by: George Silverman

I have been so caught up in what I see as the nobility and purity of the word-of-mouth marketing movement that I'm shocked when people view word-of-mouth marketing as sleazy. I understand where they're coming from and I sympathize with their strong condemnation of attempts to manipulate consumers, hype unworthy products and engage in a wide variety of other deceptive practices. But when someone as thoughtful as Jeff Jarvis weighs in on the side of the condemners, it's time to weigh in. You can read what Jeff says, together with Andy Sernovitz's and my answer here:

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It seems to me that the main assumption underlying the criticism of word-of-mouth marketing is that any attempt to influence word of mouth is automatically bad. Word of mouth, in their view, should be organic and pure — and they're right, at least about the pure part. I suspect that they are coming from a picture of shill marketing and other deceptive practices. As I've pointed out in “The Secrets of Word-Of-Mouth Marketing,” people react to any kind of manipulation or dishonesty in word of mouth much more strongly than dishonesty in advertising and salespeople. As well they should. Devious attempts to influence — manipulation — are expected of other forms of marketing. Salespeople and advertisers are expected to advocate their products in the best possible light. Lies by distortion, exaggeration and omission are expected and are reacted to with annoyed tolerance, not righteous indignation. Not whoppers, of course, but the over-enthusiasm of everyday advocacy. All of conventional marketing has a not-so-hidden agenda. I'm not excusing it's inherent dishonesty; I'm just pointing out that we have a resigned and cynical tolerance, although we're all increasingly tuning it out with a wide variety of tools.

Word of mouth is a different story. The whole idea of word-of-mouth is that trusted sources can be believed. Friends, colleagues and advisors are sacrosanct. Friends don't lie to friends about product recommendations — maybe about the number and size of fish they caught, or about their sexual exploits — but not about recommending to friends what kinds of things are in their best interest. So, when people find out that their friends are recommending a product because they are getting an undisclosed commission, they are understandably outraged. They feel justifiably violated. The same thing is true about phony recommendations on Amazon, and all of the other sleazy word-of-mouth practices. Similarly, when people like Jeff Jarvis — who value journalistic integrity, truth, accuracy and transparency so highly — even contemplate the idea of word-of-mouth marketing, they see it as a vile oxymoron. the idea of a Word-Of-Mouth Marketing Association is even more hideous to them. They see devious and deceptive practices as poison in the pure and free marketplace of ideas, rightly so. Lies are lies, period. As Jeff points out, you only need one ethical principle in this area: Tell the Truth.

However, the critics have an accurate picture of only part of the truth. I would respectfully point out to them that a piece of the truth, when applied to the whole picture, can be a grotesque distortion — a lie. There are those of us for whom “honest marketing” is not an oxymoron, it is a redundancy. Word-of-mouth marketing, as distinct from word-of-mouth conning, is the art of making sure that products are so remarkable that people want to talk about them, getting out the word to influential people, and providing the means through which these influential people can spread the word. It is a profession that I am proud of. Millions of people are alive today and even larger numbers of people's lives have been enhanced by the efforts of word-of-mouth marketers in the pharmaceutical industry alone. It's not all about shill marketing and subservient chickens.

I thank Jeff and his readers for a much-needed reminder of the value of honesty and integrity, and of the need for everyone in the word-of-mouth marketing community and WOMMA to continue to fight deceptive practices.

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