One of the most interesting sessions at the WPP Stream (un)conference in Greece was a discussion on “Who Owns Word of Mouth?” led by John Bell, who has a great blog, and Adam Selig, who works for a great company. As John covered in his blog about the discussion, no one in the room mentioned CRM or any specialty client-side groups owning WOM but, instead, the general consensus was that the CEO needs to own it on the client side (buy-in at the top) and PR agencies need to be the feet on the ground (public relations = relationships).
My take on the issue is slightly different. Let’s looks at the key suspects.
CEOs? I don’t agree. Most CEOs can’t even book their own air travel, do you really want them “owning” WOM? While there are a few examples of CEOs that have successfully engaged with their customers in a meaningful way – the sloppy but beautifully organic Bill Marriott blog comes to mind – most really aren’t well suited to the reality of being involved in these conversations and are generally impossible to separate from their brand ambitions.
Ad agencies? Well, a lot of top tier companies have grown to trust ad agencies with their brands for almost 100 years but advertising has never really been able to make that leap into two-way conversations. You see ad agencies forcing blogs and “social media buys” into their work more and more but the actual management of conversations is not their expertise and is almost always outsourced.
Specialty shops or boutique agencies? A very strong case can be made that the real experts in WOM are working for specialized WOM marketing companies. You can see this a lot at WOMMA events, where the people from larger agencies will be rehashing old news and the specialty shop guys are the ones introducing new ideas. The problem here is that big brands often don’t trust boutique firms. Maybe it’s the underlying feeling that “if they screw up my account then their other big accounts will hear about it” or something to that effect but big brands like to be in the company of other big brands and specialty shops, while possibly better equipped to handle these conversations, are not in the best place to be doing it on a large scale.
Internal groups? Again, a strong case can be made. CRM, when done right, can definitely facilitate meaningful two-way dialogue but the reality of the situation is that most CRM programs are little more than email database management. I can’t imagine too many CMOs would be comfortable with their CRM team handling delicate brand issues in public forums.
That leaves us with PR agencies, which I believe is the most logical “owner” of WOM. Let’s look at the traditional role of PR. Historically, you hired a PR agency to be your liaison with the press since they had knowledge of the inner workings of the media and had relationships that helped get your story out in a positive light, more or less.
Things really haven’t changed that much. The media landscape is once again confusing to these large companies and it is up to the PR companies to figure out how they work. We hear all about how social media is such a vastly different animal than traditional media but couldn’t the same be said for live television when it first came into existence?
The relationships are also different but they’re still equally important. Several of the top agencies have now hired people who blog with some degree of authority and occasionally use them as a way to get the conversation started or to respond to something in social media. In modern crisis communication, the story will almost always start in social media and it will either be contained there or explode into something bigger.
More importantly, PR agencies must own WOM in order to ensure their survival. The number one reason why big PR agencies could be a thing of the past in our lifetimes is because too much of their revenue comes from driving long reach media. With traditional media thinning out and media habits becoming more a la carte, PR agencies need to find creative new ways to find revenue. If WOM is on the table, everything from large scale product seeding to far reaching brand ambassador programs all of a sudden falls under the jurisdiction of PR and there will suddenly be new large budget projects to offset media trends. Also, who better to handle these conversations than the people that have been having them, albeit through different channels, for decades.
I’m headed to the WOMMA Summit in a couple weeks and am looking forward to seeing where the debate stands today. I know there has been some frustration with the proliferation of PR agencies at WOMMA events from the specialty shops. Hmm, I wonder if they have a different perspective on this.