Have you heard of WOMMA? It’s the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, and it not only proves that there is an organization for just about everything, but it also demonstrates that this time-tested means of spreading the word about products and businesses is hot right now.

I stumbled across the WOMMA Web site while looking for information related to something I read in a report issued by the Maine Department of Agriculture titled “The Agricultural Creative Economy.” According to the report, word of mouth was the most used method for consumers to find farms, farmers’ markets, agritourism farms and CSAs.

The report also observed that using methods to encourage word-of-mouth advertising is a new area of interest to the business world, and that observation is supported by the existence of WOMMA.

WOMMA members include large advertising agencies, computer companies, major food manufacturers, financial institutions and health care providers, among others. I was a bit surprised to find, however, that one of their members is a company that specializes in word-of-mouth marketing for farmers and agribusiness.

I had no idea that such a specialized business existed, and when I first read the Maine Department of Agriculture report, I wondered about a proposal in it to develop a consumer word-of-mouth market development initiative. The proposal calls for the ag department to hire a marketing firm to teach farmers how to develop and apply word-of-mouth marketing techniques to improve consumer demand.

Not only did I wonder about what type of firm would they hire, but, also, how on earth one goes about teaching word-of-mouth techniques. I mean, doesn’t it just happen?

Well, as it turns out, the answer to that is yes and no. According to the WOMMA Web site, “Word of mouth is a preexisting phenomenon that marketers are only now learning how to harness, amplify and improve. Word-of-mouth marketing isn’t about creating word of mouth—it’s learning how to make it work within a marketing objective.”

WOMMA says that word of mouth can be encouraged by companies working hard to make people happier, listening to consumers, making it easier for customers to tell their friends and by making sure that selected influential individuals know about their product or service.

The organization is big on ethics and differentiating their members from deceptive marketers. They say that attempting to fake word of mouth is unethical and can only damage a brand. This is apparently a shot at some so-called viral marketers who plant hired “customers” in situations where they can tout the companies’ products. Examples that have been cited in news stories include people posing as tourists who ask a stranger to take their picture, and then praise the features of the camera. Or, an attractive woman in a bar who asks a man for a light, then strikes up a conversation about the quality of the cigarette.

According to WOMMA, word-of-mouth marketing techniques are based on the concepts of customer satisfaction, two-way dialogue and transparent communications. The basic elements cited on the WOMMA Web site are:

  • Educating people about your products and services
  • Identifying people most likely to share their opinions
  • Providing tools that make it easier to share information
  • Studying how, where and when opinions are being shared
  • Listening and responding to supporters, detractors and neutrals

Nearly a dozen marketing categories fall under the word-of-mouth umbrella, including buzz marketing, viral marketing, community marketing, grassroots marketing, evangelist marketing and product seeding.

The techniques that WOMMA deems unethical include stealth marketing, which masks the involvement of marketers in a communication; shilling, or paying people to promote a product without disclosing that they are working for the company; infiltration, which is using a fake identity to promote a product in an online forum; and spam.

WOMMA maintains that word of mouth cannot be faked and must be based on the honest opinions of real people. They point out that marketers should recognize that a happy customer is the greatest endorsement, listen to customers and give them a voice, and engage the community.

It’s great that Maine is willing to allocate resources to educating farmers about word-of-mouth techniques. I’d be willing to bet, though, that many farmers are more than qualified to teach that course.

The author, a freelance writer, is public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Mass. Dept. of Food & Agriculture.