If you “pay for WOM”, is it really WOM?

Rewards Programs for Word-of-MouthThe question has come up more than once, “What if we put in a rewards program for referrals or word-of-mouth to our audience, does it still carry the power of WOM?” Great question and deserves some exploration…

Social media has completely changed the game in so many ways, but no more than in the world of “Word-of-Mouth.”  It has both “leveraged” and “amplified” it so that now instead of just sharing something one-on-one or in a small group, you can literally share it with thousands in minutes.  The game has changed…which means there are those out there dying to take advantage of your thoughts and opinions – and even willing to pay you or reward you in some fashion.  So now that this has happened, how can you either leverage it or capitalize on it more than you normally would with “traditional” Word-of-Mouth?

Some have turned to “Referral Programs” where you are literally rewarded in some way for “telling others” and essentially spreading “Word-of-Mouth” about them or their business.  But does it really work?  The real question always lies with the targeted audience.  The other aspect of social media that often gets “muted” in the discussion is “transparency and authenticity” – two cornerstones to the success of social media.  If these are violated in any way, your audience can turn on you like a pack of wolves looking for their next meal.

If you are “compensated” in some way to share information (content) with your audience and you don’t disclose it and someone finds out, you’ve broken these commandments and the audience won’t only turn on you but will tell others to turn on you – negative Word-of-Mouth.  It also impacts the company, almost more severely.  If the audience believes you as a company are paying someone to say nice things about you, your credibility is also damaged and they will probably “flame” you with their network as well.  Paying for referrals simply doesn’t work if you are trying to create a trusted and well respected Word-of-Mouth network.

However, there is a solution that allows you to engage this way with your audience and future audience – be honest and transparent about what you are doing.  If you are rewarding people for offering their opinions, tell everyone you are doing this and encourage your audience to tell their audience they were rewarded for saying something.  If you are upfront about it, no one can attack you for trying to mislead anyone.  And if your audience says they were rewarded, they get points for being honest as well.  Now whatever they say may be taken with a little less emphasis, but the audience will still tend to listen because they were upfront with them.  For example, if they said, “I was given a reward to review this product and talk about it – but after using it, I would use it anyway and even give the reward back because it is amazing at what it does for me.”

This type of statement still has validity and will allow you to use some type of reward program without the risk of being flamed.  It might not carry as much clout as if they weren’t rewarded, but it will at least let everyone know you were being honest about it – which counts tons in the social media world.  And it is always better to be 50% effective and honest about it than dishonest and manipulative because that ALWAYS gets called out today and there are lots of examples of those that spent millions of dollars recovering from some of these antics.

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