What Drives Immediate and Ongoing Word of Mouth?

Jonah Berger and Eric M. Schwartz
Journal of Marketing Research (JMR)
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Executive Summary
Why do certain products get more word of mouth (WOM)? Consumers talk about new running shoes, complain about bad hotel stays, and share information about the best way to get out tough stains. Indeed, social talk generates more than 3.3 billion brand impressions each day and affects everything from the products consumers buy to the drugs doctors prescribe. However, although it is clear that WOM is both frequent and important, why are certain products talked about more than others, both right after consumers first experience them (immediate WOM) and in the months that follow (ongoing WOM)? Some products get a good deal of buzz while others go unmentioned. Some movies are the talk of the town while others are never discussed. What products characteristics drive WOM and how might they vary over different time horizons?

The authors examine how product characteristics shape immediate and ongoing WOM. Although practitioners often argue that products must be interesting to be discussed, the authors demonstrate that this intuition is incorrect. Analysis of everyday conversations for more than 300 different products from a variety of categories (i.e., consumer packaged goods and household products to technology and financial services) show that while more interesting products are talked about more right after consumers first experience them, they do not receive more ongoing WOM over a multimonth period, or overall. Instead, the results suggest that WOM, particularly ongoing, is driven by accessibility. Everyday conversations often consist of idle chatter about whatever happens to come to mind, regardless of how mundane it may be. Consequently, products that are publicly visible or cued more by the environment receive more WOM both right away and over time because they are top of mind. Building on these findings, the authors conducted a large field experiment across various cities that increased WOM for Boston Market by approximately 10%.

Additional analyses also provide insight into how to use promotional giveaways more effectively to generate WOM. Word-of-mouth marketing companies often send consumers free products or gifts to encourage them to talk about the brand. But do these giveaways actually increase buzz, and are certain types of giveaways more effective than others? The results show that giving away the product itself or nonproduct extras (e.g., logo hats, recipes) are the only giveaways linked to increased WOM. Neither samples nor coupons or rebates appeared effective. Overall, these findings shed light on psychological drivers of WOM and demonstrate how to design more effective WOM marketing campaigns.

Jonah Berger is the James G. Campbell Jr. Memorial Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.  He examines how individual decision making and social dynamics (e.g., social influence) between people generate collective outcomes such as social contagion and trends. Most recently, his research has focused on drivers of WOM and “virality,” or why certain products are talked about more than others and why certain online content goes viral. His research has been published in top-tier academic journals including the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, Marketing Science, Management Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Popular accounts of his research have appeared on NPR and in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Science, Sloan Management Review, and The Economist.

Eric M. Schwartz is a doctoral candidate in marketing at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He models customer behavior in the areas of customer relationship management, interactive media, and WOM. His work involves a range of quantitative models and field experiments, and it spans a domains ranging from nonprofits to online retailers. Recently, he works on interactive marketing problems, using an optimization approach to run sequential marketing tests.  Dr. Schwartz has won various grants at the Wharton School and holds a BA in Mathematics and a BA in Spanish from the University of Pennsylvania.

Journal of Marketing Research, Volume 48, Number 5, October 2011
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Jonah Berger and Eric M. Schwartz
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