In my reading, I keep encountering the following:
Women talk. A lot. Constantly, even. And way more than men.
It makes sense, right? I mean, there are plenty of studies to support this. The Female Brain, written by Louann Brizendine M.D., cites a statistic that women use 20,000 words a day to men’s measly 7,000. Like the misinterpreted conclusion of Albert Mehrabian, who said that 7% of communication is the words, 38% is body language and 55% is vocal tone (this is true only in the expression of emotions — think of the many possible definitions of a significant other saying “I’m fine”), the 20,000 number spread like wildfire. This is especially true amongst marketers, who grasp for any data they can get their hands on to support a hypothesis.
The problem? It isn’t really true.
Contained in a Boston Globe article that fact-checked The Female Brain is the following:
According to a 1993 review of the scientific literature by researchers Deborah James and Janice Drakich, “Most studies reported either that men talked more than women, either overall or in some circumstances, or that there was no difference between the genders in amount of talk.” The research since that review … follows the same pattern. [Emphasis mine.]
In fact, a study published in 2007 by the journal Science found that, “participants’ daily word use was extrapolated from the number of recorded words. Women and men both spoke about 16,000 words per day.”
So, if words matter more than pop-marketing suggests (Albert Mehrabian has lamented at how his work has been taken out of context) and men talk just as much as women, then what can marketers conclude about gender and word-of-mouth?
In the book What She’s Not Telling You by the team at the Manhattan-based consultancy Just Ask a Woman (Mary Lou Quinlan, Jen Drexler and Tracy Chapman — @justaskawoman), women are driven to tell their friends about new products and services to show that they’re on top of things and “in the know” to reinforce an approval need. So, there you have it, women have a need to share their experiences, good and bad. In fact, the book says:
Women will share the story of a bad experience with four to seven others, but they’ve been known to repeat a really hurtful incident for as long as 23 years.
That’s pretty rough (23 years!). But, what does all of this sharing mean? Is word of mouth is still king of trust? I’m not so sure. A recent article in AdAge published Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer that showed in 2010 only 25% of people consider their friends credible, down from 45% in 2008. So what’s killing trust? To quote the article:
“When you’re seeing so much noise, it’s very easy to dismiss a lot of it, and that’s a problem marketing messages have had for a while now,” said David Berkowitz, director-emerging media for 360i. “Facebook really exemplifies this with the live-feed and news-feed options,” he said. “If you use the live feed and have a few hundred friends, some kind of peer recommendation, whether it’s explicit or not, appears every couple of minutes and sometimes they come in a matter of seconds. If you’re seeing all of that come in, it can be overwhelming.”
That’s where I am cautious about word-of-mouth marketing as the be-all-end-all. I’m not saying it’s ineffective — it’s hugely effective when someone we trust recommends a product or service. But, if it’s true that women have a need to share product “finds” with their friends, and a woman has a lot of friends, that can mean some conflicting recommendations (or, as mentioned above, noise).
I’m also going to throw out an entirely data-less anecdotal opinion that counters conventional wisdom — I believe word-of-mouth might just be more effective for men than for women. Why? Because men are often more direct and solutions-based. We don’t seek many opinions, we ask the one friend we trust to quickly solve our problem. And, in the rare case that a guy friend gives us a lead unsolicited, we often take note and act on it. My hunch is that the conversion rate on recommendations between men is higher than women.
The point of all of this is to say that there are a lot of assumptions being made based upon layers and layers of quoted statistics coming from studies that are, at best, misinterpreted. As marketers, we need to be careful to avoid putting too much faith in data that backs up our own biases (women are just walking gabfests, for instance) and, instead, attempt to devise a marketing mix that identifies spheres of real, tangible influence. Is that a friend? Is that a PR campaign? Is that a mommy blogger? Is it traditional advertising? Social media? It depends on your product, service and budget. All-in-all, this should serve as a warning that word-of-mouth won’t necessarily carry the day for your brand.