There’s an interesting story in the New York Times from over the past weekend about the difference between online and offline consumer sentiment.
Nothing in the story should be all that surprising to the seasoned social content marketing professional. Yes, there’s often a clear divide between online and offline sentiment and conversation. And yes, people often make impassioned, knee-jerk statements on social media that they don’t wind up following through on. Finally, yes, social media is terrible at conveying nonverbal cues that can add nuance to comments being made.
Where I have more issues is in the arbitrary distinction between “social media conversation” and “word of mouth.” That’s never been true.
Social media *is* word of mouth, just in a different manner. We don’t apply different labels when people share their opinion of a brand or experience in church as opposed to Starbucks. And we don’t call it something different when it happens over the phone or via text as opposed to in-person.
If you’re a business owner and you find that 85% of your online conversation sentiment is negative but 85% of your offline conversation sentiment is positive, you have mixed word of mouth. The one can’t be discounted or weighted differently because of the platform it happens on.
In-person word of mouth may have more influence on the receiver. A 2015 Nielsen study showed recommendations from family and friends – the kind of input you’re largely going to get via personal interaction – are among the most trusted someone can get.
Online recommendations have a longer half-life, though. For more and more people social media plays an important role in either the awareness or research stages of the sales funnel.
In short, you have to address the whole picture. A disconnect between online and offline conversations and attitudes may mean the situation is more nuanced than one or the other may initially present itself to be. But that doesn’t mean you can ignore either. Doing so means you’re setting yourself up for failure in one way or the other.
The one big difference between online and offline for brand managers is that the former is more immediately addressable than the latter. If you find sentiment on social media has suddenly turned negative, you can take steps to remedy that and engage with people to clear up misunderstandings, fix problems or otherwise turn their attitude around. You can measure and execute. That’s harder offline, where you can’t immediately access the thoughts of hundreds or thousands of people and begin talking with them efficiently.
Stop segregating online from offline word of mouth. It’s all part of one big ball that needs to be recognized and dealt with appropriately if you’re going to be a responsible brand manager. That’s the only real way to ensure a consistent and reliable brand reputation that reaches all your customers.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.