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The Evolution of Marketing

Several weeks ago, a few of my colleagues gave a presentation to our entire office about the field of word of mouth marketing, learnings from the WOMMA conference and what this means for our clients.  After the presentation, several members of our social marketing team commented that this area seemed to be nothing new.  After all, they had been doing almost exactly the same thing for many years.  Nedra Weinreich’s recent post shared a similar frustration … on the recent commandeering of the term "social marketing" to define (and be limited to) these new emerging areas of consumer generated media, word of mouth marketing and customer evangalism.  Social marketing already has a definition – and it’s not the same as word of mouth marketing.  But what makes them different?

Most professionals familiar with both terms would agree that social marketing is typically about health or social concerns.  It most often starts with promoting individual behaviour change – but typically seeks it in order to promote a wider societal change or benefit.  Word of mouth marketing, on the other hand, often focuses on products and services.  Leading WOM advocates and companies like Buzz Agent focus on getting consumers to share honest opinions about products and services and to tap into a phenomenon that has existed for hundreds of years – people telling other people what to buy and what not to buy.

The interesting point here, though, is not to focus on the semantic differences – but rather what this entire debate means for the evolution of the marketing industry.  People’s opinions have always been important, but the rise of personal media gives these voices amplification.  The evolution of better search and filtering tools allows these amplified voices to be more easily heard.  Put the two together, and you have a power afforded to many individuals far beyond anything that was possible in the past.  It is no longer enough to focus a marketing message on a sale.  "Buy this" is being replaced by "believe in this."  And this is a social marketing lesson that others are now finally learning. As marketers evolve, there will be more crossover in this space – and that’s a good thing.  This trend will lead to more authentic marketing messages and a rise in the perception of marketing … probably at the expense of advertising.

5 thoughts on “The Evolution of Marketing”

  1. Rohit,
    Thanks for your insightful post. Tapping into the power of WOM marketing should be a key part of social marketing programs — and has been traditionally, particularly in developing countries. Many of the behaviors we try to promote through social marketing are especially conducive to interpersonal interventions. Knowing that other people you respect are also using contraception, getting a mammogram, or immunizing their children will make it more likely that you will do the same.

  2. I too would like to see the definition of social marketing remain true to its origins over 25 years ago. I think that in the excitement for what is also called ‘social network marketing’ some folks have shortened it without understanding the existing definition (Forrester Research, for example, often comes up in this regard, though I know Charlene appreciates that there are differences).

    Regarding the WOM comments you make, I think the confusion is not just between WOM and social marketing, but a more fundamental obfuscation of what is communications and what is marketing. I suggest that WOM is a communication channel decision in the same way that deciding to run ads is. Whether the execution of that decision is supported by other elements of the marketing mix is the question.

    And for a short hand distinction of social marketing from other forms of marketing, try this one: social marketing focuses on behaviors that are beneficial or detrimental to the well-being of individuals or society. It does not focus on ‘consuming’ (purchasing) tangible products or services – though that’s not to say that sometimes these elements are also not included in some social marekting programs (for example, condom sales and distribution programs to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS). That’s where the debate over what’s social marketing and what’s CSR come into play.


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Rohit is the author of 8 books on trends, the future of business, building a more human brand with storytelling and how to create a more diverse and inclusive world.

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