Selling Trends: Controlled Word-of-Mouth Promotion

One of the most influential forms of promotion occurs when one person speaks highly of a product to someone else, particularly if the message sender is considered an unbiased source of information. Until recently, marketers have had little control over person-to-person promotion that did not involve salespeople (i.e., biased source). However, marketers are using new methods of promotion that strategically take advantage of the benefits offered by word-of-mouth promotion. Unlike salespeople who often attempt to obtain an order from customers, controlled word-of-mouth promotion uses real people to help spread information about a product but do not directly elicit customer orders.

With controlled word-of-mouth promotion, a marketer hires individuals to spread positive information about a product but in a way that does not make it obvious that they are being paid to do so. This technique is especially useful when building a high level of awareness for a new product. For example, a brewer may form a team of word-of-mouth marketers who visit local taverns and night spots, or actively post on social media. As part of their job, these marketers may “talk up” a new beer sold by the brewer and even purchase the product for some customers. Yet they may carry out their task without directly disclosing that they are being compensated for their efforts.

While controlled word-of-mouth has received a great deal of marketer interest, this form of promotion has also been subjected to negative publicity due to potential ethical issues it raises. Some believe that paying people to “act” as if they are interested in a product without any indication of their relationship with the product breaches ethical standards. These critics feel that any type of organized promotion, where marketers are compensated for their efforts, must come with full disclosure to those receiving the message.