2011 may be remembered as the year that WOMMA grew into adulthood. For some of us, we can recall the formative first couple of years of WOMMA; the years we as an association and its collective members made up many of the rules as we went along. Although at that time, word of mouth was not a new phenomenon, word of mouth marketing was. Six years ago, a small but enthusiastic and committed group decided to build an association around WOMM (Word of Mouth Marketing) in the hopes of developing proven practices and help to ensure the nascent discipline of word of mouth marketing moved into legitimacy.

The association worked as a group to develop standards and practices we would all benefit from. Reflecting back to those early days, the amount and quality of the work that has been put in place over six short years is truly awesome.

Today, we have a living ethics set of standards, guidelines, tools and practices that are some of the best in the industry and has withstood the Federal Trade Commission’s scrutiny. We have WOM-COM, an online education series with an unbelievably rich curriculum. We have a Community Manager’s Certificate Program. We publish a regular Measuring Word of Mouth journal with cutting edge methods and approaches to validate and track the work we do. We have a diverse and talented membership base which represents best of breed marketers from all over the globe.

During this time, we have come a very long way as an industry and as an association. We as members of WOMMA, both old and new, should all be proud of where we are today and what’s been accomplished to date.

As we approach the end of 2011 and enter into what many view as a potentially chaotic 2012, I’d like to touch on what this year’s Summit offered us as marketers. Whether or not you attended this year’s Summit, you’ll find this helpful in planning for 2012.

1. True collaboration between brands and agencies which have generated substantive results that benefit the customer.

In virtually every session of this year’s Summit the focus was centered on how a team of marketers delivered a meaningful customer experience. From Mattel to Chiquita, teams demonstrated innovative examples of how to better engage and deliver a superior and sustainable customer experience. Thankfully, gone are the days of the case study thinly masquerading as a pitch for the agency presenting it.

Teams that included Lithium and Sephora, as well as, Pizza Hut and Zeno Group presented their collective efforts. Not surprisingly, Lithium’s focus was centered on a platform deployment while Zeno’s focus was on a mobile app. In each session, the focus wasn’t the technology, features or functions. Instead, it was on delivering a compelling human experience that covered everything from product development to store experience to SME (Subject Matter Expert) involvement.

The lesson here for marketers was that your social engagement initiatives cannot be one dimensional in terms of their focus or delivery. Your program and your tools must be robust enough to deliver a faceted engagement experience. Moreover, you as a brand must be able to pay this experience off in the store (as well as in the call center), and you must have the right internal and external team in place if you are to be successful.

2. The recognition that offline engagement plays a role alongside online.

For years, we as marketers have been infatuated with the latest shiny tech object that’s attracted our attention or some grandiose idea with little practical application (coined by a brand marketer at last year’s Summit as ‘Glittering Generalities’). Remember ‘Join the conversation’?

There was a big part of me that expected this year’s focus to be mobile-mobile-mobile! That didn’t happen. Instead, this year, the collective realization and subsequent discussion was that it was all about cohesive execution of the entire program-there needed to be much more to an initiative than a Facebook page.

Consumers want to engage, learn and tell stories about their favorite brands offline, as well as, other digital places besides a branded community and a Twitter account. Ed Keller and Brad Fay have been stressing this reality for years and for the first time order and priority was being placed on the digital infrastructure used to deliver programs.

Some highlights that came out of discussions I had with marketers on this topic included the following:

a. Online engagement should drive offline behavior. Namely greater advocacy, loyalty and purchasing activities.

b. Programs needed more ‘naturally occurring’ on-ramps from offline initiatives to online assets.

c. Online tools, community and resources play a supportive role in the brand’s total experience. They are not the experience.

d. More data isn’t always better. Just because you can gather it doesn’t mean you can use it and when you do, it should clearly impact the totality of your efforts including the delivery of offline customer engagement and support initiatives.

e. Balance your insights as well as activities. Currently, online still grossly outweighs offline. As Dr. Walter Carl of Chat Threads and Allison Worthington of Bing showcased, it is possible to measure and integrate both effectively.

3. The disciplines are beginning to collide.

For years now, programs have been campaign driven, designed to generate buzz. However, even the best of these programs were ‘one and done’ rather than designed to sustain stake holder engagement. Those that weren’t had little support beyond the marketing department that made ongoing success difficult. This year we saw all of that begin to change.

Numerous initiatives were presented at this year’s Summit whose success hinged upon the involvement from business teams other than marketing. Today, successful programs require the involvement of groups from across the business enterprise. Brands such as Mercedes Benz and Unilever explained what it took to make holistic marketing programs…well…holistic.

Equally important was the focus of ‘sustained’ customer engagement which were some of the most frequently used buzz words at this year’s Summit. Other phrases I repeatedly heard in the hallways from (sincere) marketers included:

a. Adoption of customer lifetime value as a social KPI

b. Measuring the contribution of social assets to business performance (note: there was a lot of discussion around the need to do this using business language, not social or digital terms or metrics)

c. Increasing the level of program accountability to include others beyond the marketing team

d. Greater credibility and transparency to customers and stakeholders of social initiatives

e. Migrating to a content focus instead of channel focus

f. Focusing on content curation’s strategic importance to the brand

4. Social shopping is coming and it will be more powerful than you realize.

If you have ever had a chance to talk to seasoned vets such as Sam Decker or chat with the marketers at Sears you’d know that Social Shop has been a compelling vision, as well as, a powerful asset for many early adopters.

At this year’s conference, a team of marketers from Lowry’s and NM Incite (among others) gave a glimpse into what Social Shop means to marketing. In a nutshell (and in my words) it means that the consumer’s learning and purchasing options blur into a single, intuitive and effective experience where insight mashes up with the product or service as seamlessly as possible.

While this will be a boon for brand consumers, it will be a significant challenge for the brands tasked with delivering this experience across all of their channels, as well as, blending their marketing, product, sales and support functions. That said, this year’s breakout sessions and hallway conversations made it universally clear that if you as a marketer choose to ignore this evolving reality you will do so at your own risk.

5. WOMMA’s focus has become the Big Tent.

This year’s theme was ‘Talkable Brands’. What makes a brand talkable? Is it the campaign? A community? Is it the product or service? Possibly the support initiatives? The reality is that all of these disciplines play a critical role in delivering a talkable brand; especially one where engagement is sustained over time. This year’s Summit yielded a number of facts associated with this reality that included those below. While we’ve seen some of these before, this may be the first time we’ve seen them in such clear context.

a. Programs require an inter-disciplinary team, build a committed team early

b. Create a moderated but open community with a clear mandate

c. Brands are now content publishers, which means not just creating content but collecting it from users and syndicating this content across its assets

d. Do not dominate the conversation

e. Measure your results in business terms, not just social

f. Success as a talkable brand requires the integration, proper use and timing of all the tools in the marketing toolbox, not just the ones your team controls

So another WOMMA Summit is now just a recent Las Vegas memory; and for some, one with some significant gaps in the timeline. Whether you attended, followed on Twitter or are simply gathering your experience from blog posts such as this, here is my challenge to you: Take these WOMMA learnings and share them throughout your organization, get on Slideshare and download the decks you think are useful. Create some expectation of action and outcome across your organization and help push the social best practice ball further down field.

Steve Hershberger

Steve Hershberger