Blog post

WOM’s Dangerous Idea: Not Dead Yet

By Andrew Frank | December 18, 2008 | 3 Comments

What if big marketers, instructed to cut their media budgets, started to seriously explore the idea that they might be able to get TV-scale reach for free by taking social media and word-of-mouth marketing more seriously? Social marketing advocates have been talking about this for years, and are talking still, from both sides of the media world: The Wall Street Journal and a typical blog.

I hear you: most marketers have been looking at this for years and have been mostly disappointed. Facebook apps, viral videos, Second Life presence, corporate blogs – most of these have suffered from some major debunking of late:

But what if this is typical hype-cycle behavior, and the real problem isn’t with blogs or apps, but with the half-hearted way marketers have tried to use them? And what if, stripped of their budgets, big marketers decided to really take seriously the idea of using tools like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to cultivate audiences the way digital natives do, for free?

What if they learned how to communicate effectively with people in social networks, about topics they cared about, without the sales talk? What if they then applied real science to the understanding of message diffusion in social graphs and learned how to manage the flow and the risks? And what if it worked?

Yes, this would mean the death of media as we know it. But it won’t happen soon. Here’s why.

While the jury’s still out on how or even whether social media marketing can be effective for brands, cost savings is clearly the wrong place to start. Although it’s true that, at first, free access to consumers on social media sites looks like a huge windfall for marketers, making social tactics scalable, measurable, and effective quickly consumes these savings. And once marketers realize that the kinds of things that can be accomplished in social media on a low budget, compared with the risks involved, the prospect becomes much less appealing. Hence the reticence of companies like Procter & Gamble, despite general acknowledgement that social media is here to stay and its timeshare will only increase for the foreseeable future, which should keep any systemic collapse of the medium at bay.

This means two things: first, the transformation of big marketing organizations beyond the experimental stage to full-blown social media participation will be a slow and costly process, unlikely to take root in a recession. And second, media companies still have time to establish new roles and relevance as proxies for consumer engagement. As the hype cycle teaches us, the time to look seriously at a new approach is when most have abandoned it for dead.

The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

Comments are closed


  • Scott Rafer says:

    It’s flattering to be included here, but I don’t agree with the theme.

    There’s no reason becoming social should be a “slow and costly process.” Unfortunately in this context, the cheap, quick ways don’t support Gartner’s revenue model.

  • Andrew says:

    Thank you, Scott, for commenting on this post.

    Since my assertion was about brands – by which I meant major consumer brands that spend a great deal on marketing and media – I’d certainly love to hear counterexamples of brands that took a cheap and quick approach to social media that wound up having a lasting positive impact.

    My point is that “becomming social” represents a major transformation for most established marketing organizations, and such things are almost never cheap and quick, even if they seem at first like they might be.

    OTOH, if such cheap, quick ways did exist and were repeatable, I imagine analyst firms that mastered them would do pretty well.


  • Tom O'Brien says:


    Many of the largest CPG companies that are making major investments in social media – and that goes WAY beyond blogs, facebook and second life.

    P&G has made a major investment in a Social Media Lab to develop the discipline for deployment across all brands. PepsiCo and Unilever both held big social media training days for all of their brand managers in late December. We are working directly with many other huge marketers on these challenges – and the output is rarely manifested in something as simple as a facebook page or a blog.

    Like all things worth doing, moving from broadcast based mass marketing to relationship based passion marketing will be hard, time consuming and costly, but there will be significant rewards to those who execute best.

    Turns out there is no free lunch, but there is a huge opportunity.

    Tom O’Brien
    MotiveQuest LLC