Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The biggest misconception about word of mouth

Contrary to the view that portrays word-of-mouth as the exclusive result of guerilla or non-traditional tactics, mass media can generate massive waves of buzz. The Keller Fay Group found that on any given day, 55% of Americans have at least one conversation related to media and entertainment! And most of these people have more than just one conversation: the average is 2.8.

Anyone who has read my books knows that I’m a great believer in grassroots, guerrilla, or influencer marketing. But this doesn’t change the fact that mass media can create buzz too. When I was in LA last week, I attended a lecture by Dr. Garth Japhet, who founded Soul City—a remarkable organization in South Africa. Japhet was in town to receive the Everett M. Rogers Award for Achievement in Entertainment-Education. Soul City is a perfect example for how mass media leads to buzz.

In 1990, Japhet was a physician at a health clinic in South Africa and he was growing frustrated with his work. He felt that so many of the issues that he was dealing with at the clinic should have not happened in the first place. Children in the poor township died from dehydration, from burn accidents, and from diseases that could have been prevented by immunization. In 1992, Japhet got together with another young physician, Shereen Usdin, and the two decided that the best way to touch people was through a TV drama. They developed a soap opera that takes place in a fictional township called Soul City.

Right from the first season, Soul City has become a hit. It also generates a lot of talk. After the second season, for example, 56% of respondents to a survey reported a discussion they had with others about health issues featured in the program. When season four was on the air, one out of three respondents to a survey talked about domestic violence, which was the focus of that season. And frequent viewers talked about the issue significantly more than those with low exposure to the program. (Watch a couple of minutes from season four here)

What makes people buzz about Soul City? Here are some answers (based on Japhet’s lecture as well as on an interview with Shereen Usdin I conducted back in 2007)

1. Good storytelling
Soul City is not an educational program that lectures people about how to take care of their kids. It’s a drama involving death, love, drinking, and sexual abuse, as well as some lighter themes. The health messages are woven in naturally as advice that characters give each other. The viewer hears the advice the way she would overhear two friends talking. It’s about stories, not slogans.

2. People love gossip
People talk about people and those folks that you meet every week on the show become your virtual friends. As a regular viewer of the show, you talk about their lives, their problems and the tragedies they face. These gossip-like conversations are very helpful in transmitting messages.

3. Leave open questions
The show always leaves open issues one can discuss—who was right in that argument, the husband or the wife? Should the doctor have called the police or not? If you read the comments under some of the most popular viral videos on YouTube, you can see the power of ambiguity in driving buzz. “Is this real or fake?” is a question that fuels lots of discussions on YouTube.

4. Extensive research
Before each season, the Soul City research staff studies the problem they plan to address. For one season, for example, pre-season research included face-to-face interviews with two-thousand people. The researchers also look for the words people use in talking about the problem. For example, in preparation for season four (domestic abuse), there was one word that was mentioned repeatedly by women. It was the Zulu word ukunyamezela, which means “to endure,” and it reflected the way many women in the country thought they were supposed to deal with domestic violence—it’s something that they just had to live through.

5. Pre-testing
The writers of the show work very closely with the researchers to incorporate the issues and the language that were discovered. But this is not the end of research. Japhet emphasized the need to test whether the message is actually coming through. In some cases, people loved the story, but the research showed that they didn’t get the message that Soul City was trying to convey.

6. Beyond TV
Another reason that Soul City gets so much talk is that the drama is so widely available. To reach a more rural audience, Soul City is available as a radio program in nine different languages of different tribes, as well as English and Afrikaans. Printed booklets that reinforce the programs’ messages and serve as conversation starters are inserted into high-circulation newspapers or handed out for free.

7. Multiple fronts
Real change hardly ever comes from a TV show alone. Recognizing this, Soul City works on other fronts--socio-political and legislative. For season four, Soul City partnered with the National Network on Violence Against Women, which ran workshops about the domestic violence act, and details of the law were woven into the TV program. Special hearings about the topic were organized in the parliament. This, of course, was reflected in the media.

This is the second story from my international tour, which will focus on how word-of-mouth marketing can promote positive change. Next week I’ll be in London and Hamburg. The following weeks in Stockholm, Istanbul and Sydney. For exact dates, please visit www.emanuel-rosen.com

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