Why talk really is cheap

Posted by on Jan 31, 2010 in Copying, Science, Web/Tech | 2 Comments


Pic c/o of the Fabulous Henry R

Yesterday, my old chum David C pointed a bunch of folk like me to this piece in Adage by Steve Knox, the guy who runs Tremor – the P&G WoM/sampling outfit. 

Now, first of all let me say the two central points of the piece seem unobjectionable:

1. the idea of disrupting shared assumptions in a marketplace by what you do and how you say has been around in various forms (not least Jean-Marie Dru's masterpiece Disruption) for nearly 2 decades now. If you haven't come across it til now, I'd suggest you check your feeds (and the calendar)

2. It's good to root our theory in contemporary science. Again, the idea behind schema – whatever you call them – is not exactly news – even to the determinedly ignorant of science.

But,…..[yes, I know, I'm always qualifying positive commentary]

….what is it that I feel uncomfortable about in the case that Knox makes?

Well, I think I've got two areas of concern:

First, it does seem a rather selective reading of cognitive science – a post-rationalisation, even, to justify what the company does post-hoc – a bit of scientific sticking plaster to shore up the intellectual credentials of a business that has shifted around between sampling, testing and advocacy objectives. Starting with the business practice rather than the science.

Specifically, and probably most importantly, is what I see as a lazy assumption that WoM – what people say to their peers – is what shapes their behaviour; when it's what we see others do and whether or not we choose to follow them.

As Grant and I and Faris have all made clear a number of times, most human speech is – as you'd expect from a social creature – phatic – that is more to do with the inter-relationships between speaker and listener than about any specific content. Most human speech and communication (in the traditional sense of words and thoughts) is content-lite and people-heavy. It's really cheap.

Even if you take a more enlightened view of influence and see influence as more a pull- than a push-phenomenon, it's far from clear how WoM is going to be a major force of behaviour. Sure, we can read excitement or despair into each other's talk and writing but this is not the same as our behaviour being shaped by the content of what other people say (except in extreme circumstances, like a Fire!).

Bit more science, Mr Knox, and a bit less assumption, maybe?


  1. John
    February 3, 2010

    Methinks the assumption makes the execution easier. Less effective, but easier.

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