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Jewish Olympics

Here’s a crazy story from my experience today at LA Fitness. I won’t even go into the convoluted reason they had me cancel my membership and sign up again (annoying), but this led to meeting Sales Manager and Sales Guy (we’ll call them that the purpose of this post).

When I met Sales Manager a couple of days ago with my girlfriend, he informed me that I have a Jewish last name and then proceeded to bid me “Shalom.”

They couldn’t sign me up that day (again, annoying), so I returned today to meet with Sales Guy. As we’re sitting there, Sales Manager sits down next to me, and begins to unload more crazy.

Sales Manager: Hey, Sales Guy, did you know that Jeff is Jewish?
Sales Guy
: (Blank stare)
Jeff
: Um…. Okay.
Sales Manager
: That means we need to pick his brain on how to make money.
Sales Guy
: (Panic stare)
Jeff
: Ummmm… that’s a little offensive.
Sales Manager
: No, it’s okay. I’m Dominican. People call me Mexican all the time.
Jeff & Sales Guy
: (Confused and awkward silence).
Sales Manager
: I’m Christian. But, at my church we believe in Israel. (Pause) Are you militant?
Jeff
: Ummmmmm…. No, not really.

This small snippet of a larger exchange begs a couple of questions. First, are there Christians who don’t believe in Israel? Great! First Santa, then the Jewish OlympicsEaster Bunny, now this? Where do they believe Natalie Portman is really from?

But, the bigger question is: How does a business combat stories like this that will lead to negative word of mouth? (The obvious answer is prevention, but, hey, things happen).

Do I think Sales Manager meant to be offensive? No. (As Sales Guy explained when he took me aside and apologized, “That’s just how he is.”)

Will this prevent me from remaining a member? No. (But only because I play racquetball with friends there).

But, here’s the big thing: Will I tell this story EVERY TIME someone mentions LA Fitness in my presence? Absolutely! Will many of the people who hear it retell it to their friends? You bet.

So, here’s what LA Fitness should do to try to fix it.

First, publicly make it right.
This is 2010, when most of us have a story to tell, we tell it online where countless of our friends and their friends can read it (or watch it or listen to it). Hopefully, a large brand like LA Fitness monitors online mentions of their brand (via Google, Twitter search, or pay for a social media listening service like Radian6). Once aware of this blog post or Tweets about it, they should use those venues to comment, apologize (if that’s what they feel this merits), and find a way to make it right. (LA Fitness, please don’t do anything drastic like fire Sales Manager. The guy means well. You just haven’t trained him on how to behave in the workplace).

Next, give me a better story to tell.
This is huge. Like I said, I will tell this story every time I hear of LA Fitness.  Why not give me a better story to tell? Give me something else positive to say whenever I hear the name… or, at the very least, give me an ending for this story that will put a positive spin on it.

I guess I am militant after all. Not about Israel (whatever that means), but about word of mouth. Your employees are your brand. Like it or not, Sales Manager defined what LA Fitness means today. So, LA Fitness, it’s your move.

My first encounter with the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) was in June of 2006 in San Francisco. I was working at an ad agency in Phoenix in the PR department, frustrated with the model of traditional marketing. Writing press releases and pitching journalists on stories they rightly had no interest in didn’t feel like relating to the public to me. I wanted to connect the public to my clients, and trying to convince a reporter for the LA Times that she should write a story about a tiny spa in Bullhead City, AZ just wasn’t cutting it.

Fortunately, the agency sent me to the WOMMA conference in San Francisco, and my life changed. Finding WOMMA was like finding professional religion to me; I was quickly converted and devoted to finding a way to practice word of mouth marketing. That conference, led by then CEO Andy Sernovitz, was full of enthusiasm and passion. It was a group people trying to build a marketing movement; it felt like the Obama campaign trying to win the Iowa caucus. The highlight of the conference was Jackie Huba’s compelling keynote address, where she opened our eyes to the power of enabling customers to become evangelists (that speech is still the best marketing presentation I have ever seen). Sernovitz and crew were creating more than an association; they were creating a discipline and wanted me on board along with anyone else with the passion and skill to move this thing forward.

Fast forward to last week in Vegas. I have my own word of mouth marketing business and some really great clients. I went to the conference looking to gain new, fresh insights on how to harness the power of word of mouth for my clients and my business. I returned poorer and frustrated, but with as much passion as ever for the discipline of word of mouth marketing; unfortunately, now I feel like my passion is not shared by the association that holds the discipline’s name.

When I registered and at the conference, WOMMA staff tried to convince me (with an albeit soft sell) to become a paying member. That’s not going to happen any time soon. Here’s why:

WOM is not all about social media. At the very beginning of this conference, social media was introduced as a “subset” of word of mouth marketing. What other subsets did they mention? None. This was not a word of mouth conference; it was a social media conference. I mean, the tagline of the conference was: “Beyond Social Media.”

WOMMA Summit Banner

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a BIG believer in the power of social media. I use it for my business, my clients, and myself all the time. But, social media is a tactic that helps generate and amplify word of mouth. It is not the whole of the discipline. Read Sernovitz’s book. No, seriously, READ SERNOVITZ’S BOOK! It’s about people, ideas, and conversation. He writes about word of mouth marketing, and yes, social media is in there as a tool for enabling the conversations. WOMMA is now solely about social media, mostly Twitter. This conference didn’t teach me a thing I don’t get in my inbox everyday from a surplus of “social media experts.” Andy Sernovitz was nowhere to be found at the WOMMA conference; I don’t know him, and I don’t know why he wasn’t there, but I’m guessing his vision doesn’t exactly jibe with WOMMA’s so much anymore.

What’s the benefit to me exactly? Each time I’ve been approached to become a member, I ask what the benefit will be to my company. Other than being able to say I’m a member and get a discount on the conference (which doesn’t make up for the $1,000 membership fee for a small business), I’ve been unable to determine a benefit. In fact…

I shouldn’t have to compete with my own trade association. WOMMA was very excited to sell us on their new Learn It, Do It! series that is “offering Brands, Agencies, and Non-Profits on-site education about Word of Mouth and Social Media Marketing” for the low, low price of $1250. Well, that’s one way a lot of word of mouth marketing consultants, like myself, make a living. Sometimes we’ll have to compete with each other for jobs, but we shouldn’t have to compete with WOMMA for work. I thought they were supposed to help us succeed, not take away opportunities from their members. If an actor has to compete with his agent for jobs, it’s times for the actor to fire the agent.

Costs too much for a very small business like mine. Like I said.

So, I’ve whined and griped (without even mentioning how amazing and right-on Emanuel Rosen was), but now I’ll tell you a bit of my vision for a better WOMMA. I’m not sure if WOMMA is interested and I’m not even sure that a better WOMMA for me is better for most its members, but for what it’s worth:

“Beyond Social Media”: Social media could – and should – be the biggest focus, but let’s look at the other subsets, and how to start offline conversations before we amplify them with social media. Let’s look at how to create the big ideas, the experiences, the products and services that get people talking, and then let’s give them a place to shout about it. And then, when we do talk about social media…

Look to the future. Jackie Huba talked about Shakira’s use of fan-generated video in 2006. In fact, it’s all in her last book. SERIOUSLY, READ BOTH OF HER BOOKS! Most of us know how to use YouTube and Twitter; we need to know what we’re going to use in the near future before it happens. I didn’t hear any content about Google Wave or Foursquare, much less whatever 3D-hologram-virtual-reality-social-community-marketplace is coming after them (hopefully including a jet pack).

A little humility, please. You don’t get credit for the popularity of social media. If I had seen Mark Zuckerberg or Biz Stone on the board or even a panel, it might’ve merited the amount of backslapping. We’re an industry about building relationships; being a little more approachable will go a long way. I will admit a lot of you have amazing hair, though.

On that note. I know you’re proud of the FTC thing, but now what’s next? Other “marketers” are abusing our channels in many ways. Most of my Twitter friends have let me know how to “make money online with Google.” Daily, hackers, spammers, and phishers are negating efforts of true relationship building. I have always respected how early WOMMA came out with its code of ethics. How can you help enforce more than just full disclosure on blogs?

Look, I’m not saying that other people or businesses shouldn’t join WOMMA. In fact, if you look at the Twitter stream from the conference (of which I was an active part) you’ll find that most commenters found value and show a lot more enthusiasm for the event. If you are a large brand with a big budget and a traditional marketing team that doesn’t already use social media, WOMMA may be exactly what you need. I’m saying that it isn’t what I need. And that sucks. I’d love to have the old WOMMA back to support and inspire me. I’d love to join 2006 WOMMA, but at least for now, that doesn’t seem like a possibility.

You’ve heard that humans tend to be most attracted to symmetry, right? I was reminded of this last night watching The Office, as Oscar argued his case for why Hilary Swank was, in fact, attractive (but not hot). Oscar presented a segmented diagram of Swank’s symmetrical face, and explained she demonstrated “the scientific standard of koinophilia: features that are a composite average of many features.”

I admit to being attracted to symmetry, and that is exactly why I started Blabbermouth. I’ll explain…

I began my courtship of marketing at an advertising agency, practicing public relations. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: traditional marketing can be and often is effective; it just doesn’t turn me on. I’m simply not attracted to it because of its lack of symmetry.

Traditional marketing (take advertising or PR, for example) is asymmetrical: the marketer is marketing AT the consumer. This provides plenty of opportunity to influence and persuade, but no opportunity to listen or adjust.

Word of Mouth marketing, when done right, is symmetry at its best. Instead of marketing AT, we get to market WITH our consumers. This is risky for some, because it means letting go of control of the message. You have to have a lot of confidence in your product or service to do that.  This is also why I can only take clients with products I believe in. I can’t let go of the message if I think it will make you (in turn, me) look bad. So, if you become my client (and I hope there are a few of you), you should know that I’m a big fan of your work. 

If you have the luxury of letting go, the rewards are immeasurable. You get to not only start a dialogue, but to participate in it. You get to listen and respond; you can defend and define your product when it’s misunderstood or improve it when you learn from a consumer how it could be better. That’s symmetrical marketing, a give and a take; and not only is that attractive, it’s hot.