Free Advice: What WOMF Can Learn From WOMMA

This post is a promised follow-up to my recent post Why are Advertisers Embarrassed by Advertising?. Recently KGMB9 implemented the WOMF service. To me, an outside observer, they have treated it as a sales platform though positioned it as a community forum. I actually think it has the potential to be quite useful as both, if they are willing to address a few flaws in this social web business tool.

First, let’s clear up the acronyms:
womf-hawaiiWOMF stands for Word of Mouth Forum ™. It is a company that has developed a type of web software that allows local communities to have an advertiser-sponsored, consumer reviews and discussion web site. This is a standard web formula: build it once and re-use it as much as possible. The parent company is from Australia, though their corporate site has zero information. You must choose your country and then be directed to the local affiliate site.

wommaWOMMA stands for Word of Mouth Marketing Association. This is a professional marketers association, dedicated to building and promoting best practices in, you guessed it, word of mouth marketing. It is becoming increasingly powerful, and there is not only confusion but a swarm of con artists who are riding the wave of word of mouth marketing.

Visit the WOMF parent site here.
Visit the WOMF USA site here.
Visit the WOMMA site here.

On the surface they sound very similar, but in practice they function differently. Together they represent an opportunity to shed light on the style and the substance of using social media to grow your business.

Let’s look at two bricks in the social web foundation – Transparency and User Interactions, and compare what WOMMA recommends with the execution of WOMF-affiliated sites.

TRANSPARENCY

Here are some of the recommended actions from WOMMA, the professional association (link has expired):

  • Creating forums and feedback tools
  • Informing these individuals about what you do and encouraging them to spread the word
  • Listening and responding to both positive and negative conversations
  • Encouraging two-way conversations with interested parties
  • Participating openly on online blogs and discussions

On the other hand, WOMMA cautions against various unethical strategies, including “Stealth Marketing: Any practice designed to deceive people about the involvement of marketers in a communication.”

The WOMF affiliate sites are built around the software platform, creating a place for people to talk about things they like or dislike. But the fact that each affiliate site is managed by a media company, who remains un-named, sold by a parent company who operates in complete stealth mode, for the express purpose of selling ads to small business, casts a pall on these potentially useful community-based sites.

How Does WOMF Rate?

  1. There is no About page or any information on the parent company page; you must visit the main office in your country.
  2. The WOMF USA site does have an About page, with names, phone numbers, and email links, tho the photos are of dogs not people. I think this intends to be cute (and we all know I love dogs!) but it comes across unnecessarily cryptic.
  3. There is no About page on the local Hawaii WOMF or any information about the single WOMF administrator who posts on the site. Is it one person or several? We just don’t know who owns the site, who runs the site, or who this poster is. They have posted 69 times in the past 6 months, or about 2-3 times a week. This is probably not enough to “juice the site” and create the feeling of energy and activity on the site.
  4. Local businesses are encouraged to advertise on the site, and can be featured by clicking through a “Businesses That Care” button at the top of each posting. There are also self-service banner ads for businesses sprinkled throughout the site.
  5. There was a forum/blog/WOMF posting titled “Is WOMF locally owned?” and the question went unanswered by the site owner. This is not good; these questions must be answered truthfully, quickly, and without defensiveness.
  6. The stated goals of the site are different, depending on the targeted audience. Read on for the actual text and make up your own mind.

Here is how WOMF USA defines their service, when talking to target customers (media outlets) on the corporate site – a mere four pages:

WOMF(tm) is a client acquisition program for Local Media to generate online revenue. This is a collaborative effort between programming, promotions and sales helping to deepen the relationship between your medium, your audience and your advertisers. Additionally you gain market prominence, heightened brand awareness and thought leadership for providing internet advertising solutions for your local businesses.

Yet here is how the local affiliate site defines its service on the community site, when talking to the users:

WOMF is about you. Your experiences, your opinions and your expertise. We want to hear what you have to say. Go ahead…Register and WOMF. It’s easy!!

Actually, both statements are true. But to have different definitions of who you are across the public web, runs the risk of being labeled “two-faced” and worse.

INTERACTING WITH YOUR USERS

  1. The platform provides an elegant interface but the functionality is quite rudimentary as far as social networks are concerned. There is no RSS for users to subscribe to their interests, though there are “E-lerts” designed to email notifications (to businesses only) for $120 per year.
  2. There is more than the usual level of information required for users to create their free accounts yet very little optional additional information for users to provide. It requires a screen name and a full name, though the signup process does not tell you which will be used where. In general, though businesses often don’t like it, you get more honest feedback when people can register with full anonymity. This site even requires your month and year of birth. (Clearly, this data point is of value to marketers, but I think it should be optional not required.) I know this is confusing at first, but here is how it works: The more you require, the less people will want to give. The less you require, the more they will want to share. Let them share their favorite bands their favorite restaurants, so others can see and be influenced by that. It’s how the social web works. Just don’t require people to tell you their real names.
  3. The site offers an Upgrade though does not say what the benefits are or what the cost is before requiring very extensive information. It appears to be for businesses however, as “business name” is a required field. This upgrade messaging to users is not as clear as it could be and in fact site-wide, they could be using login tools to filter the messaging based on your user type. There is nothing wrong with having a mix of business and consumers – it’s desired actually, but it helps to pay attention to how, when, and where you communicate with each constituency.
  4. Postings are moderated; in general, the more you moderate the less interaction and the less truthful interaction you will receive, and over time, the less interest people will have in contributing their feedback. I understand the desire to remove negative comments when it’s about one of your advertisers, but censoring perceived bad news is the best way to kill a user-generated content site.
  5. There are no listings of users; they all fall into one amorphous pot other than the top ten in various categories. A key feature of social word-of-mouth sites is allowing users to easily interact with each other. Though users can comment on each others’ postings, few do.
  6. Star ratings are unclear – a user can give a company a bad review, yet if people like the bad review aka “blog post” it gets more stars. To a casual visitor this appears at a glance to convey a rating about the company, not about the posting. I can’t say if this ambiguity is intentional or accidental, but it blurs the line and is confusing for users. Users also acquire both rank and star ratings, though it is unclear how one achieves this other than by the number of postings and by inheriting the ratings given to other postings, respectively.

WOMMA values honesty in word-of-mouth marketing (link has expired):

Only honest marketers with confidence in their products dare engage in word of mouth marketing — because it will backfire if the promise of your marketing message isn’t backed up by reality. Once you give people a voice, they will tell the true story of your company, good or bad.

So How is WOMF Hawaii Doing?

From the public side of things, I would say low average. There is some activity on the site, though very little compared to the long-running Hawaii Threads discussion forum (which does not advertise at all and which is actually a forum). WOMF confuses itself and its audience in a number of ways:

  • It calls discussion topics blog posts though refers to itself as a forum.
  • It is advertiser-sponsored, though not in the usual ways. Not a bad thing, mind you, but it is not clear, and people can sense that discrepancy. People are so used to being tricked into sales, that they have developed sensitive radar and want to be told the truth. This truth-telling is the backbone of why WOMMA exists.
  • The various calls to action on the site are actually aimed at businesses, not consumers, but the welcome messaging on the site and most of the visible functionality is aimed at regular folks just talking about their favorite things.
  • There is little incentive for users to come back – they can’t get feeds with recent activity and they can’t link with their friends, and there’s just no one home there really.
  • No one home. This is the real problem. Even the sales material promises the affiliate that this powerful site can be run on its own with very little time investment. This is the #1 misconception about the social web! Time is the new currency – it is not about the platform, it is about the relationships you cultivate with the people in your community.

How can this be improved? Here are a few of my recommendations for KGMB9:

  1. The most important thing KGMB9 can do is to acknowledge itself as the site “host.” There is nothing wrong with advertising, except when it pretends not to be advertising. People don’t go to parties when it is unclear who the host is. “Who’s having the party?” “I don’t know.” “Well are they cool or creepy?” I don’t know!” “OK, let’s go someplace else then.”
  2. KGMB can and should claim WOMF Hawaii as their brainchild, proudly defend their desire to both create a forum where we all can talk about local businesses AND where local businesses can advertise in targeted sections and talk with us. They could have a custom page on the site that is accessible from anywhere talking to people about this. Have a real person write it and include her/his photo and contact information. There is not enough anonymity for the users during the signup process and there is too much anonymity about the site owners/managers. Let’s flip this around.
  3. KGMB9 has fantastic on-air talent. I think people would love to interact with Stacy and Keahi and Guy and engage users in discussion about local businesses and events and even power outages! (KGMB9 had great coverage last weekend – was WOMF used to support emergency resources?) These discussions can cross-link over to KGMB9 Twitter accounts here and here and I think you could proudly mention in the site graphics, “brought to you by KGMB9 as a service to our community and to support small business.” Ditto for the many WOMF banner ads on the KGMB9 web site – they just look like other banner ads. It’s 2008 – people hardly ever click on banner ads any more. Don’t be embarrassed by advertising – tell us you are the people of WOMF and that just like the rest of us, you are learning as you go too.
  4. KGMB9 could reach out to other popular local leaders, celebrities, and marketers and ask for honest feedback about the site, on the site. Let the users witness and contribute to these conversations, as we love this kind of talk story.
  5. KGMB9 could have the site admins do a weekly podcast on what’s new and hot. They’ve got access to film crews out roaming the island all day every day; they could connect their resources and grab some footage or even live-stream from a cell phone to feature new businesses who are mentioned and/or who are advertising on the WOMF site.
  6. KGMB9 could advise its company advertisers to get on the site first as users, and reach out asking for feedback, commenting on other people’s postings. The conversation must come first, the good products and services come first – then the sales can follow. To attempt to use social web tools only for selling, is like making every party a Tupperware party. Museums are smart – they take you through the exhibits first and you end up at the gift store, not vice-versa. Yes, there might need to be some training involved and we can help with that. Don’t mislead businesses that social networks are quick and easy ways to makes sales. They aren’t. They take time and transparency at the very least.
  7. KHMB9 could have more things going on for the users on the site. It is very one dimensional right now. Why not have a site member do a business review on the morning show with Howard once a week? You have so many ways to give people their 15 minutes of fame, and they will go to the ends of the earth for you in the process. We can provide ideas on how to do this, the limitations of the software platform or the licensing agreement notwithstanding.

Seth Godin has written several books explaining why sites like WOMF are the wrong approach for businesses to take. The disruption taking place in the market requires a change of culture – not simply slapping a new bandage on a problem that, once you understand it, is not at all like the ones you have faced in the past.

That doesn’t mean you toss the baby out just yet though. It does mean you put in place a lot more transparency. I know it is the opposite of business as usual, but it truly is your best friend in this environment and time. The WOMF software itself does a lot of cool things. Unfortunately, as I have learned too, the power of the social web is more about the users, than the platform.

I know this post is long but can you believe I have only scratched the surface of analyzing WOMF sites? It just goes to show this stuff is not as easy as it looks (most things rarely are) but getting the conversation started is well worth the effort. I hope to hear from some of the businesses who have advertised on WOMF as well as some of my friends over at KGMB9 and fellow media junkies both here in Hawaii as well as beyond.

Aloha!

roxanne-sig