Is There a Formula for Word-of-Mouth?

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According to the Marketing Science Institute, there may be. They just published a working paper on how companies can encourage the diffusion and adoption of new products by creating positive buzz and avoiding negative one.

I think this is a great idea. While word-of-mouth is one of the key drivers for any brand, to date I’ve seen very little metrics or models to actually manage it. This is important as WOM typically gets lumped into the corner of marketing communications, while it involves every aspect of customer anticipation and satisfaction. MSI is – at least to my knowledge – the first to have a solid go at this.

To make a long story short, MSI states that Word-of-Mouth (WOM) is a function of originality (O) and usefulness (U). The more original a proposition or message is, the more likely people are to talk about it. Product usefulness, in turn, determines whether the things people talk about are positive or negative.

No rocket science here, yet it gets interesting when you consider that “usefulness” acts as a multiplier. In other words, if your agency comes to you with a highly original idea, you better be sure that people think both the idea and the product it promotes are considered as “useful” or you may get lot’s of WOM, yet going in the wrong direction.

Refining the Formula?

As I – presumptiously – feel there are still a few things missing in the MSI formula, I want to have a go at refining it. The two variables I’d like to introduce are (S)eed and (C)redibility. This would make the formula look like this:

WOM = O x U x SC

O = Originality      U = Usefulness      S = Seed      C = Credibility


“Seed” covers the amount of initial locations you can seed your message (i.e. the number of customers you have, the number of bloggers you reach, …). If you are an Apple, you can seed a message in thousands of places. If you’re Alain Thys (i.e. me), you’re already happy if you can attract the interest of two or three fellow bloggers.

“Credibility” determines the relative value of these seed locations. In other words, if those two or three bloggers I would happen to attract are named Kawasaki, Godin or Peters, the exponential value of their reputation can have major impact on the WOM I generate.

Whether this formula actually yields any sensible numbers, I don’t know. Still, I think that by looking at the components of WOM and individually managing each of them, brands can make a step towards actually going with the flow, rather than frantically try to control it.

What Do You Think?

So, what do you think? Can we capture WOM in a formula (should we?) or has our European heatwave gone to my head ?

Afterthought: only for formula and number lovers

For those who are really interested, I’m still trying to add in a few additional parameters, which include:

  • The benefit of communicating.  In the world of WOM, the act of passing on a message should add something to both the speaker and the listener.  Does it make the speaker appear “in the know”? Does the listener “learn something”?  Does it make conversation more interesting?  The simple fact of being “talk-worthy” in your message should have an impact on the degree in which it is passed on.
  • Refining the concept of usefulness. Usefulness as it stands today is one variable, yet perceived and actual usefulness can vary by individual in the equation (i.e. if your early adopters love it, yet the mainstream doesn’t know what to do with it, you’re limited in your impact).
  • Introducing the notion of time. WOM may evolve over time, both in intensity (when originality wears off) and in direction (i.e. that great new car may become a nuisance when it starts breaking down after a few years).  The formula currently doesn’t reflect this, yet in my opinion should.