Artificial Word of Mouth

— January 11, 2012 (6 comments)
They say -- quite rightly -- that the most effective kind of publicity is word of mouth. But in my experience, word of mouth has two kinds.

There's the natural kind, where someone reads a book (or sees a movie, or whatever), loves it, and tells their friends about it because they want to share the love. Natural word of mouth is extremely effective, because it's honest and it comes from people you trust.

Then there's the artificial kind, which is harder to define. It might be tweeting about something to enter a contest, for example. Or giving someone a 5-star review in the hopes they will do the same for you. Or blogging about a friend's book because they're your friend, not because you actually read/liked the book.

Artifical word of mouth is not inherently bad, but it's not publicity. It's more like marketing, a paid advertisement. People know it's not coming from a real place, but at the same time it may be the first or only time they hear about your book.

Artificial WoM has a mildly effective, short-term effect. It's a good way to grab votes or one-time donations, and if you have a product that people like, it can be a good starting point for natural word of mouth.

But by itself, artificial WoM is pretty poor at creating a fan base. Worse, if used too much, it can have a negative effect. People can tell the difference between artificial and natural word of mouth, and while we understand the need for the artificial kind, we don't like it. After a while, it gets annoying.

Even worse than that, it can devalue what you have to say. If all your reviews are 5-stars, the stars become meaningless (seriously, guys, real books get 4 stars too). If you frequently talk up books that are written by your friends and -- let's be honest -- aren't that good, people will stop listening.

The guys at Penny Arcade impressed me a few years ago when they started accepting paid ads only for products they've tried themselves and actually like. Now it's the only place on the whole internet where I actually pay attention to the ads. They've made a natural thing out of something artificial.

We don't have to go that far (shoot, most of us don't have the clout to), but our words do have value. Be aware of that, and use yours wisely.

What's your opinion? Can artificial word of mouth be effective?

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  1. If a friend recommends their friend's book, I'm assuming they're doing it to help their friend out. This is not a bad thing. And I'm happy to cheer them on. I might even buy their books, but I will only read books that I am interested in, because I have limited reading time.

    I think the second-degree word of mouth is a powerful thing, and not necessarily "artificial". My mom buys books from other authors put out by my publisher Omnific. I never asked her to, and when I asked her why, she said she wanted to support Omnific, because they supported me. Likewise, she scours my Indie Book Fair for books that interest her as well, hoping to support one of my Indie friends. (Note: I haven't even read these books, much less recommended them.) I think this is the kind of "soft" word of mouth that probably belongs in the category of "goodwill." You earn goodwill by spreading it through the world. I let people judge for themselves if a book is one they enjoy (they may like things I don't), but letting people know about books that are available, helping to raise the visibility of books so that readers can decide for themselves? I think that helps everyone, and sends out some good karma as well.

  2. Nice graphic! Did you draw that?

    For me, the biggest problem with artificial buzz is that it feels dishonest. (I'm mainly talking about paid ads.) It makes me wonder whether they're trying to trick me into thinking their movie/TV show/book is more popular than it actually is, because they don't think it can stand on its own merits. In my opinion, if a product is good enough, real buzz will naturally happen.

    Great article, Adam!

  3. Ha, I wish I drew it, Charles :-)

    And I think that's my point, really. Susan pointed out that "artificial" is perhaps too pejorative of a term, and that's true because it CAN be good for certain applications. But I think a lot of people try to generate word of mouth, which I'm not sure can be done (hence the artificial).

  4. I wouldn't recommend something I didn't really like, but I don't need to tell people about books I don't like, either. My not loving something doesn't mean it's unlovable.

  5. Excellent point. Penny Arcade is a perfect example of how to take genuine, and make it mass-market.

  6. I like your point that being "too positive" can devalue what you say. That is so true, especially when we writers feel nervous giving our true opinion on our blog because we're afraid of negative feedback about our own books (or whatever our rationale is for going berserk over every book published in 2011). Not that I'm going to go out of my way to bash books, but I need to remember that when I recommend books, people might read them, so I'd better be prepared to stand behind my gushing.

    I love your distinction between artificial word of mouth and word of mouth. I never thought about it that way before, but it's really true.