3 Years of Womma Summits: How I’ve seen word-of-mouth marketing evolve through the lens of the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association

3 years might not seem like a long time, and it certainly doesn’t feel like it to me. It feels like it was yesterday when I ventured down to LA to attend my first Womma Summit in 2014. What I’ve learned after attending my 3rd Womma Summit this past week, is that 3 years is an eternity when it comes to advancements in marketing, or in this case, word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM) specifically.

The four areas where I’ve seen the most discussion, debate, and subsequent advancement are in measurement & ROI (and attribution), technology platforms, disclosure and FTC compliance, and finally, the ever-present quest for authenticity when it comes to influencers and word-of-mouth (WOM).

MEASUREMENT AND ROI
2014
Womma released a study expressing that yes you can, in fact, tie WOMM to ROI. I wasn’t at WOMMA conferences before 2014, but this concept was a pretty big deal at this one. Before this, according to the Womma study in 2014, “We now know that by using the right data and analytic techniques, marketers can expect to show the ROI of their social media and offline word-of-mouth investments. A ‘social strategy’ no longer needs to be undertaken on a purely experimental basis.” In other words, “Yes, you actually CAN measure and get a return on this stuff!” The part that screams out to me from the previous statement is “purely experimental basis.” I challenge anyone reading this to get internal buy-in on a social, or any other initiative using the justification that it’s “purely experimental.” We, as marketers, have matured significantly since then and we expect more out of ourselves and our partners. Big steps for sure.

2015
Then, fast-forward to 2015 in Miami. The conversations and sessions now were talking about ROI beyond simple reach metrics. Brands like Swarovski talked about real dollar values attached to their WOM initiatives. Agencies and brands alike were there to tout the returns they were getting beyond vanity metrics like reach, so it was clear the want and need for better measurement and attribution was a hot topic. Still though, there was a lot of variance in exactly how marketers were defining ROI, and many times, the numbers were disjointed, or the attribution was a stretch from the reality of the numbers. (See my reference to Nate Elliott’s presentation in the Technology section).

2017
What I found very interesting about the 2017 summit was that although there were some numbers being put out about the ROI of different WOMM campaigns, and many were great success stories, some of the most valuable topics I sat in on were more focused on the best practices. Previous summits talked about how a particular brand or campaign pulled it off, but here, in 2017 we were getting advice on how to take the right steps to make sure attribution happens, and how to be smart about setting real ROI goals at the outset of a campaign. It was about being proactive, predictive, and collaborative, making sure WOMM and the measurement and attribution thereof was part of the conversation from the beginning. We were advised to not treat WOM as an add-on to a larger campaign, and then try to retroactively prove ROI as an afterthought. The way to win is to think about this from the get-go and be sure WOM is part of every department’s thought process from strategy straight through to execution. WOMMA and its council members are establishing sets of standards to aid in measurement so all brands can be thinking about it in the right way and I’m really looking forward to see if it results in more coherence in the case studies on measurement and ROI next year.

TECHNOLOGY PLATFORMS

2014
There were plenty of technology vendors of course. They covered solutions like social listening, analytics, employee advocacy, paid attribution, influencer identification, and paid micro-influencer activations. Some vendors were new to the scene and some had been around for a bit and were already heavy in competition with one another. There was a need from brands and agencies to be able to show ROI as a result of leveraging these technologies, and, working for a tech platform myself, I took back loads of great feedback. It was extremely useful for me to convey to our product team that there was a gap between what technology was delivering and what brands needed, and we could do a lot to help bridge that at Crowdly.

2015
Nate Elliott of Forrester drops a bombshell. WOM works but WOMM is broken, and it’s because of the vendors. He expressed that yes, WOM is a very powerful form of marketing, but in the race to provide technology that will scale this for brands, many platforms were providing vanity metrics or reporting on fake reach. He challenged the audience to smarten up, for brands to demand more from their technology vendors, and for the technology vendors to provide real numbers and real ROI. Nate’s presentation may have made a few people uncomfortable, and it was certainly was an eye opener for both brands and vendors alike, but it helped confirm we’d made the right decision by listening to what brands were saying they needed in 2014.

2017
I didn’t attend all of the sessions this year, and I know there were several that were combo vendor/brand sessions, but the focus was definitely more along the lines of how brands were focused on strategy, and doing WOMM the right way. There were even talks on how 1:1 worked wonders and how the value of those more curated, but smaller relationships can do wonders.

DISCLOSURE AND FTC COMPLIANCE

2014
I heard: “Should we disclose? What do we disclose? How do we disclose?”

There was a lot of discussion and debate. The guidelines from the FTC were foggy and they hadn’t had as many of the big, public crackdowns as we’ve seen recently.

2015
I heard: “We should definitely disclose. We disclose some things, mostly directly paid. We use #ad #sponsored.”

Influencer marketing was rapidly evolving and of course, growing. The FTC was taking a closer, and keener eye on this activity and had started to craft more clear guidelines on how and what brands and influencers should be disclosing.

2017
I heard: “If we don’t disclose, we are in big trouble. We disclose everything that is a form of compensation from contest entries to free products. We accept there needs to be disclosure, and work under that assumption.”

Clear disclosure is a necessary component if a brand wants to help guide the message, keeping it on point, but still empowering the influencer to be the “voice.” Sessions in 2017 even got into the fine details of specifically where disclosure needs to be positioned in a post, and how it can be clear that this is a sponsored endorsement.

AUTHENTICITY
This is one theme that’s been consistent since through the years, starting with my first Womma Summit. The conversation has always been around how to leverage paid influencers, celebrities, category experts, employees, and customer advocates in a way that enables you as a brand to help guide the message, but also retain the authenticity that has made word-of-mouth the most effective form of marketing for ages. The shift I’ve seen is in the focused efforts of marketers to engage with influencers in a way that empowers them to be authentic rather than dictating exactly what the message is, and a focus on connecting with true advocates who will give true honest opinions or recommendations of a product, even without compensation. Marketers are realizing that achieving true authenticity is not something you can simply flip a switch, sit back, and write a check for. It’s something that requires a genuine contribution from the brand itself. You need to care about your customer and care about relationships. I saw several sessions this year that talked specifically about focusing on customer centricity and the value of 1:1 connections. Authentic WOM cannot be a spray and pray approach, it needs to be a calculated approach that in order to generate authenticity, must come from the authentic core of the brand itself. When the brand values authenticity and real customer relationships, that will naturally manifest itself not only through word-of-mouth but through all of its marketing and customer relationships.

My predictions for next year
I think that in a year, we’re going to see a lot more change. The FTC is cracking down harder, consumers can see through inauthentic influencers, but will support and defend authentic ones, and brands are headed in the direction of a uniform, but more authentic approach to word-of-mouth marketing. They’ll still need technology to help them identify the best people, activate the right people, and help facilitate the spread of the message, but those platforms will need the offer ability to attribute and deliver on some hard-line results. I expect to hear stories about people and relationships even more so than years past because that’s what authenticity is all about. When brands focus on conveying mission, passion, and emotion, what results is the reality that people, whether they are celebrities or everyday consumers, really do reciprocate by aligning their own mission, passion, and emotion with those brands that they love…and boy do they like to talk.