Empowered Involvement

EmpoweredInvolvement.com is run by Martin Oetting, doctoral candidate at ESCP-EAP European School of Management (Berlin Campus) and Partner and Head of Research at German Word-of-Mouth Marketing Pioneer trnd AG.


We will blog about our research, post conference dates, and other stories that appear relevant in the Empowered Involvement context. If you want to keep updated about new developments, we would like to suggest that you subscribe to our blog feed. And quite obviously, we are excited about comments.

The Opinion Leader Grid for Word-of-Mouth Marketing.

The role that opinion leaders should play for word-of-mouth marketing is an often discussed subject. Some practitioners entirely reject their importance and, maybe too hastily, simplify and just quote Duncan Watts and Peter Dodds as back-up. Others claim that it cannot work without them, and they might rely on Keller/Berry, for instance.

I follow Emanuel Rosen, who says (p. 106, “The Anatomy of Buzz Revisited”): “[...] it really depends on how much it costs you to reach these influentials and what you get in return,” in that I believe both views are be correct – depending on the situation. In order to provide a simple guide for deciding which role the identification and targeting of opinion leaders may play in WOM marketing, I would like to propose the following visualisation (click on image for a larger view):

Opinion Leader Grid for WOM Marketing

Two issues need to be looked at for this approach:

One, am I marketing a product that carries a high risk for the buyer (a financial risk, for instance, such as a car – because it is expensive, or a social risk, such as new clothes – because peers might consider them out of fashion)?

Or am I marketing a product that has a very low risk for the buyer (chewing gum, frozen food, or a can of soda).

The second aspect refers to the type of marketing effort:

Do I need a fairly quick response and fast results because my briefing calls for some form of defined campaign? Or am I starting to embark on a long-term effort to build relationships with people whom I want to involve long term in WOM marketing and community building efforts? Depending on where the targeted consumers find themselves within this grid, different types should be addressed in different ways.

Let’s assume first that you want to market a chewing gum with a WOM campaign. What are the chances that people will trust an opinion leader more than a “normal” friend? Not very high. There may be a friend who loves chewing gum above all else and knows the strangest brands, and he might introduce a new gum more often than others, but his word of mouth will be as good as anyone’s when a new brand gets introduced. The “regular” friend who comes by and says “here’s a new chewing gum by brand X, why don’t you give it a try” is as credible as any gum geek might be – there is only so much to know about chewing gum. And purchase risk is minimal.

So as a marketer you’ll want to rely on large numbers – any marketing programme that gets thousands of people talking and enables lots of sampling and sharing is helpful here. Forget the “opinion leaders”. Go for consumers who bring interest, passion, a desire to share something with a friend. Which is the lower left corner in the image above. To recruit them, an open invitation to test the new product or brand can work. It is often useful to use screeners for recruiting among the applications, though. Not because you need opinion leaders. But maybe you want a certain demographic, or you have people answer specific questions about their preferences, or you ask them to justify why they and not someone else should be allowed to test the product. That allows you to check involvement first, and make sure that people don’t just sign up for free stuff, to keep for themselves.

We also call this “Push WOM Marketing” because it works spontaneously, without WOM recipients asking for recommendations – they simply get a new idea or product from a friend.

Now how does it work if you want to build long-term relationships that lead to on-going word of mouth for your brand? Let’s stick with chewing gum: Again, a “chewing gum opinion leader” may be interesting, but probably not interesting enough to warrant major investments in finding her. So again, an open invitation should be extended – on Facebook, through a newsletter, or somewhere else where it might make sense (maybe on Twitter?), to all those who want to engage with the brand. And when they’re signed up on the platform, they can be more intensely involved with the brand – for instance, by applying the principles of Empowered Involvement. Which is what this website is all about. (To read more, here is a post that explains the idea behind it.) And that would be the the upper left corner of the visualisation.

If we now move over to the right hand side, we start talking about opinion leaders. Because this is where you’ll need them: when we have high purchase risk – let’s say a car purchase as an example – the buyer needs to get information from a respected independent source that knows more than she does herself about the category, about the brand, about the market. When you buy a car you start asking around. And you’ll respect more the advice from someone who is known to know.

The same goes for the word of mouth that someone produces spontaneously about cars. When any friend, as knowledgeable as anyone else, recommends a certain car brand, you might take that with a grain of salt: “What does he know … ?” But when the known car geek and enthusiast who reads every consumer report and subscribes to every car blog and runs a couple car blogs of his own proclaims a certain car brand to be great, then this is likely to have more impact on your perception of the brand, and ultimately on your buying decision.

So that is why, campaign-wise, it makes sense to invite those who openly know more about cars than others. Maybe they have a commanding presence on car forums, or because their blogs on cars are widely read. Or they draw a major crowd on Twitter, and tweet a lot about cars.

To get back to the visualisation – if you want quick effects, this will be slightly disappointing … Quick effects will not be achieved easily. An opinion leader knows about her status and importance, and trying a quick shot at addressing her won’t work (at least in most cases). So ideally, you start in the upper right box and build relationships with them. Potentially also through Empowered Involvement. And once you have done that, they will much more favorably respond to your campaign initiatives below. Involving opinion leaders long term is something we also call “Pull WOM Marketing” – because you are building a relationship with people from whom others “pull” information when it’s needed.

I hope that this visualisation helps as a guide for understanding how opinion leaders may or may not be important for word-of-mouth marketing.

Discussion at global Worldcom PR conference

Yesterday afternoon, I had the pleasure of speaking at a global meeting of independent PR agencies in Amsterdam who are all united under the Worldcom umbrella. I had been invited by Crispin Manners, of London-based agency Kaizo. Kaizo have started their own pioneering work in the Empowered Involvement field. Speaking at this event was quite an honour, because the people present were all directors of their own companies, so they are all PR pro’s with years of experience.

I presented the results of my research and also how this is being applied in the way trnd organises its Word-of-Mouth Marketing campaigns. Afterwards, we had a very interesting discussion.

One gentleman talked about a company that markets a specific type of lubricant brand, WD40. Normaly, one would think that a lubricant isn’t necessarily something people get all excited about. But he explained that the company had, more or less by accident, managed to develop its own community of fans. He said that they are building very close relationships and dialogues with this community, and this dialogue very much informs the company about what the customers want, and how to adapt the product to their needs. The most remarkable numbers were the following: the company asked its customers about types of usage they can come up with for the brand, and received 360.000 submissions! Out of these, they identified 2000 different usage situations.

And through this group, the company not only gets feedback and insight, but they also launch new products through the community: “They just share it with them, and then it spreads to the rest of the world.” The fan community now has ist own board of directors – all fans themselves, and the company isn’t really involved in running the community, they only provide the platform.

The other interesting story came from Phoenix. A participant explained that community-marketing efforts often take a lot of time, and at her agency, they had found that they could jump-start their community marketing with Twitter. (Which I then demonstrated to the whole audience live and on the spot.) In one example, they had managed to reach 4000 women in the Phoenix region within a very short time span who were all interested in a new medical treatment that they were promoting, all through Twitter. She wanted to know what I thought about such approaches. I had to confess that my Twitter activity had only started a few weeks ago, and that in Germany, Twitter is still overwhelmingly a geek-web2.0-tech-in-crowd thing, so mainstream marketing would still be fairly difficult through Twitter.

All in all, I had a great time at the conference – also because the night before, I already got to hang out with some of the people, and was having lots of fun.

Dr. Walter Carl blogs about Empowered Involvement

Dr. Walter Carl at Northeastern University was so kind to review our working paper on his WOM Communication Study Blog. He asks a few questions that definitely merit serious attention:

How can we explore in a qualitative approach what the four dimensions of Empowered Involvement mean to the participants in a marketing project? I agree that it will be very useful to investigate how people themselves describe what they feel when they are part of a marketing project – this would a) enable us to better understand how these four conditions may have to be nuanced more precisely, so they really hit the relevant facets in the marketing context, and b) we might find additional factors that allow us to more completely describe the full set of factors that contribute to Empowered Involvement.

Also, he asks how important it is that people believe, from the outset, that the company is actually sincere and authentic in its exchange with the participants in a marketing project. Again, I agree – the participants’ perception of the company’s authenticity, as it is engaging in an Empowered Involvement project, may be an important moderating or mediating factor for the rise of Empowered Involvement. Also, it might be interesting to find out if a company can, should or should not try to “borrow” authenticity: in the study which we are working on, the dialogue and exchange was managed through the word of mouth marketing company trnd. So it may also be interesting to see which role third party providers can play in this context.

We are currently finalising the study that is mentioned at the end of the working paper; it still has a quantitative focus and does not yet address these aspects. But when we conduct new studies about Empowered Involvement, we will take this advice on board – thanks, Walter!

Treat your best consumers like your best employees!

[The following posting also appeared on the WARC WOM Forum Blog.]

All word of mouth marketing professionals agree that good word of mouth results from the right type of communication with the right type of customers or consumers. Some claim that these have to be influentials. Others, such as Duncan Watts, have found that more easily influencable people might be a better target.

But no matter whom you target in your communication, one aspect often seems strikingly absent from the debate: how does that dialogue actually work? What do you do with these people once you have identified them for your WOM Marketing efforts Should you just pitch ads at them? Ask them to read your corporate blog? Throw parties for them?

At ESCP-EAP European School of Management, we wanted to find an answer to this question. So we went hunting for the drivers of word of mouth: what makes people want to spread the word and what seems to be the trigger that works in a marketing context?

The more word of mouth research you review, the more often you find the term “involvement”. Involvement seems to be key when marketing wants to trigger word of mouth. However, the literature also seems to agree that involvement cannot really be produced. It much more strongly depends on each individual and their personal response to a marketing effort.

But if you look a bit further, into other fields of business studies, you can discover an approach in human resources research that is specifically designed to produce involvement: empowerment in the workplace. Companies have long been interested in getting their employees to be more involved and thus more motivated. That is why researchers have identified those drivers that help create this type of empowerment that gets employees motivated.

So we took a model from human ressources studies and applied it in a marketing context. The findings are encouraging. People involved in a marketing project will produce significantly more and more positive word of mouth than other consumers if:

1. They feel they can have an impact on its outcome;
2. The project is meaningful to them;
3. They feel competent about their contribution; and
4. They have a choice in the way they participate.

We call this form of involvement ‘Empowered Involvement’ and we believe it may serve as an important tool for making better informed decisions about how to conduct WOM Marketing programmes.

But it also highlights a larger idea. Maybe it is rather telling that an approach derived from human resources is finding its way into the marketing field. Maybe it means that the way marketing companies deal with their consumers indeed needs to change, and that there is a genuine benefit in viewing your most important consumers as actual partners whom you want to truly empower within your marketing process. It’s basically the old insight again that we should market with consumers, and not at them.

Working Paper: Empowered Involvement and Word of Mouth

Today, we can present a first Empowered Involvement research status. This working paper is based on the work I am currently doing for my Doctorate Dissertation, which I plan to publish by the middle of 2008. Briefly, this is what Empowered Involvement is about:

Stimulating positive word of mouth has become one of the key strategies for marketing success. Our research on Empowered Involvement suggests that a very targeted participatory approach to marketing may be a promising solution for this. And it supports the notion that a real paradigm shift in marketing from a communication approach to an interaction approach may become the hallmark of early 21st century marketing.

The working paper presents the conceptual thinking behind Empowered Involvement, and a first (early) empirical study. We are looking forward to any kind of feedback – the comments are open! The dissertation will add results from a second and more elaborate study, which will then present a complete picture of how Empowered Involvement works.

Download link for the Working Paper:
Empowered Involvement and Word of Mouth (PDF)

Marketing Trends Conference, Venice

Right in my first posting on this new Empowered Involvement Blog, I can announce that I will be presenting Empowered Involvement at the Marketing Trends Conference in Venice (January 17th – 19th 2008). The conference is organised by the Paris campus of ESCP-EAP European School of Management, and it takes place for the 7th time this year. It’s a pretty large event, they are expecting over 300 speakers. I’m excited to go! All details about the conference can be found at the conference website.