Sunday, August 15, 2010

Academic Research: Word-of-Mouth is a Great Investment

According to a new study, "Referral Programs and Customer Value," to be published in the January issue of the American Marketing Association's Journal of Marketing, customer referral programs are indeed a financially attractive way for firms to acquire new customers.

"There's a lot of talk about word-of-mouth-marketing, and about making money out of social connections. Our first objective was to see if customer referral programs can indeed turn social capital into economic capital. Second, we wanted to come up with a methodology to assess the effectiveness of customer referral programs that was easy to implement with data and tools available to many managers."

The study tackled three questions:
•Do referred customers have higher margins than other customers?
•Do referred customers stay longer with the firm than other customers?
•Do referred customers have a higher customer lifetime value, the net present value of all the profits a customer generates over his or her entire association with the firm?

The answers, according to the study, are all positive. Referred customers were about 18 percent more likely to stay with the bank than other customers, and that gap did not fade over time.

The researchers also concluded that the difference in margin combined with the difference in customer retention amounted to a disparity in long-term customer value of 16 percent to 25 percent. "That's not only a sizable chunk of money," Van den Bulte says, "it also amounts to a 60 percent ROI over six years.

My Take:

While this study measures the profitability of word-of-mouth for large banks, the millions of small, locally-owned US businesses undoubtedly enjoy the same benefits. On top of this, most small business owners tell us that up to 80% of their new customers arrive via word-of-mouth.

Social media is poised to help these small business owners to harness word-of-mouth as a measurable and manageable part of their advertising mix. Traditional advertising media (newspaper, Yellow Pages, local broadcast) are in a tight spot. They currently receive most of small business ad budgets, yet only account for 20% of their new sales.

These traditional, local ad media will need to offer more social media functionality to remain competitive.
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