Even before social media and the Internet were glimmers in Al Gore's eye, "word-of-mouth marketing" was important to brands. That's because people have had conversations about brands since the dawn of time. I still remember, when I worked at a sporting-goods store in high school, my manager telling me that a customer will tell two people about a positive shopping experience but will tell seven people about a bad one. I can't say how valid those numbers are, but the gist rings true: Conversations between consumers about brands are far more influential than any advertisement has been or ever will be.
If you don't believe me, just ask Nielsen. Its 2012 survey of global trust in advertising, which asked consumers what influenced their purchase decisions, found that 92 percent of respondents trust (completely or somewhat) recommendations from people they know. Even if they don't know someone, they still trust that person's opinions more than any other kind of advertising (70 percent trust consumers' opinions posted online). A distant third was editorial content (owned media). So there's no question that while paid, owned and earned media are partly responsible for growing awareness and loyalty, they are no match for the influence of people.
This influence works both ways, remember. While brands like the Human Rights Campaign, which motivated 2.7 million people to use its red "equality" logo as their Facebook profile photos, are benefiting from positive word of mouth, United Airlines and Victoria's Secret felt (or are still feeling) the wrath of the consumer—in the form of a voice that social media can amplify exponentially.
So how do you get people talking positively about your brand? That's where storytelling comes in.
Creating a Brand Narrative
In the post-advertising age, the brands that are succeeding are the ones that in effect turn themselves into stories—creating original, authentic media that their customers actively choose to engage with, explore and then recommend to others. The old model was 2 percent conversion. Now it's 100 percent engagement.
But engagement is an industry buzzword and nothing you haven't already heard. So how can digital storytelling help you create positive word-of-mouth about your brand?
First, brands have make an effort to map their digital touch points and create a strategy that will encourage the right customers to voluntarily associate with a brand, thereby building a much deeper knowledge of and connection to it. That allows the brand to tell its customers a new chapter of its story every time the customers touch it. So the first chapter of a story might describe the brand's approach to sandwich making. The next might describe the types of people the brand employs, how the brand goes out of its way to appreciate customers, and so on. The channels and stories vary from brand to brand, but what remains the same is the commitment to creating great content that is audience-serving, not just self-serving.
Next, the content may be branded but must also be useful and entertaining or both. This type of content, such as Subway's original 4 to 9ers web series and The Walking Dead's immersive after-show, get people talking about the brand in the context of interesting content that doesn't feel like advertising.
Finally, after unearthing a brand's story, mapping the touch points and creating engaging content, brands have one last step to take to align audiences with their story—it's what I call the leap. Brands have to get out of their comfort zone and embrace their audiences in good times and, probably most important, in bad. Gary Vaynerchuck, a brand in and of himself, constantly does this. At the most recent SXSW conference, he purchased a vendor booth and simply stood behind it for hours while attendees lined up to ask him question after question. I've never seen anything like it, and I've told countless people about Gary's "leap." He opened his brand up to all his fans and provided not only an authentic human connection but also valuable answers to their questions.
Brands that exist outside of a single human body also have opportunities like this, especially when they are in crisis mode. Domino's practically wrote the book on reactive customer service when, on several occasions, its brand was shown in an unsavory light. From customers' unflattering reviews to customers' damning photos to deplorable behavior on the part of employees, Domino's listened, owned up to its mistakes and responded honestly and in a way that made a difference. In fact, Domino's was able to use the experience it gained through responding to the crises and turn it into content marketing.
The Power of Customer Conversations
The greatest change in the post-advertising age is that conversations have become media. A brand must not only create great content but also help foster positive conversations. That's exactly what Domino's did and what United Airlines should have done. Social-media tools amplify these conversations, and then it is just arithmetic: billions of social-media users, each with hundreds of friends and followers. The conversations themselves are assembling large audiences in the way that mass (paid) media used to, and it is up to brands to craft the right narratives.