Word of mouth advertising, stories passed from one person to another, is the pinnacle form of marketing for any business. It doesn’t come with a direct fee and it’s highly effective; people are more likely to listen to their friends or peers than your business. For several years, marketers have viewed social networks as a way to tap into word of mouth. Places like Facebook and Twitter present a measurable, recorded environment of word of mouth endorsements. Users ask friends for recommendations, others simply proclaim a love for a product or business.

Book reviews are a great example of online word of mouth. A visible indication with a star rating of what the buyers, rather than the sellers, think of a product. Research shows that an increase in positive reviews has a direct impact on book sales, as does an increase in negative.1

The user contributions that you witness when scanning a social network represent organic word of mouth. The same type of word of mouth that has always taken place offline. Do social networks provide a genuine opportunity for marketers to steer or accelerate word of mouth around their business? Technology hasn’t invented word of mouth marketing, but does it offer alternative opportunities to marketers looking to engineer recommendations between users?

Attaching followers to social ads

Social advertising, specifically Facebook advertising, provides the best tactic for tapping into digital endorsement. The goal of a marketer is to tell a story that a tribe will share and spread. The marketer wants followers to shout about their mission, product and business. Tweet about it, blog about it, proactively share the message. A Facebook ‘like’ in isolation is a somewhat passive brand approval, nowhere near as powerful as something more active. Nonetheless, it does represent a form of appreciation, and it’s something that marketers can use in an attempt to ‘influence’ word of mouth.

Through Facebook advertising, you can create ads that target friends of followers. These ads display a form of social endorsement where the name of the friend who likes our page is displayed beneath the ad. This form of minor personalisation and direct advertisement improves the chances that the target will click through your ad. Research shows that when you target Facebook ads solely at users who are friends of your page followers, this form of social advertising is more effective than traditional forms of display advertising, as well as social advertising without ‘social approval’.2

When personalization goes too far

This use of passive endorsement can help engineer word of mouth, but too much personalisation can have an adverse effect. The same research that finds the benefits of ‘friend-approved’ social advertising also finds that personalisation within the ad can have an adverse effect. If the copy specifically implies that a friend of the user has liked or endorsed your brand, the success rate (measured by click-throughs) is inferior to traditional display advertising. An explanation of this may be that, when the user views a faceless and somewhat impartial party (Facebook algorithm) to be presenting the endorsement, the endorsement provides reliability and trust to the ad. When that endorsement appears to be manipulated and controlled by a person or business, with a self-serving purpose, it lacks authenticity and acts as a real turn off.

Research also shows that our perceptions of how much control we have over privacy has a significant impact on how likely we are to click on a personalised social ad. If we’ve had some level of input and control over what messages are allowed into our feed, we’re then much more likely to click on an ad which appears personalised. Presumably, if we control settings, we think that the ad has passed our own filter, rather than Facebook’s. In the past, after Facebook announced a shift in policy that gave users more control over their personal settings, personalised advertising suddenly became twice as effective as it was prior to the announcement.3

With perception of privacy, there’s a delicate line to tread, getting as close to personalised ads as possible without giving users the impression that you’re (or Facebook on your behalf) collecting too much private information and abusing the privilege. This is an important point to consider for remarketing too.

The perception of how much personalisation is too much will vary from country to country. Broadly speaking, research shows that users are receptive to obtrusive ads (i.e. pop-ups, flashing banners, etc.) as well as context-based ads which are clearly personalised when each are used independent of one another. But, if we combine the two ads, like a bold eye catching image alongside a personalised message with personalised social endorsement, the ad tends to fail. It leads people to believe that you’re overstepping the mark and taking an unwanted dip into their personal information and space.4

You can’t tap into word of mouth before you have word of mouth

The findings to date suggest that you can use passive social endorsements to spread your story, but you can’t manipulate word of mouth, on Facebook or otherwise. People support or endorse a brand because of a personal, positive experience. That’s essential, regardless of how that person shares their seal of approval.

Marketers can use social ads to try and give the word of mouth a shot of adrenaline. Speed up the process. But ultimately, your focus should be on giving people a reason to shout about your product in the first place.

For starters, if you don’t have a reasonable sized following on social, you have nothing to tap into. If you believe in word of mouth marketing and you want to encourage it, you need users to transfer any following of your brand from offline to online. You need to encourage people to like your page, so in turn you can use that to launch ads at users who are friends of your followers. You need to get active on Facebook, and that means working with the channel to provide your followers something of value. Before you look at what followers can do for you, you need to consider what you can do for your followers. You need to use the channel as a way to deliver a mission. If that mission is to bring exquisite dining to Leeds, figure out how Facebook helps you do that.

All research around social advertising focuses on its success when measured against traditional advertising, or how many click’s the ad earns. Does this measurement capture an action that represents a strong form connection with its target? Do users clicking on your ads really go on to become customers or advocates? Do they genuinely take a Facebook like to be a brand endorsement, or are they simply intrigued to see what their friends are up to on Facebook?

I’m not convinced that users place any true value in Facebook likes or Twitter follows. It’s cheap and easy for a user to dish them out, and so the value of either is questionable. If you have a clear mission and a growing tribe, then social advertising could help you speed up the growth of your tribe. But, you need to get your house in order first before testing the water with social advertising. Seth Godin’s take on Tribes is a good steer.

This article originally appeared on LiamCurley.co.uk


1Trusov, M., R. E. Bucklin, and K. Pauwels (2009). Effects of word-of-mouth versus traditional marketing: Findings from an internet social networking site. Journal of Marketing 73, 90-102.

2Tucker, C (2012). Social Advertising. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1975897 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1975897

3Tucker, C. (2011). Social Networks, Personalized Advertising, and Privacy Controls. Mimeo, MIT.

4Goldfarb, A. and C. Tucker (2011). Online display advertising: Targeting and obtrusiveness. Marketing Science 30, 389-404.