Rewriting the Rules of How We Work

Over the years, I have been part of many teams, stretching from my first years in a large, global corporation, through my decade in the competitive ad agency world, my years as an entrepreneur. Each experience came with its own approach to management and staffing. But my latest endeavor, The God Box Project, has been my first foray into creative a team the new-fashioned way with a wired and unwired network of global talent, handpicked for their expertise. The piece that I wrote in Forbes.com explains how it all began.

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Despite More Ways To Talk Up, WOM Is Down

A new study from Colloquy Research reveals that Word of Mouth– the 2011 darling of communications for today’s brands– is shutting down.  According to the Colloquy study, of 3,295 U.S. consumers surveyed, just 58% said they often have conversations with family, friends and coworkers about products and services they’ve used, a full 20% down from 2008 survey results.

This dip is particularly surprising given the enormous increase in texting, mobile and social media like FB and Twitter for spreading the word every time we blink. The reason for the reduced chatter? The continued deflated economy that sucks the air out of bragging rights and even erodes consumption of what’s hot. What’s kind of obvious is that when you are not able to buy a lot of stuff, the coolest new brands aren’t on your lips. In fact, they are probably kind of annoying. If things are tight and your appliances are on their last legs and a friend were to inadvertently gush, “Oh, I just bought this great new washer!”, you would clam up or slug her.

As this limp economy lingers and more women either suffer or (if they are OK) keep their buying sprees under the radar, what will it mean for the brands who have been counting on women’s WOM for their marketing strategies? Does it mean brands will have to step up to the plate again and start doing their own heavy lifting? Or that women, the best viral marketers of all, will put their friendships and empathy ahead of their consumerism and not only not talk up the latest whatever, but instead espouse the virtue of not buying…even when they can?

For more of Mary Lou’s insight on WOM, check out her interview with The Small Business Advocate. CLICK HERE.

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Groupon: The Good, The Bad, And The Risky

After describing how Groupon ruined her group-ohm, Just Ask a Woman CEO and Founder Mary Lou Quinlan continued the discussion with radio host Jim Blasingame on his show, The Small Business Advocate, where she dissected the whole truth about social networking, word of mouth, and Groupon: the good, the bad, and the risky.

Didn’t get a chance to tune in? Check out the segment below.
(And don’t miss the first part of the segment HERE!)

Want more insight? Catch up with Mary Lou’s previous interviews HERE.

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Whose Word Of Mouth Can You Trust?

Just Ask a Woman CEO and Founder Mary Lou Quinlan joined radio host Jim Blasingame on his show, The Small Business Advocate, where she dissected the whole truth about word of mouth, social networking, and transparency in marketing.

Didn’t get a chance to tune in? Check out the first part of the segment below.

Want more insight? Catch up with Mary Lou’s previous interviews HERE.

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Will Social Media Hijack Women’s Trust in Word of Mouth?

This title probably gives me away. I’m becoming a digital doubter. While I’m a believer in the power of technology to connect consumers and to enable them to share their customer experiences, I want to challenge the deterioration of the value of online word of mouth among women.

I am worried that our online marketing strategies are killing WOM, the gold standard of trusted endorsement by making it too easy, too anonymous, too paid. I’m concerned that buyers will become either unwitting sandwich boards or simply shills for brands. And I’m wondering if consumers, especially the all powerful female consumers, might begin to shut out the din of too many recommendations without merit or trusted sources.

If women are paid or spiffed for every referral they give, whether it’s a laundry detergent or a dentist, at what point do their friends start to feel they’ve sold out? At what point, does that brand start to look like it’s just buying customers, not creating believers? Is social media ruining what was once a good thing?

I’ll focus on women, not only because at Just Ask a Woman, we’ve studied them for 12 years but because women are the more active online bloggers, gamers, voters and emailers, not to mention, the more powerful gender as measured by their online (and in-person) purchasing dollars. Fifty two percent of women have a facebook or a myspace account and 18% of them update their pages at least once a day, according to 2009 studies. In recent research we conducted, 56% of first time moms share intimate information about their pregnancy with other moms to be online. But intense usage isn’t restricted to women in their 20s or 30s. Women 55 and above comprise the fastest growing demographic on facebook. Their membership is up over 175% in 2008, significantly higher than men of that age group.

Women’s propensity to recommend products isn’t new. Women have always passed the word about products they liked.  For decades, a coupon or a freebie was enough at least to attract their attention, if not their loyalty. But things are different now. Marketers are in even hotter pursuit of women’s endorsements so they use social media and mobile technology as the new enablers of a national conversation about brands, good and bad. And that conversation is becoming as mindless and quick as a click.

Women’s warp speed WOM online

At Just Ask a Woman, we’ve tracked women’s power as brand ambassadors and brand killers. Women love to tell other women about good product experiences and just as willingly (even more so!) will dish about bad ones. Back when we started our business, research showed that women will tell 4 to 7 people about a good experience and 7 to 13 about a bad one. Worse, if they have a really awful product or service incident, they will retell the story in all its gory detail for an average of 23 years.

Of course, all this telling used to be face to face over the proverbial picket fence. Now we’re drowning in the online bottomless pit of instant passalong kudos and criticisms. Have a complaint about a hotel? Why go to the trouble of writing a handwritten letter to the company CEO when you can post your rant about your unmade bed on tripadvisor.com in seconds? Someone treat you badly at GAP? Don’t wait to talk to the department manager, just tweet out your frustrations and get shoppers all around the mall ticked off.

If you like something, anything, just click “like it!’ and you join hundreds of like-minded souls on facebook. You’ve probably done it yourself. How many of us have retweeted something that we didn’t even fully read or view? We click “recommend” as casually as we hit delete. But like hitting “reply all”, unconsciously passing along viral brand material risks ticking off more people than we please.

Believing Whole Truths or Half Truths?

Technology has made it possible to recommend a product to millions of people even when we’re unaware we’re doing it.  With automated ‘recommendations’ brands can use social media to do the actual work of getting the word out so we don’t have to. For example, go to your favorite frozen yogurt shop and buy a cone. If you’ve registered for a frequent customer card in the past, swipe it at the register and the yogurt company will let foursquare members know that you enjoyed your visit to the store at 3rd and Main. Vaseline Intensive Care set up a Dry Skin Relief Patrol that will send you a free sample if you share the name of another friend with dry skin who ought to know about the brand.

Pretty much every launch in recent months includes some kind of social media platform to ‘use’ consumers to spread the word in exchange for contest entry or freebie.  Not an earth-shaking bit of marketing news, but this can lead to what we call Half Truth marketing sabotage. Think of it this way: Her Half Truth is “I really liked this brand.” Her Whole Truth: “I don’t even remember that I signed up to post this stuff and now the product isn’t working for me anymore.” (Unfortunately, her friends don’t know the difference.)

Interestingly, most women tell us that they do trust what other women say online, especially if an opinion emerges multiple times.  This coincides with a phenomenon that we unearthed years ago, women’s reliance on their custom made Board of Directors, the circle of advisors they’ve collected for their expertise on various topics. She counts on this ad hoc group for information and decision making. She might have a board for travel or finance or parenting issues. But now, her board is populated with lots of people she’s never even met.

Today’s Board may be a far flung group of strangers who share an interest or an advocacy or a talent ripe for access on her keyboard or iPad. If she relies on a neighborhood community site or the blog of a well-regarded author, at least she’s connecting to someone with an identity. But women also turn to the huge anonymous blogosphere and twitterverse for opinions and ideas. Without the benefit of a calling card, women still count on what those other women suggest, especially other mothers, because as they put it: why would a mother lie about something that has to do with a child? What would be her motivation to exaggerate or to pass along a suggestion she didn’t believe in? What, indeed?

Endorsements for Love…or Money?

In 2011, we are light years beyond the innocence of original word of mouth endorsements. Thanks to too much ‘pay for play’, it’s hard to know if a thumbs up came from someone genuinely impressed with a product or service, or someone with her fingers in the cash register. Some mom bloggers have particularly been taken to task for being too willing to accept merchandise, trips and other honors in exchange for a good review. Thanks to recent uproars on the subject, the leaders of the women’s blogging community have been pushing for a code of ethics and standards of behavior that align them as either journalists or serious reviewers or else, Moms for sale.

Even the gravy train of brand swag may be slowing down since marketers are able to get endorsements without giving away the store because there are plenty of consumers who just do it for the ego validation, the community, the sense of ‘being heard.’ What a boon for marketers to get the big payoff of customer endorsement without paying a single dime beyond creating the site or promotion!

As more and more customers pile on the social media “brand”wagon, prepare for dangerous curves ahead. If the ingoing premise was that social media would engender viral word of mouth, how long before these cyber “say so’s” are ignored? And another watch out for marketers: recently we’ve heard brand managers claim that they are measuring success of their campaigns by the number of “likes” on their brand’s facebook page. Who’s to say if those are genuine consumer fans (no wonder facebook eliminated that term!) or just employees and their friends driving up the numbers for other reasons?

A Prescription for Truth

Even with all these doubts, I don’t want to leave you with the sense that I am anti-social media or despairing that no good can come from all this. Companies are under the digital global microscope every day now. Recalls can’t hide in the dark. Consumer complaints cannot be filed behind some dusty counter, never to be fixed. Women’s voices can become the powerful police of a better marketing world. But not if marketers have bought them out.

What’s the remedy? Forewarned is fore-armed. Be sure that the consumers you enlist have really tried and enjoyed your product. Keep your processes transparent. Dare to re-ask your enlisted customers just how happy they continue to be and fix it when they aren’t.  If you can send samples or coupons directly to their friends who request them, work to earn those relationships. And you need to deliver on a great brand experience when that new customer comes your way from a social media referral.

There is nothing more powerful than a heartfelt endorsement from a woman. But the overkill of the social media tactic could be a short term win with long term consequences. And, if no one believes your “real person online testimonials”, what will that say about you?

This article is also available at Canvas8.

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Prescription to Listen

An article by Rich Thomaselli in this week’s Ad Age observes that drug-makers are finally starting to see the benefit of listening to their consumers, thanks in part to the recent increase in patient-focused social networking sites. 

One such site, Patients Like Me, is an online community where people can gather to share information about their respective illnesses, as well as provide support and opinions on treatment options.  Co-founder and president Ben Heywood says of the site, “the challenge with health care is that it’s always been very individual, very personalized…[Patients] have different things going on, different needs, different problems they want to talk about. You need to solve those problems specific to that person…”

We saw this need for personal support and validation during research we have done on conditions like Fibromyalgia, incontinence, menopause, menoraghia—complicated conditions that can present differently in each case, making it difficult to diagnose and to treat.  These are also diseases that can carry a stigma (thanks to their ever changing laundry lists of symptoms), with some physicians dismissing the symptoms as purely psychological which can result in incomplete or incorrect treatment.  When we spoke to patients with these conditions, the universal wish was to be heard.  They wanted to know that their doctors were listening to them, believing them.  That their disease was real and they weren’t alone.  That validation was almost as important as physical relief. 

Patients Like Me gives patients a chance to be heard by the people that can make a difference.  Talk about transparency, they let their posters know that the information they exchange on the site will be sold to pharma companies—with the purpose of enhancing care and creating better solutions.  After all, how is a drug company supposed to know how to sell their products to a patient if they don’t understand what she wants or what she worries about? How will a physician know how to diagnose if they don’t know what to listen for—they need to learn to speak her language, because chances are she doesn’t speak like a textbook.  Bravo for making the effort to listen to real women!

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Jen Tells Working Mother The Importance Of Being Social Media Savvy

Jen tells readers of Working Mother like it or not, it is time to get social media savvy… By not engaging personally or professionally you risk looking out of date, stodgy or stubborn – all dangerous things to be in the shark tank of today’s job marketplace.  Read the full article at: workingmother.com

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Whole Truth: I am Neither Your Friend Nor Your Family

I love a good discount even more than the next gal.  I use Lucky Mag Rewards to get Cash Back, read Bargain Babe religiously and have a coupon app for my iPhone.  I never order anything online without searching for a promotional code.My office likes to tease me because I can’t just say thank you to a compliment I have to tell you how much I saved when I bought it.  (My husband likes to remind me that we can still go broke one dollar at a time when I proudly tell of my bargain prowess.)  

All this in mind why does it annoy me when I get an email from The Gap offering me a Friends & Family from my dear, dear friend Lindsey Mcadams?  Maybe because I don’t know Lindsey Mcadams. I’ve never heard of her.  We didn’t go to high school together or work together. She’s not on my LinkedIn or my Facebook.  I even called my mom to see if she remembered this name.  It’s real nice of her to offer me 30% off but to call me her friend? Her family? Now that is a bit presumptious. 

Offering discounts is lovely, especially juice ones for 30%+ but the Whole Truth is you don’t have to pretend to be related to me to extend me a deal.

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March 19, 2019
by Mary Lou Quinlan

A look at an early production of WORK

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The God Box Goes Global!

“The God Box” has grown to include an app, audio book, philanthropic venture and solo show performed by Mary Lou across the US. Now The God Box Project goes global to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
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