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December 17, 2020

Ten years ago I published this piece at MediaVillage about newly released research which shined much needed light on online vs. offline word of mouth. It was conducted by several esteemed marketing professors and was unveiled at a Wharton event. I recently revisited the results and updated them to see just how much things have advanced in a decade as social media has boomed. And to my surprise -- and I suspect to yours, as well -- the answer is, "not as much as you might think."

Social media conversation about brands then -- and now -- is heavily dominated by a select few categories, particularly technology and media. Most categories are very underrepresented in social media vs. real world word of mouth, led by beverages and food/dining.

The 2010 Findings

Seeking to understand how well the then-emerging world of social media reflected real world conversation about brands, the research addressed the scarcity of knowledge about the online/offline dynamic. "This raises a critical concern -- are we searching for answers where the light is? Are the insights we gain from the online data sets relevant for the offline behavior? Are we doing the right thing when we generalize across channels? Are marketing managers doing the right thing when they choose between ... [the analysis of] offline data, and [the analysis of] online word of mouth data, assuming that these two sources are substitutes?"

The headline finding was clear: "Online data does not reflect well the offline behavior. Word of mouth is not channel neutral. One cannot automatically generalize the results from online to offline."

And here was the evidence, in part:

Using data from 2007- 2010, the first column is the distribution of the word of mouth mentions offline across 700 brands. The categories with the large percentage of conversation were technology, beverages and food, followed closely by telecom and media. But no one category dominated.

Compare this to online WOM in the second column, where the picture is totally different and, in many respects, much more extreme. Fully 1/3 of all conversation at that time was about media and entertainment brands. Cars and technology together represented another 1/3 of all conversation. If you add in sports, you have covered three quarters of all WOM, and there is very little conversation about the rest.

Fast Forward to 2020

Looking at data for a robust and diverse group of 600 U.S. brands during 2019 and 2020, the overall contours of the picture are remarkably similar.

Offline, conversation is once again more evenly distributed over a wide range of categories. Retail and apparel leads the list with 16% of the chatter, followed by technology (13%), food/dining (11%) and beverages (10%). Meanwhile, social media buzz about brands remains very concentrated, with technology now leading the way (44% -- up sharply from 17% a decade ago), and together with media and sports, these "big three" account for nearly 80% of all brand discussion in social media.

The conclusion from a decade ago is as accurate today as it was then: "Online data does not reflect well the offline behavior. Word of mouth is not channel neutral. One cannot automatically generalize the results from online to offline." As we have shown elsewhere, each is important at driving business results, but one is not a mirror on the other. A focus on one at the expense of the other is at best achieving half the results and could possibly lead to incorrect decisions. Successful brands need strategies to drive both offline and online word of mouth.

In the words of Bon Jovi:

"The more things change the more they stay the same. The same sunrise, it's just another day."

And so it is with brands and word of mouth, too. Thankfully, we know much more now than we did a decade ago about how to harness these twin forces of offline and online WOM. Most of all, we know it is a timeless force to be reckoned with.

Word of Mouth and Social Media: A Ten-Year Update: Resources and Tips
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