Most people don't trust advertising.
In fact, as the US branding agency Yankelovich reported two years ago, 76 per cent of people don't believe companies tell the truth in advertising. That's a hard number for people in our business to look at, isn't it?
So, if people don't trust advertising, what do they trust? The answer is simple: more than two-thirds of people in the US and half of people in Europe trust people "like themselves". That's the big revelation from the 2006 Edelman Trust Barometer, and those percentages have more than doubled in the past four years.
We live in an age in which people are bombarded by messages in an increasingly fragmented media landscape. In urban environments, studies show people are exposed to 3,000 to 5,000 messages a day. And do you know what? People are getting tired of it and are beginning to feel much more hostile to advertising than they used to.
There's been a lot of talk about "continuous partial attention" - the latest version of what Alvin Toffler described as "information overload" in Future Shock back in 1970. Some in our industry have concluded that the only way to reach people whose attention is constantly shifting is to shout louder and faster than everyone else.
When Lord Saatchi wrote of the "strange death of modern advertising" in the Financial Times last June, he concluded that the only way to break through the clutter was to reduce ideas and messages down to single words because "only brutally simple ideas get through".
Let's face it, for every brilliant piece of work by Jonathan Glazer or Daniel Kleinman, there are 1,000 pieces of crap shovelled down the throat of the modern consumer. Should it come as a surprise that people have learned how to quickly tune those messages out in favour of other, more interesting things to do? Is it any surprise that people don't talk about things they find completely uninteresting?
Why sit through an uninteresting ad when you can either fast-forward it with your personal video recorder, or in those 30 seconds, text a friend, delete 12,000 pieces of spam, make a million friends on MySpace, or do just about anything else more worthwhile?
Does it really all boil down to simplicity, speed and brute force, or could it be more about creativity, expression, value and choice?
People have always talked about the things they love, things that interest and inspire them. People talk about brands, and they will continue to talk about great advertising.
If the past 15 years in this business have taught me anything, it is that conversations matter and people are increasingly in control of them.
The internet has changed the dynamic between people and brands. Today, there are 15 million blogs inspiring conversations and debate. Social media is changing the way people learn about and interact with brands. Wikipedia articles, for example, consistently dominate the top search results for most brands. This collective "wisdom of the crowds" is slowly, but surely, overtaking the monolithic voice of the brand and will forever shift the control of brand authority and perception from a one-sided affair to a shared experience.
It is time for marketers to give people reasons to talk about their brands, to actively engage in digital reputation management and realise that they can either get involved or be relegated to the sidelines.
More than 70 per cent of word-of-mouth communication occurs face-to-face, but the internet remains key to the successful management of brand advocacy.
Word-of-mouth marketing leverages the inherent networking capability of the internet, as well as its organisational and logistical benefits. Digital enables offline communications by inspiring conversations and opinion among like-minded advocates which are then taken into the real world.
The internet provides a safe haven for advocates to come together and interact with each other. It provides the necessary tracking and measurement tools to enable campaigns of significant size as well as geographic diversity. It can also provide marketers with a controlled, secure environment for sensitive conversations or topics.
The easiest way to start developing a formalised advocacy programme is with existing customers. After all, they've already expressed interest in your brand. Instead of talking at customers, start a dialogue with them.
Too often, marketers develop loyalty schemes and points-based rewards programmes, when what is needed are forums for expression and the ability for people to feel that the brand they know is listening to what they have to say.
If there is a concern about privacy or the sensitivity of information, consider inviting a smaller group into a private space for a pilot project before expanding to larger audiences and geographies.
The South African winemaker Stormhoek has disrupted the traditional lines of drinks marketing by focusing on brand advocates. It eschewed traditional forms of marketing in favour of sponsoring a series of "geek dinners" targeting online opinion leaders (not wine experts). Stormhoek's true voice and transparent communications got the bloggers blogging and resulted in two campaigns with Threshers, and a doubling of sales in 12 months.
Virgin Mobile invited 1,500 "insiders" to join a word-of-mouth campaign that topped TV for awareness and generated 10 per cent of its sales.
Volkswagen's Alpha Drivers campaign created an online "walled garden" for 6,000 enthusiasts to talk about their experiences with VW's new model. The turnout for those who had booked a test-drive was more than 90 per cent, and 6 per cent of the invitees bought or leased one of the cars.
Following a successful word-of-mouth campaign, sales of Dunkin' Donuts Latte Lite in New York City were 13 per cent higher than the control market when the product launched. After four weeks, New York City's sales were 20 per cent higher than the control market.
The critical success factor will be how transparent your efforts are judged to be by those interacting with you. Honest, open conversation works.
We work in an industry that is showing signs of embracing the power of integrated digital advocacy. Given that 40 per cent of brand-related conversations refer to brand marketing or media, it's pretty clear that advertising can positively affect word of mouth.
The people have spoken. And whatever we do, they'll continue to talk. So, instead of shouting, let's have conversations instead.
- George Nimeh is the managing director, digital, at Iris.