I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about relationships. That’s business relationships, not personal ones – though admittedly the line does blur, as it probably would in any community. Community – we’ll come back to that, but there are a number of strands of thinking I want to bring together. Bear with me, and (in the words of Morpheus), let’s see just how far the rabbit hole goes.
First, back at relationships, it is a well known fact among sales people that good relationships drive good sales. This is not just about quantity, but also about quality – there is the oft-told anecdote of the feed salesman who spent years building a good rapport with a farmer, and eventually he won the business. Insert your own, favourite anecdote here.
Secondly, as well as quality there is also the question of quantity. I know of several ‘networking’ organisations that are essentially about lead sharing and pre-qualification between small businesses. BNI is one for example – the people that use such organisations swear by them, as they are a way of spreading the word, and the load.
The Internet (as a third point) has enabled relationship-based organisations to go into a kind of overdrive. A while back I wrote about Plaxo and Linkedin, two very different mechanisms for sharing contact information, keeping in touch and generating leads. There are plenty of others, Ecademy for example, whose goal (I paraphrase) is to turn its subscribers into power networkers – people who can maximise the potential of their global network. Make lots of money, that means.
Fourth we have blogs. This may seem kind of irrelevant at this point, but power bloggers do operate as a kind of network, as illustrated by James’s post here. The blog is both a communications mechanism and a marketing tool, and so it fits neatly into the toolkit for internet-based networkers. It’s also host to a wildly diverse set of conversations.
Finally, put it all together and what do you have but Word of Mouth Marketing. I’ve been hunting around and there appear to be several definitions for this, based largely on the starting point (choose from 1-4 above) of the person doing the WOMM. There’s plenty of other stuff that we can throw into the WOMM bucket – tipping point theory for example, and no doubt the wisdom of crowds (I can only guess because I haven’t read the book. I know, I know, I will…).
All make sense so far?
Then perhaps you can tell me why I have a problem with these things.
Its not a very big problem, admittedly, but its still a problem. (As a digression, I still remember listening to Paul Hawken‘s “Growing a Business” tapes all those years ago, when I first started my own company. �There are two kinds of problems, that�s good problems and bad problems,� he said. �Don�t get me wrong, they�re both problems!� Very good tapes by the way, highly recommended.)
The issue I have with all of these things is that they totally ignore the concept of community. “Community” is the raison d’etre of any network, and yet it is somehow assumed that the network itself is the engine of success, and not the community. Not true, I say. Bloggers also have a tendency to organise themselves into communities, and yet the assumption is still that the medium – in this case the blog – is more important somehow than the message. Not true again. A cursory inspection of any part of the blogosphere will reveal that bloggers are clustering around certain memes, and certain individuals will find themselves closer to the meme-core than others.
Its the same thing in music. There’s only a limited number of notes and so many ways of expressing them, but many music fans will express a preference for a certain subset of bands, or a single band. Go onto Audioscrobbler and follow some of the chart links around, look how people tend to listen to the same set of bands. These bands may sound very similar to other bands that are outside their own “listening community” – so they may get frustrated that they do not get the exposure outside their own ecosystem, their musical tide pool (obligatory Rush quote here “each microcosmic planet a complete society”). So be it – that’s communities for you.
Certain individuals manage to transcend their own communities, so Robert Scoble and Seth Godin in the blogosphere, and Thomas Power in the networking sphere, are like Green Day in music. You’ll see them participating in multiple communities, or indeed, multiple communities participating in them.
Interpersonal communities are a phenomenon as natural as coral reefs and shoals. There are very big ones and very small ones, each has similar characteristics with its own spiritual leaders and mavericks, administrators and regulators. Its the same everywhere, in sport, politics and (dare I say it) religion. I’m not knocking them – I love communities, I have my own that I love to participate in, both at home and at work. One unassailable fact of any community is that it is about active participation – passengers do not reap the same rewards as, and are not generally well considered (though the internet does make room for read-only participants). While priorities can change over time I wouldn’t want to be a absolute passenger in any community, and therefore, to join one, I would have to say goodbye to others.
All I’m knocking is that many networking organisations and blog-fests try to give the impression that they are not communities at all. I think this is a perfectly natural thing to do as well – affiliations come with their own baggage, and people don’t always like to emphasise them. Equally, it is perfectly natural for communities to wish to grow their membership. Communities have many benefits, naturally these are appreciated by their members, and members wish to grow their own communities for a number of reasons – to enable others to share the benefits, to grow their own pool of influence (or indeed, revenue) or for a multitude of other reasons. The phrase “Join us”, while usually innocuously meant can sound a little sinister, so recruitment takes place often in a more indirect way.
There are downsides of communities as well. What works in one community is totally irrelevant to another. Communities use different terminologies, which are often opaque to outsiders. Inside the communities, individuals find it difficult to understand why others don’t join them in debate, when the truth is that often there’s no doorway in, let alone a welcome mat. I know of a number of blogs that I find difficult to understand – “they don’t speak to me, but that’s fine,” as one musician once said about the music of another. Indeed, this post may all be gobbledegook to some people who came to this site, but make perfect sense to others (I hope).
That is indeed fine – that’s communities, and everybody is free to choose their own.
Still with me?
So – its not the fact that these communities exist that is a problem, but the fact that this first fact is not acknowledged.
Which brings me to word of mouth marketing – WOMM.
I already made the comment that there are different kinds of WOMM (horrible acronym – but I can’t be bothered to write it out every time, even thought it’s taken me longer to say I can’t be bothered!). The different WOMMs are based on the communities that the WOMMers come from so the business network WOMM makes little mention of blogs, whereas the blogger’s WOMM sees it as an essential pre-requisite. Bloggers see the conversation as an end in itself whereas power networkers see WOMM as a way of growing the network, and blogging is one tool to help that growth.
As we can see therefore, its about communities, but surprisingly the community factor is given little mention.
One thing that WOMM suggests is that to be a successful WOMMer, you need to “infiltrate” or at least participate in specific communities that will give you the biggest WOMM bang per buck. I’ve experienced it myself: with the Marillion book I was already in discussion with the online Marillion community when I came up with the idea of writing a book, and when Marillion decided to authorise it, they were able to advertise it to their own subscriber community. With the Rush book, it was perfectly natural to me to sign up to Rush lists so I could glean tidbits of information and inform the community of what I was doing. It seemed perfectly natural, indeed it would have been folly to do otherwise.
That’s all fine (at least to me) so far. What is less fine to me is the suggestion that there is a single discipline that works for every group. If this is more about the community than about the network, then what works for one community will not necessarily work for another. For example a lead generation network may be very comfortable exchanging leads and growing markets that way, but that approach won’t cut much ice in other communities, that are used to following different rules. Indeed, it is highly likely that each community already conducts some kind of WOMM activity, so successful WOMM would need to tap into that, rather than trying to impose some external structure.
Unsurprisingly given the principle of community, WOMMers are forming communities of their own. There is already a WOMM association, the WOMMA, there are WOMM companies (with their own blogs), and no doubt there will follow other organisations, each with their own way of WOMMing. No doubt each will come up with its own way of doing things that works for its members and their immediate associations. No doubt also, there will be arguments between different organisations – this is community rivalry in action, and neither side with be wrong, as such. “People’s front of WOMM? Nah mate, we’re the WOMM popular front!”
It’s all about community. It always was and it always will be. For myself, should I be invited to a networking organisation, as I have been (to many over the years), or to join a club or association, I may well say no. Not because there is anything wrong with the community itself, but because it is a community. Perhaps I don’t believe I would fit, or perhaps I wouldn’t make it a high enough priority to make it worth my while. In the words of Groucho Marx, “I’d never join a club that would have me as a member.” Not strictly true in my case, but I do recognise it is about community, or joining a club, which requires more than a tick in the box to benefit. You get out what you put in.
Equally, while (I think) I get the principles of word of mouth marketing, I think we all need to recognise that there will be different kinds for different communities, and that many communities were doing it for themselves, long before the term was invented. Blogs or no blogs.