Dare to be boring (?)

My recent encounter with an article by two very good researchers in the word-of-mouth marketing arena unfortunately left me rather cold, at least at the end.  I’m referring to “Think Your Product Is Too Boring for Word of Mouth Marketing? Think Again” by Wharton marketing professors Jonah Berger and Raghuram Iyengar.  I appreciate the research these two have conducted, shedding light on the fact that verbal word-of-mouth exchanges (offline) more often tend to center on hot discussion topics – current consumer trends, avant garde news items and the like – more so than written online exchanges, which run a greater gamut of topics.  This is a fairly intuitive conclusion once you reach it – if your time is limited and the possibility for negative feedback on your opinions more immediate, you’re likely to self-censor in the moment and choose a topic with greater likelihood to be an engrossing one.  Conversely, sharing opinions in written format allows for greater depth and reflection, and hence implies to the reader that one’s opinions will be better thought-out and grounded in evidence.

(This is not actually the case when it comes to polemical topics – politics and religion being the standard no-nos.  I would assert that the comments section in most news articles is more akin to a verbal conversation than a written exchange, as evidenced by the rapid-fire, off-the-cuff and generally more flippant attitude expressed by most commenters.)

A conclusion of theirs is that “boring” discussions generally occur online instead of in person, for the reasons stated previously.  Nonetheless, what I find less useful in the article are its unrealistic recommendations at the end, where it’s suggested that merely because people talk about the weather and other mundane topics, they’re potentially prone to speak about your “boring” topic if you work on making it more visible.  I find this to be a simplistic and improbable conclusion for one main reason:  people simply don’t have enough time, energy or “headspace” to dedicate to a wide range of topics.  Instead, much of what we think about is situational – it’s driven by a current need or interest, while being intimately associated with them (see McKinsey).  We don’t research washing machines until we have need of one, and so we don’t spend time thinking about them, much less discussing them with others, until there’s a need to do so.  Let’s face it:  You’d find yourself lonely pretty fast if you didn’t.

Instead, a magical shortcut has cropped up in the last 2 decades that allows us to seek these topics only when they’re needed, and not until then.  The long-tail internet combined with sophisticated search engines serves “boring” (or, perhaps, “not of immediate use”) content extremely well.  This powerful pairing allows you, the marketer, to focus on generating good, discoverable content that will be put to good use then the need arises.  And in the process, it saves the rest of us from marketers’ pathetically limp attempts at making content “go viral.”

Now, that doesn’t mean that your content is certain to be found when a potential buyer has a need, but that’s for another post …

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