Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies > Hey, Have You Heard About Nanotechnology? Improve Nanotech Awareness through A Word-of-Mouth Campaign
Increasingly, we are (re)learning something our great-grandparents knew well: it is all about the conversation. Word-of-mouth (WOM) communication delivers a powerful two-dimensional message, containing the message itself and a credibility factor based on our trust in the other person. If WOM works well in diffusing knowledge about new ideas, it might be perfectly suited to diffusing knowledge about the emerging area of nanotechnology. An innovative word-of-mouth campaign could place nanotechnology into the world of everyday conversation, where messages are built on trust and understanding rather than hype and jargon.
September 17th, 2007
Hey, Have You Heard About Nanotechnology? Improve Nanotech Awareness through A Word-of-Mouth Campaign
In the year 1856 a young English chemist, William Perkins, discovered a means to produce a deep purple dye from coal tar, inventing the basis for chemical synthesis. Within two years the color mauve swept the Victorian fashion scene from London to Paris, and Perkins became a rich and famous man. His wealth and influence were all built on the power of contagious marketing (1).
Long before the Sears Catalog, eBay, and About.com, there was word-of-mouth or social marketing. People relied on friends, colleagues, and other acquaintances to keep them up-to-date on the latest trends, technologies, or labor-saving devices. Advertising is a relatively new phenomenon. Because most of us grew up with million dollar-a-minute Super Bowl ads, we often forget how people generated "buzz" before television and glossy magazines.
People talk a lot. Research indicates that Americans participate in around 3.5 billion word-of-mouth exchanges every day. Products, services, and brands are mentioned in over 70 percent of these conversations (2). Despite the pervasiveness of digital communication options, most conversations still take place off-line and involve people we know--family members, spouses, partners, and friends.
Increasingly, we are (re)learning something our great-grandparents knew well: it is all about the conversation. Word-of-mouth communication delivers a powerful two-dimensional message, containing the message itself and a credibility factor based on our trust in the other person. In a world where friends and family are likely to be deemed more credible than corporate PR departments or government bureaucrats, word-of-mouth approaches are gaining more adherents (3). There is now a Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) and, of course, word-of-mouth has its own acronym (WOM). Research by McKinsey & Company has shown that two-thirds of the U.S. economy is influenced by word-of-mouth (4).
If WOM works well in diffusing knowledge about new ideas, it might be perfectly suited to diffusing knowledge about the emerging area of nanotechnology. There has been a lot of talk about public outreach on nanotechnology, but it usually translates into predictable exhibits in science museums, some PBS specials, and academics running lecture programs in college towns. A few million dollars thrown at these ideas has not achieved much - and probably will not in the near future. The public remains almost totally ignorant of this new technology (surveys show that 70-80 percent have heard "nothing" or "very little" about nanotechnology) (5) despite a total global investment of $26 billion in nanotechnology research and development and the existence over 500 nano-based consumer products on the market (6).
Society starts to tread on thin ice when the diffusion of new technologies rapidly outpaces public awareness and understanding—a situation that occurred with agricultural biotechnology. Surveys have indicated that many nano-savvy people first learned of this technology from family and friends, so word-of-mouth techniques may be ideally suited to increasing nano awareness (7).
How many people could you reach with a WOM campaign? That depends on Reed's Law, which states that the utility of large social networks can grow exponentially with the size of the network (8). The key is to target trendsetters who have large networks and love to talk about new ideas and the next big thing. Roper calls these people the "influentials." Roper estimates that "influentials" account for about ten percent of the American population, but shape the attitudes and behaviors of the other 90 percent. In his recent book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell refers to these super-networked individuals as "connectors."
By starting with these information mavens, Reed's Law kicks in. A return-on-investment analysis of a product-based WOM campaign run by BzzAgent indicated that 3,000 trained volunteers reached over 100,000 people in four metropolitan areas within twelve weeks (9). Well-networked volunteers can generally reach up to 20 people, who then reach an additional 1.5 to 2 people with the message (average communications last 10 minutes) (10). In addition, these volunteers are not just spreading the word, but also reporting back about how people are reacting, which generates useful data on message understanding and propagation. Volunteers also drive the curious to other sources of information, such as websites, magazines, universities, and museums.
The advantage of launching an informational nanotech campaign using word-of-mouth is that the infrastructure, know-how, and evaluation systems are already in place, and are rapidly improving. The information packets provided to volunteers would have to be developed, but the cost would be low and the information reusable. A few hundred thousand dollars could underwrite multiple campaigns around the country that could be evaluated, tweaked, and repeated in other areas. It is an ideal project for new types of partnerships.
So why not? Neither the United States government, nor any other government around the world, has a well thought-out and adequately funded strategy for raising public awareness of nanotechnology. In a climate of declining public trust in both government and industry, new approaches to increase the public's technology I.Q. are needed—approaches that can bridge the credibility gap and scale-up rapidly to reach large segments of the population. An innovative word-of-mouth campaign could place nanotechnology into the world of everyday conversation, where messages are built on trust and understanding rather than hype and jargon.
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(1) This fascinating story is told by Simon Garfield in his book Mauve: How One Man Invented A Color That Changed the World, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.
(2) Keller, Ed & Kite, Jim (2005). "When Words Speak Louder Than Actions: The Power of Conversation and How to Measure It," available at: http://www.bzzagent.com/pages/Page.do?page=WOM_Resources .
(3) A poll done by The New York Times asked people to rank the credibility of various sources of information. Friends came first; corporate advertising came last.
(4) Dye, Renee (2000). "The Buzz on Buzz," Harvard Business Review, November.
(5) Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc. (2006). "Attitudes Toward Nanotechnology And Federal Regulatory Agencies: Report Findings," available at: http://www.nanotechproject.org/77/Hart .
(6) Nanotechnology Consumer Products Inventory (2007). Washington, DC: Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, available at http://www.nanotechproject.org/consumerproducts .
(7) Macoubrie, Jane (2004). "Informed Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology and Trust in Government," Washington, DC: Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.
(8) Reed, David P. (2001). "The Law of the Pack," Harvard Business Review, February.
(9) Alderson, Valerie (2006). "Measuring the Value of a Managed WOM Program in Test and Control Markets," BzzAgent Inc., available at: http://www.bzzagent.com/downloads/BzzAgent_ROI_Whitepaper.pdf .
(10) Carl, Walter (2006). "To Tell or Not To Tell: Assessing the Practical Effects of Disclosure of Word-of-Mouth Marketing Agents and Their Partners," Northeastern Communications Studies Journal, p. 1-24.