There has been a lot of research on the value of acquiring a customer though Word of Mouth versus Traditional Marketing. One recent project, which was published in the Journal of Marketing this past September, found that the long term elasticity (defined as the percentage of change in new customer acquisition to the percentage of change in the corresponding marketing driver) for Word of Mouth is 20 times higher than the elasticity for for events and 30 times higher than the elasticity for media appearances. Another study, this one from last year, found that the lifetime value of a customer acquired through word of mouth can be twice that of the lifetime value of a customer acquired through traditional marketing. And they can bring in twice the amount of additional business through their own positive word of mouth compared to those who were acquired through traditional marketing programs.
There is no question that customers who are acquired through word of mouth will be buzzing more and longer than those who are acquired through traditional marketing means. Some companies are actually able to quantify the value of a word of mouth referral. Unfortunatelly, the knee-jerk reaction of many marketers who quantify that referral value is to use it to calculate the financial incentive that they are willing to pay to stimulate word of mouth referrals.
That is where the system breaks down.
If you give me a pure financial incentive to make a referral, I will evaluate whether it’s worth spending some of my social capital for the amount of money that you are giving me (and chances are it won’t). As Dan Ariely calls it, I will evaluate the referral transaction in my market framework. If you do not give me any financial incentive, I will evaluate making a referral in my social framework (e.g., I am actually helping the person who I am referring this product or service to? Or I am helping the company person who was helpful with me in dealing with my problem by bringing her more business?). While there is no research data that I am aware of to back this up, I believe that the financial incentive-based word of mouth will look a lot like traditional marketing-based customer acquisition programs – resulting in a lot less buzzing and lower customer lifetime value.
Now what if you were putting incentives in place that were social in nature rather than financial. Don’t give me an incentive that would trigger the evaluation of what I do in a market framework, but allow me to give a valuable gift to the person who I am referring to you. If I like your offering and you increase the value that I deliver to my friends or colleagues by referring them to you, then you have a winner.
The key to success is not by commercializing the social – it’s by making the social stronger.
What do you think?