It was bound to happen sooner or later: WOMM is under attack, and this time, the FTC isn't far.
As Yoda would say, "Begun, the semantic wars have."
Tuesday, Commercial Alert issued a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), asking them to investigate alledgedly fraudulent "buzz marketing" practices by Procter & Gamble's Tremor.
(Read the full story here.)
Among the buzzwords floating around in this, the prelude to what will surely become a heated debate, are "buzz marketing", "stealth marketing", and of course "word-of-mouth marketing".
The basic question is: Are these three terms describing the same thing?
The answer is of course: no... but the critical question is: Will the public know that?
In other words, will most people be able to tell the three apart?
The answer, sadly, is again, no. The lines are still blurred because those three terms aren't clearly set apart from each other. "Word-of-mouth marketing" is too broad a concept. "Buzz marketing" and "stealth marketing", unfortunately, can easily fall into its broad semantic realm.
Put simply, WOMM is facing an identity problem. Not in the sense that it doesn't know what it stands for, (it does) but in the sense that most people don't. Not unless they do some digging.
My fear is that if someone gives them the wrong impression right from the start, they won't bother to dig. They will just take whatever bad press is thrown their way and be satisfied with that.
Don't think "if." Think "when."
WOMM is simply the acronym for "word-of-mouth marketing", which exactly describes what it is: marketing that focuses on word-of-mouth channels. Simple enough? Sure.
But not clear enough.
Perhaps WOMM isn't simply what it does (use word-of-mouth to spread the good word), but what it is about. At its core. At its heart.
I am talking about authenticity.
I am not suggesting that WOMM be renamed AWOMM (Authentic Word-Of-Mouth Marketing), but you get the idea. If the very reputation of WOMM is going to hinge on its ability to separate itself from "stealth marketing" and potentially fraudulent practices, that is the kind of clarity it needs to bring to the court of public opinion.
Think Superman's "S" printed big on his chest.
Think the axes and fireman's helmet painted in gold on the big shiny red trucks screaming down the road to go save lives.
A cool tag lines isn't enough here. Neither is a well-crafted manifesto or code of ethics. In an age of buzzwords and soundbites and thirty-second news stories, there isn't always time to explain your side of the story.
All it will take to sink the very concept of WOMM will be one short ill-researched segment on a major network.
All it will take is a pretty graphic filling up the screen that says "Word-of-mouth marketing under fire".
All it will take will be one news anchor confusing "stealth marketing" with "word-of-mouth marketing".
Game over. Once people doubt your integrity, you are screwed. That doubt will never, ever completely go away.
Think Richard Nixon.
Think Jimmy Swaggart.
Don't think it won't happen. The wheels are already moving in that direction.
Don't think "if." Think "when."
Again, I am not suggesting that WOMM become AWOMM, but that's the idea.
In his latest blog post, Brains On Fire's Spike Jones paraphrases WOMM innovator George Silverman's words of wisdom from the first WOMMA conference:
"If there's money to be made in word of mouth marketing, then every marketing sleaze ball in the world will come crawling through the woodwork."
Yep. You know it. And they will sink this beautiful ship faster than you can say "what happened?"
How do you protect yourself against this? Simple: You create an identity that unquestionably states your raison d'etre.
The fact that one of WOMMA's central goals is to bring authenticity back into the game should be clear to anyone from the moment they hear the name.
The alternative is to spend the next ten years being on the defensive every time unscrupulousous outfit gets caught doing something shady.
Trust me, you don't want that.
The difference between what we like to think of as "word-of-mouth marketing" and its shadier cousins also has to be clearly delineated.
As much as I dislike acronyms (especially long ones), WOMM needs to become AWOMM. WOMMA may need to become AWOMMA. If not in name, at least in the minds of everyone.
All 6+ billion of us.
This needs to happen now, before it's too late.