The New Grapevine

17 01 2010

In spite of the massive billions spent each year on advertising, let it be known that the most effective form of advertising is one that cannot be purchased. It is Word Of Mouth (WOM), that information which is shared among people. Like you. Like me. Because we trust the words of Other Human Beings before those of Marketing People.

But whereas this WOM once took long amounts of time to make the rounds (heck, in the old days it was exchanged over backyard fences and along grapevines, a veritable 1-to-1 relationship), the new WOM is 1-to-millions. Forget about email and listservs. No, WOM is now a never-ending round of pass-the-mic on sites like Yelp and Boorah where everyone is a film and restaurant critic.

Now if the very idea of citizen journalism scares the daylights out of you, you had better wake up and smell the coffee. Blogs are one thing, but customer review sites with zillions of viewers can wreak a lot of havoc. They could spell the future success of a business. Or failure.

Which explains why Inc Magazine included a cover story on Yelp in its February 2010 issue. So powerful is Yelp and its legions of self-appointed arbiters of Good and Bad that there have been instances of business owners confronting Yelpers over their negative comments.

I told you this was serious stuff.

While businesses may not like it when the New York Times restaurant critic pans their place, it is kind of taken with a grain of salt. Paid critics are just bloated egos with a media outlet and an expense account. But real people…well,now, that’s another thing entirely. They pay their own way, and they talk to other people who also pay their own way. And if there’s one thing we do in this great Family of Man, it’s that we really do like to look out for each other.

Even if I don’t know you.

I find it mildly entertaining to read reviews of hometown establishments, not so much those written by local residents, but those posted by out-of-towners. Those are often the most telling, because at this point you are dealing in cross-pollenation. They are comparing one of ours to their evoked set of similar establishments either in their home town, or their collective impressions across the board. For example, a couple of Chicagoans waxed poetic about our very own Donut Stop. Nothing lends credibility like an endorsement from someone who drove 1100 miles for a donut! Now being a Chicagoan myself, I cannot vouch for our donut-loving sensibilities; however, I know that we are indeed the most qualified pizza critics on the planet. Connoisseurs, not common sewers.

But I digress.

If anything, that old metaphoric grapevine has spun out of control and taken over not only the fence, but the entire internet. My Yelp app allows me to get the down low on any place I might be considering, whether I am in Amarillo or Anaheim. And given that I can instantly post my impressions for the world to see, it is all the more reason why every business owner needs to be on their toes.

Because I am always online, armed and dangerous, and ready to write.

Dr “Critical Condition” Gerlich

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