August 16, 2004, 12:00 AM

The web: magnifying the power of word of mouth, says BuzzMetrics

A new study is a reminder that the web isn’t just for sales or product research -- it’s a public forum with a powerful effect on brand. After Kraft was sued over trans-fat in Oreo cookies, 90% of online consumer product mentions included trans-fat.

Lest marketers forget, a new study by research firm BuzzMetrics Inc. is a reminder that the online channel is more than a sales and product research vehicle -- it’s also a public forum where consumers exchange unedited information that can have a powerful effect on brand. The research firm’s study showed that a consumer watchdog group’s 2003 lawsuit against Kraft Foods over its use of controversial trans-fat in Oreo cookies – for a time – focused virtually all online consumer mentions of the product on trans-fat.

The takeaway for marketers is that while word of mouth has always affected brand perception, it has greater power now because society is more networked via the web – and because in the online environment, word of mouth can now be measured, says John Carson, CEO of BuzzMetrics.

“Before the lawsuit, the talk about Oreos online was a smattering of different things – Oreo recipes, coupons and promotions, Oreo mentioned as a vice by people who were dieting,” he says. “After the lawsuit, the discussion involving Oreos was 90% about trans-fat. If you look at the influence on the overall talk value – what gets people talking about a product – it was a huge shift, and not a positive one for the brand overall.”

The answer for marketers is to get involved in the online discussion – with caveats. The biggest challenge to marketers is to view online discussion such as blogs, user group forums and the like not as marketing channels, but as a conversation channel. Because brands are so actively discussed online, the brands themselves have a place in those discussions, but brand participation must be on consumers` terms, Carson says.

Consumer backlash against brand participation in online consumer forums can be avoided if the brand`s representative enters the discussion clearly identified as a brand employee, with his or her presence in the discussion -- for instance, to be an information resource on behalf of the company -- clearly explained, Carson says. As examples, he cites the software and auto industries. For years, he says, they’ve employed advocates to meet consumers on behalf of the brand in real life, such as at user and customer meetings. Today they represent their brands in online discussions as well.

BuzzMetrics supports word of mouth brand positioning with proprietary software that tracks what consumers are saying online. Its spidering software crawls blogs, online user groups, and other public online forums to find mentions of its clients` brands, data it puts into a standard format and then uploads to a database. A team of human editors then uses software-aided search of that database to sort brand mentions by date, location, user ID and other markers, to develop a detailed picture of how the brand is being discussed online. The Oreo study, for example, drew from more than 2.6 million comments from 120,000 consumers.

“The shift now is that marketer need to think about not just the messaging they are putting out there, but also about what is going to happen to that message – how will consumers take it, make it their own, and pass it forward,” Carson says.

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