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Hey, have you heard about the hottest gift this holiday season?

If you’re one of the millions forced into a remote work environment because of COVID-19, there’s a good chance that you haven’t. In years past, spontaneous word-of-mouth discussions around water coolers or lunch tables were a major source of holiday marketing buzz. But those unstructured, organic workplace conversations aren’t happening when there’s no one in the workplace. The absence of that key driver is an under-recognized challenge in this year’s holiday marketing season.

The question is, what can marketers do about it?

According to Word of Mouth, This Is the ‘New Normal’

The first thing marketers can do is recognize that the abrupt loss of workplace word of mouth is a blessing in disguise. The trend toward work-from-home has increased in recent years, and COVID-19 has simply accelerated the process. (The Washington Post reports that one study “found that more than half of employers anticipate long-term increases in teleworking as a result of the pandemic.”)

It is, in other words, yet another reason for marketers to bring their approach more in line with how people actually consume messages. The old holiday dynamic — launching an ad for TV or print that created buzz, which drove demand generation through word of mouth — is just that: old.

Now, that’s not to say that word-of-mouth marketing is obsolete. In fact, it remains one of the most robust drivers of purchase decisions. That was one of the findings of a recent study called "The Shopping Shift" that we conducted in partnership with Devora Rogers from Alter Agents. (Devora was formerly at Murphy Research and also developed the methodology for Google’s groundbreaking Zero Moment of Truth [ZMOT] study.) 

The Shopping Shift study revealed that the top three influencers of purchase decisions were: 1) search, 2) word of mouth, 3) relevant direct mail.

The study also shows that traditional marketing methods such as TV, radio, and print lag far behind in terms of activating decisions. It’s easy to see why. Mass marketing lacks the directness of one-to-one marketing, such as search and direct mail. It also lacks interest or intent data showing that the person is in-market for the good or service now

Connecting Those Dots

So the takeaway here is not that marketers should give up on word of mouth — it’s that they need to find new ways to stimulate it. Make no mistake: People still like to engage with others and compare notes on decisions they’re going to make — including holiday purchases.

But if you can’t use your marketing messages to trigger those group discussions in the workplace, where can you trigger them? The obvious answer is social media. In fact, it’s so obvious that some people have been saying for a while now that social media is the new word of mouth. Anyone who has ever asked for a recommendation via Facebook understands this.

So an equally obvious solution is to piggyback on these social media discussions via digital ads. That dovetails with our research findings, and it’s a great start.

Driving the Point Home

But capitalizing on digital is only a start. Because, while digital ads are great for creating awareness and a certain amount of engagement, they’re not effective for activating a decision at home. Nor are they effective over a long period of time on a per-impression basis, or for driving to all purchase channels.

To accomplish those goals, you need situational targeting — placing relevant, respectful content in the consumer’s hands at a time and place where they are most likely to make a purchase decision.

A holiday catalog, for instance. That’s an example of relevant direct mail, the third component of a successful strategy to drive purchase decisions under “The Shopping Shift.”

The further good news is that “The Shopping Shift” correlates with the shift toward a remote workforce. Our research shows that 88% of all purchase decisions are made or discussed at home. So if more people are working from home, that means you’ve got them right where you want them — provided you find the right medium for your holiday marketing message.

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