Paid Media, Word Of Mouth, And Social Movements
In my previous blog entry, I took a look at the latest round of billboards from the Foundation for Biomedical Research – an anti-animal front group that lobbies to promote animal experimentation and weaken the few modest laws protecting animals in laboratories. Specifically, I examined FBR’s objectives and odds of moving public opinion with these ads.
My conclusion? The ads are clearly succeeding in raising public awareness of the issue, possibly even on FBR’s terms. But they are not likely to strengthen public opinion of animal experimentation without some corresponding grassroots, or word of mouth marketing effort. In this post, I compare and contrast the key differences between the two approaches, and discuss what’s missing from the FBR campaign.
In order to understand where I’m going, let’s distinguish between a traditional media campaign and what can be generally defined as a “social movement.” Anyone involved in animal protection knows that movements take on a very different shape. The authors of the excellent book Brains on Fire describe a movement in the following way: “Your ultimate goal should be to ignite something so powerful that if your marketing and PR departments or, God forbid, even your entire company got hit by a bus, your fans would pick up the banner and march forward with it” (Brains on Fire, xv). Movements are intended to live on, long after a particular media campaign closes.
Make no mistake about it: the FBR media blitz is a campaign, not a movement. Billboards go up on a certain date and come down on another, and the water cooler conversation dies with it. Paid media is also different in so far as it adopts a push model. It is, by definition, one-way communication.
Word of mouth marketing is the opposite; it’s basically people talking about you, whereas advertising is you talking about yourself. Word of mouth’s two-way communication is inherently more sustainable. When the FBR billboards ads go down, and they will, it’s lights out.
Another important difference is that campaigns usually adopt a “top down” mentality. Corporations, advocacy groups, and candidates frequently launch campaigns, with varying success rates, using all the familiar tactics: television, print ads, direct mail, and yes, billboards. With enough resources, an instant campaign can come out of anywhere at anytime. Word of mouth is different. These movements need to be “ignited.” In other words, something, or some idea has to already be percolating at the grassroots level. Then, all of a sudden, someone throws kindle on it and lights the match and you’ve got yourself a movement (Brains on Fire, xx).
My favorite example is Rick Santelli’s extemporaneous speech on February 19, 2009 at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. When the CNBC financial analyst voiced his opposition to the “proposed $275 billion deficit-financed homeowner bailout plan and other massive spending measures,” he called upon other like-minded Americans to make their outrage known with a 21st century Boston Tea Party revival. By many accounts, Santelli effectively lit the match that ignited the so-called Tea Party Movement. There were no billboards, no media buys. Just one man sparking a word of mouth movement among a growing sentiment of anti-tax-and-spend minded Americans that continues to this writing. The key is that Santelli only lit the match; he did not sow the seeds of resentment toward the government’s overspending and bailout packages. But he did kick the movement into high gear.
The FBR media blitz looks nothing like this; it shares none of the hallmarks of a word of mouth campaign. Indeed, FBR drove awareness of the issue through press but that’s the extent of a billboard’s power. As grassroots managers, animal advocates are constantly attempting to pierce “earlids” – our natural filters that block out the overwhelming amount of competing messages we receive each day. People certainly remember and talk about some ads (and there is evidence they are talking about the FBR ads) but odds are that the message does not stick.
So whereas good advertising excels at generating awareness, good word of mouth excels in generating bonds of credibility. As the Heath Brothers demonstrate in Made to Stick, “We trust the recommendations of people whom we want to be like” (Pg.134).
If this is the case, then why don’t more shady anti-animal front groups invest in word of mouth marketing? There are many reasons: a traditional push mentality, fear of the unknown, and frankly, sometimes it’s just not possible for them. Remember: word of mouth campaigns aren’t bought in the same way we purchase advertising; they are ignited in the context of a preexisting groundswell that can’t be manufactured at the push of a button.
So what’s more important for an animal advocate, generating issue awareness through earned media or sustaining public discourse through word of mouth? The short answer is, both. Depending on what you are trying to accomplish, credibility and awareness are both essential elements, and both are required for effective persuasion.