Thrive in our connected world

Social Risk: Why Word of Mouth Doesn’t Work in Social Media

An interesting study, “Why recommend a brand face-to-face but not on Facebook?” has just been published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, looking at differences between word of mouth recommendations in social media and in person.

Bottom line, people are far less likely to recommend brands to each other in social media because of the perceived ‘social risk’ social media recommendations entail (‘social risk’ = risk to your public image and reputation if your recommendation sucks).  People don’t recommend (often) on Facebook because Facebook recommendations are public, written and broadcast (in contrast to the private, oral, and personalised one-to-one recommendations of traditional word of mouth).

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense – you might make a private personal recommendation to a friend, depending on their particular needs, but would you make a blanket public recommendation to everyone you know, without knowing their needs?

The implications for digital (and traditional) marketing are key

1) Digital (and traditional) marketing should get back to focusing on stimulating traditional word of mouth (via content that gives people the reasons and language to recommend) – private one-t0-one recommendations

2) Digital (and traditional) marketing should focus on stimulating professional and expert recommendations and reviews, rather than peer to peer recommendations.  Professional reviewers and experts are paid to make recommendations – the social risk is part of their job.

The study also helps explain why  ‘would you recommend?’ is a better predictor of profitable growth for brands than ‘do you recommend’; actually recommending is contingent on situations were social risk is low; where you can make private, one-to-one personalised recommendation – with caveats as needed.

It’s not all bad news for brands looking to drive online consumer word of mouth; the study did find that one type of person – those with a high need for ‘social enhancement’ (need to be seen positively by others, social approval seekers) were more likely to broadcast recommendations in social media.  But are people who agree strongly with the statement – “In general, I like to hear that I am a great person” really your best word of mouth advocates?





Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
Leave a Reply to Rob Fuggetta Cancel reply

  • Paul,

    I strongly disagree with the guidance you provide to marketers as a result of the study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

    Studies have indeed shown that face-to-face recommendations from friends or trusted sources have more impact than online recommendations. However, it is simply bad advice to tell marketers that they should get back to focusing on stimulating traditional word of mouth (private one-to-one recommendations) vs. trying to drive online consumer word of mouth.

    Sixty-eight percent of people trust consumer opinions posted online, according to Nielsen’s latest Global Trust in Advertising study. Furthermore, consumer recommendations posted on shopping sites and social networks reach dramatically more people than face-to-face recommendations. Brands who can harness the power and reach of online word of mouth have a decided competitive advantage over brands who don’t do this, studies by the Boston Consulting Group, Deloitte, Bain, and others have shown.

    I’m equally stunned that you recommend that marketers should focus on stimulating professional and expert recommendations and reviews, rather than peer to peer recommendations. This also flies in the face of third-party research that proves conclusively that consumers trust peer recommendations more than professional and expert recommendations.

    For example, 77 percent of consumer electronics buyers trust consumer reviews compared to 23 percent who trust professional and expert reviews, according to a study by the PR firm Weber Shandwick.

    The Journal of Consumer Psychology study’s key finding — that people don’t recommend often on Facebook because of the perceived social risk — may make sense to you, but is certainly not what we’ve found at Zuberance. Millions of consumers have recommended brands and products on Facebook, Twitter, and other social channels using our social sharing platform.

    Importantly, none of these consumers have ever been paid to recommend brands or products on Facebook, Twitter, or any social channel. The main reason why Advocates tell others about brands and products is because they want to help others, studies by Yahoo, Comscore, and Zuberance have found.

    Note: Rob Fuggetta is the founder/CEO of Zuberance, a Brand Advocate marketing company.

    • Thanks Rob for a thoughtful reply. You make valid points to counter the JCP research. We could trade survey stats all day – given that so many stats are generated by people with a vested interest in what they say (Gallup – Only 5% of people significantly influenced by social media, Edelman – 70% trust experts, 43% trust other consumers). But not sure it would change minds… The only way to settle the debate scientifically would be to run a controlled field experiment – social media word of mouth campaign, vs. offline word of mouth campaign vs. review campaign. If we could find a brand to sponsor it, I’d be up for the challenge!

  • I do not listen to recommendations posted on sites such as FaceBook because I never know what is actually posted by said trusted friend or how much is ads posted in their name.

  • People don’t like this advice, but it is so true! Social media isn’t as effective as most marketers claim it is. Does it have merit yes. However, it is one tool in the broader communications tool box that is currently being overused. Consumers are drowning in content with 5,000 brand messages everyday, according to Truth is, people don’t remember where or how they get content from online because it is constant. You click on a link, post and article. Fast forward an hour, two hours, six hours — you don’t remember who or what brand took you there. Therefore, people are more likely to trust other people’s opinions they know and like b/c they tie it back to personal relationships. WOM still works. Traditional media still works. Advertising still works. PR still works. We are all so focused on social – that we are forgetting that a great strategy is a combination of marketing/comm disciplines. Adele Cehrs, CEO of Epic PR Group and author or SPIKE Your Brand ROI.

Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.