use word of mouth wisely both to build up as well as tear down, as necessary. For far too many talking heads are bought and paid for and have no credibility, only plenty of air time.