Pollara Report Dissing Social Media Brings WOM/BT Smackdown Closer

Did you see the Pollara research report on influencers that came out yesterday? I read about it on MediaPost and saw this great follow-up post on ReadWriteWeb.

To summarize, Pollara reported that bloggers and other online “influencers” may not hold as much sway as marketers believe they do. The data point that keeps popping up is this one:

…nearly 80% [of respondents] said they were very or somewhat more likely to consider buying products recommended by real-world friends and family, while only 23% reported being very or somewhat likely to consider a product pushed by “well-known bloggers.”

This survey is part of a larger paradigm shift, real or imagined, that I’ve been sensing for awhile. It’s an incredibly obvious one, and almost boring to acknowledge, but I am compelled to bring it up because the tension between the two sides keeps getting stronger.

My “aha moment” came at the recent behavioral targeting conference I attended. Without any prodding, the speakers one by one began quietly slamming Word of Mouth marketing. While they took pains to differentiate their companies from the other BT solutions represented, they all shared a quiet consensus that anything less than BT was crap. I know I wasn’t the only marketer or PR person on-site that day, and I couldn’t believe they were suggesting it was their way or the highway. But they were!

I’m starting to get the feeling that Marketers (and PR people) are being asked to pick a philosophical camp: Actions or Words.

Words: Word of Mouth, social networks, bloggers, online communities, influencers, “tell a friend”, “friend me”. The Words camp is all about what people say: blog posts, tweets, “user-generated content,” favorites, preferences, and, yes, surveys. Self-expression is its highest virtue. You can even say WOM practitioners have a positive, optimistic view of individuals; whether they’re expressing their likes or dislikes, there is an inherent trust that what the person says is a true reflection of what they believe, and that they have the right — perhaps even an obligation — to say it.

See also: WOMMA, SWOM/Church of the Customer, “Blogger Relations,” “Brand Evangelism,” Malcolm Gladwell.

Actions: Behavioral Targeting (in its true form), clickstream data, numbers, algorithms. Not what people say they do — what they actually do do. I remember the opening speaker at the keynote address of the BT conference making a B.F. Skinner joke…though we all knew he wasn’t really joking. The Actions people hold that our lives are governed by immutable laws that — if we can just identify and capitalize off of them — hold the key to unlocking the secrets of human behavior and, in doing so, marketing. Anything someone “says” is just noise. The question is, were they picking their nose while they were saying it?

See also: Duncan Watts, Ian Ayres, Science-with-a-capital-S.

Getting back to the Pollara survey: from a PR perspective, this is just the latest iteration of a narrative that has been brewing for quite some time. It’s just another log on the fire. (For a reasonable discussion of both sides, you can’t do better than the comment thread on ReadWriteWeb.)

I understand why two-sided arguments work. They’re easy to understand, easy to position against, and the media LOVES them. Props to MediaPost and Pollara for conducting this survey, a very savvy PR move.

However, smart communications professionals know it’s not an either/or choice. To achieve our clients’ marketing and PR goals, we need to pay attention to their audience’s actions and words. Together. So let’s talk about integrating those strategies instead of placing bets on who wins in a cage match.

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