Small Group Behavior + Social Media Networking

When I chat with people about their marketing strategies, they will often tell me something like “I rely on word of mouth.”

It bugs me to hear that — I feel there is something insincere about it. The purpose of this post is to set the record straight (from my point of view) and to give you the real deal.

The first thing you need to realize is that “word of mouth” is always a (relatively) small group behavior. People may have 100 close friends, Dunbar said some people may have more — maybe 140 friends. Some may boast several thousand friends on Facebook, but their interlocuters will always roll their eyes every time that they say it. Whatever the case, no one — not even Bob Dylan — has a million friends. Ergo: Word of mouth is a small group phenomenon. It’s just the one percent case.

The 99 percent case is different. 99% of the people you don’t know are people your friends also don’t know. You walk past such people every day, maybe you smile, perhaps you say “hello” and so on… but by and large these are people you will not have a heart-to-heart chat with over coffee. You won’t meet them for lunch. It is probably more likely that you will pay attention to the TV set than that you would pay attention to someone standing in line in front of you or behind you. The mass of men (and women) lead lives of quiet desperation, and besides that they pretty much spend their time with ordinary daily activities like eating and sleeping.

Hence, this means that if you focus your attention on “word of mouth”, then you are thereby ignoring 99% (or even more) of the people you could potentially interact with. Why would you do this? Well, I have thought about this question quite a bit, and I have come to a somewhat surprising conclusion — and I think my answer may also surprise you!

To cut to the chase: You are afraid that you don’t speak the same language.

I want to unpack that, because I think it’s by no means obvious. Let’s first take the “word of mouth” scenario. You’re talking with a friend of yours over coffee, chatting about this and that, and then you confide in your friend and divulge a story … a problem or issue that you are grappling with. You explain your thoughts, the reasoning behind them, and of course your friend also knows the context somewhat because this isn’t the first time they have heard you talk about such things. You ask for advice — “what should I do?”

You might not use precisely those words — but that won’t matter, because your friend has been listening all along (hopefully), and they get the gist. They understand the situation. They know what you’re going through. They know you. They will probably respond with something like “I don’t know — but maybe X” (and you can fill in the blank where I wrote “X“)… and X may very well involve something like a word of mouth recommendation. It may involve them saying something like “I know someone who went through something similar”, and maybe they will offer to contact the other person. Maybe they know an expert, but they have to look up the name or the telephone number.

Both of you will probably be using many levels of language — including intonation, facial expressions, body language and such. Words will only be one piece of the communication.

In contrast, consider the situation in which you do not consult with a friend. You may pull out a telephone book and look in the yellow pages. You might go to a library and check out a couple books. Perhaps you might ask a librarian to help you. But I think most probably you will do something else: You will turn on your computer and ask a search engine.

How will you ask? You will type in a text string, and then hit return (or press a button). Everything will depend on that precise string. For example: Will you type in “realtor” or “realtors”, or “real estate”, or “homes”, “condos”, “apartments”, … or something else? You don’t know. Neither will the person who anticipated that you might search for any of those words. One of my nieces recently became an eye doctor, and I was talking with her mother about her work. Both of use are quite highly educated, but neither of us were certain what the words “optometrist”, “optician” and “ophthamologist” actually refer to. Later, I investigated what people search for on — and I found out that apparently more people search for “opthamologist” than search for “ophthamologist”! During our chit-chat, her mother and I were not confused at all, but the point is that we were able to understand each other without knowing the precisely correct terminology.

Of course people who are in the search engine business will try to convince you that they know you better than your best friends do — but I have a hunch they will actually know little more than to ask “would you like fries with that?” when you order a hamburger.

You may agree with me — but perhaps you still might wonder: So what? What should I do now?

I think the most important “takeaway” is that you need to become aware of the types of words people use when they are searching for someone like you… — or simply when you might be able to help. More and more, this will increasingly boil down to participating and engaging in communities. It will be less and less a matter of one individual person calling another individual person. You will not need to know the correct spelling of “ophthamologist” as much as the correct spelling of “eyes”, “vision” or “health”. You will still need to use text, but the language you need to use will be much simpler, broader and more general than many people expect.

One point will probably continue to change moving forward. People will increasingly orient their interaction towards communities — and these communities will become more and more focused. If you are engaged in a community that is focused on health or eyes, then you might not even need to worry about visiting a different website at all. The language and vocabulary used will differ from one community to the next, but it will probably be “down to” the community members themselves to decide. Just as examples: “retweet” (from, “like” (from, and so on… will eventually give way to other terminology depending on the characteristics of the community in question.

Of course you can reach out to me at any time in case you have any questions, but I am also quite sure that I’ll be revisiting this question sometime soon.

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