Opinion: The neglected folks shaping word of mouth for your brand on social

Word of mouth (WOM) can have significant impacts on businesses. Positive WOM can go a long way to grow a brand while negative WOM may cause considerable damages. The advent of the internet, social media and consequently electronic word of mouth (eWOM) further amplify the repercussions. Compared to traditional WOM, eWOM can reach a much wider audience, often without geographical boundaries. Moreover, unlike face to face WOM, which normally occur over dyadic communications and are transient, eWOM can remain in a digital environment permanently.

With so much at stake, managers have always attempted to actively control WOM surrounding their brands but often find it challenging to do so. Extensive academic studies have been conducted with significant amount of literature built up over the last few decades. This is especially so with eWOM which offers greater objectivity in measurements.

Over the years, many managerial precepts on WOM were formed. One of them is a common but ultimately simplistic assumption that word of mouth come predominantly from current or prospective customers. On the surface, this seems to make such perfect sense and of course, word of mouth will come from the people who have either experienced the product or service themselves or from prospective users searching for information and getting feedback from the actual users mentioned earlier. Both parties feeding a relatively closed ecosystem by playing their roles either as WOM givers or receivers. In other words, it only make sense that most WOM are generated and transmitted by those with their skin in the game.

However, some years back, I noticed a curious phenomenon where individuals who have no apparent relations to a brand are actively spreading WOM for it. This is especially observable from the transmission of eWOM on social media. What started as a casual observation led me to complete a doctoral research on this situation. Collecting data from eWOM generated on social media, I found that not only are eWOM recommendations coming from people who are not customers of the brand (and have no intention to be in the near future), but that this group of individuals, whom I referred to as non-market participants (NMPs), actually accounted for a significant proportion of total eWOM.

Using data such as the number of “likes”, “shares” and comments from the social media page of a luxury automotive brand, I identified 1,900 unique individuals who created eWOM for the brand over a six-month period. Next, I extracted publicly available sales and market trend data for the same brand. As this is an ultra luxury brand financially accessible only by a small segment of the market, I am able to determine and estimate from the data the number of current and prospective customers respectively. Finally, through cross analysing the different data sets, I estimate that more than 70% of those 1,900 individuals who created eWOM are NMPs. 
For further evidence, I conducted semi-structured interviews with randomly selected participants who generated eWOM on social media. It turns out that more than 90% of them were NMPs of the brands they created eWOM on, being neither current customers nor any intention to be in the near to mid term. 

While more of such studies need to be conducted to increase data robustness, it is increasingly clear that NMPs may be mistakenly neglected by businesses in their word of mouth strategies. And no one can be blamed for the mistake. It is counterintuitive for both academia and managers alike to put any focus on those who are not likely to be customers. In fact, one of marketing’s fundamental concepts is to identify target segments for your product and subsequently design the 4Ps to reach and appeal to them. Non–market participants is exactly the group of people managers are taught to exclude. But ironically, there is now evidence that they may be missing out on a crucial cog in the wheel by neglecting NMPs as these people can actually help to exponentially increase eWOM and awareness for a brand.


Unfortunately, not much studies have been done and documented on NMPs and they are rarely discussed about in corporate settings. Over the last few years, I can only find a relatively brief reference to NMPs in the book “Marketing 4.0” by Philip Kotler, Hermawan Kartajaya and Iwan Setiawan. In their discussion on digital customer journey or what is more commonly referred to as sales funnel, the authors recognise that in certain industries, there are more people advocating for a brand than the number of actual customers. This results in a model that has a different shape from the traditional “big to small” funnel.

With so limited knowledge on NMPs, even if managers are now made aware of their importance, there is little to guide them on what they can do to motivate this group of people to spread eWOM. Through the interviews conducted for my research, I have also documented the motivations for NMPs to transmit eWOM and the kind of gratifications they received from doing so. With their verbatim responses, I then adopted thematic analysis methodology to group emerging themes into categories. Here are four key motivations I found that drive NMPs to create eWOM.

1. To gratify aspirational needs

As our interviewees were transmitting eWOM on cars, a common motivation cited was to gratify their aspirational needs. Owning a car is financially inaccessible in the short to mid – term for some of the respondents. However, they continue to search for online information about their dream cars while sharing and discussing these news with their network of social media friends - creating eWOM in the process. In the previously mentioned book “Marketing 4.0”, it was similarly discussed that non-market participating advocates can be found in luxury goods. There are usually high level of affiliations the general population has for these brands, so much so that they are willing to be advocates without being a customer.

With this in mind, managers who are marketing products and services with strong brand names and aspirational values should tap into a prevalent pool of NMPs who can help to increase
eWOM and raise further awareness for their brands.

To reach these NMPs, the brand should ensure that their market segmentation parameters do overly restrict the reach of their brand messages.

Casting a wider media coverage net as opposed to a more targeted approach may therefore be a better channel communication strategy.

2. To gratify social needs

Many of the interviewees also indicated that they share online information about brands not within their shopping list as they may have friends in their network who are current or potential customers. This altruistic motive goes to show that some NMPs may be creating eWOM to gratify their social needs. Interestingly, some added that they occasionally share news of expensive products to give an impression to their friends that they can afford it. This will help to either elevate their perceived social status or to fit in with their group of friends due to social pressure.

This finding reveals that human behaviour on social media may take on more posturing than normal circumstances and less altruistic than it appears. Social media posturing can be discussed as a separate subject area, beyond the scope of this article. But it is certainly a behavioural trait that managers should be aware of. To motivate NMPs with their social needs, managers can play up the exclusiveness of their products or services in their social media messages. Contrary to what many brands have been doing, it may be better to reduce emphasis on prices instead (unless your product is priced at a  premium!). This may cheapen the image of the brand and offer less social gratification for NMPs to share your news.

3. A need to gain authority

Another motivation that emerged from the interviewees’ verbatim responses is the desire to gain authority on the subject matter which was shared. For example, NMPs may regularly share news on the latest fashion, exotic travel places, rare collectibles etc. may not be looking to adopt such fashion or travel to these places himself. Instead they want to be perceived as an expert or an influencer in specific subject areas. To tap into this psyche, managers can post little known but interesting information about their product on social media messages. People who wants to gain authority in a certain area has to be quick to share such information before others do. Inadvertently, this may occasionally lead to sharing of fake news without first verifying its authenticity. This leads us to the fourth motivation.

4. Need for information verification 

Circulation of fake news is a serious issue in this age of instantaneous information and connectivity. A number of the NMPs interviewed indicated that they share news of products or services they have no intention of purchasing either to verify with their network the authenticity of the information or to debunk fake news that were shared earlier.

Research on the roles that non market participants play in the growth of a brand is still very much in its infancy. With early indications that they are an active group of people who can shape word of mouth transmission for a brand, it is critical that more studies are done in this area. We can see that many of the motivations that drive these NMPs are even more pronounced in eWOM than traditional WOM, thus making this subject timely as well. Neglecting this may mean a significant gap in our understanding of eWOM dynamics and managers may never be able to effectively tap into its full potential.

The writer is Victor Kwan, managing director (Bentley, Aston Martin, Bugatti), Wearnes Automotive.

References:
P. Kotler, H. Kartajaya & I. Setiawan, “Marketing 4.0”. (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2017), 59 - 104
Y.H. Kwan, “Motivations to engage in word of mouth from non – market participants: A study using automotive business as
the field of investigation”. (Ph.D. diss., Singapore Management University, 2018)