Word of Mouth (WOM) is Hot. Or, the More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Word of Mouth (WOM) marketing is the newest buzzword, so it seems. Michael Stelzner devoted a column to it in Social Media Examiner today when reviewing location-based social networks like Foursquare.  And no less an authority than McKinsey, the consulting firm, has carried two articles about WOM in recent months.

Social networks are providing a natural platform for marketers to try out coupons, contests and giveaways to generate buzz and sales. You’d think that they had invented something brand new.

Word of Mouth (WOM) the new buzzword

I’d like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the woman who virtually invented WOM, or viral marketing, way before the Internet enabled legions of communities on Twitter and Facebook to spread news around the world at the speed of sound.

Viral Marketing

In the 1980s, Linda Pezzano got the assignment to promote an obscure board game, called Trivial Pursuit. Linda was a friend, and before her untimely death in 1999, she showed me a presentation that she gave at marketing forums about how she reinvented the way games are marketed through viral marketing. Selchow & Righter, which bought the rights from the Canadian inventor, couldn’t afford traditional advertising. On a PR budget of $40,000 (about $88,000 today), Linda developed a program that generated sales of 1 million sets in the first year – an astounding and unimaginable number – without a penny spent on advertising.

The Story of How She Did It

What she did then is commonplace now, so let me tell you the story of how she did it. Linda convinced the company to let her send the game to the 70+ Hollywood stars mentioned in the game, such as Gregory Peck, James Mason and Pat Boone who liked playing it so much they sent her letters of thanks, which she then proceeded to use in her promotions.

She also sent teaser mailings to 1,800 top buyers who would be attending the industry’s major trade show, the 1983 New York Toy Fair. Then she sent sets to radio talk show hosts and staged game-playing events at parks, bars, restaurants and ski clubs to get WOM going. The rest, as they say, is history, with Trivial Pursuit becoming one of the most successful board games ever launched.

I just want to point out that many of the marketing techniques in use today in social media aren’t new. We are standing on the shoulders of pioneers like Linda Pezzano, in viral marketing, John Caples in direct marketing, and Edward L. Bernays, long recognized as the “father of public relations.”  They achieved great things without the Internet, proving that original ideas are still the currency of successful marketing campaigns.

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  1. What a fun and inspiring post! I remember reading in college about how Ed Bernays got all those proper debutantes to puff Lucky Strike cigarettes as they strolled the streets of New York in a parade. Too bad he was so successful at good old-fashioned WOM! The mark he made lingers like smoke in a shag carpet! Thanks Jeannette.

  2. It gave me chills to see my dear friend, the late Linda Pezzano, receiving credit where credit was due. I worked with Linda a bit on the Trivial Pursuit campaign, and watched one great idea after another emerge, with no fanfare, with never an ounce of self congratulation. I can’t even venture to guess what clever ways Linda would have found to use today’s technology to build awareness for her clients.

    Linda was smart. She was also tremendously generous. She helped me — and I’m sure many others — get a start in public relations. I wish she were still with us.

  3. In both my regular business (brick mortar) and online work, WOM has been the single biggest source of new business bar none. WOM is so effective in my opinion, becuase it very often represents and actual endorsement which is a major advantage over regular advertising where you are essentially doing the convincing yourself.

    Also interesting to see you mention location based networks. It does appear that it will be the next “spike” in social media with the steady but subtle interest it is generating.

  4. Jeannette, I often speak of the similarities between social networking and face-to-face. I had never heard the story about how Linda Pezzano promoted Trivial Pursuit though. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Thanks for referring me to this post, Jeannette. I do believe the inventors of Trivial Pursuit are Canadians. It’s so encouraging to see how successful they’ve become — with the help of Linda and others. That’s the kicker in this message. We can have the very best product or idea, but it will go nowhere until the right person gets a hold of it and tells their world who in turn tells their world. We all need the help of others to help get our word out. Thx so much for the help and support you’ve given me thus far in helping spread the word about Chocolatour.

    • Doreen – you’re quite right. The game was invented by Canadians (as I mention in my post). Here is a link to the New York Times obituary of Chris Haney, one of the inventors.