My first recollections of getting ‘online’ are in the late 1980s, and local electronic BBSes (Bulletin Board Systems). These were basically where someone would turn their computer into a network where others could call into it with a modem, and we could chat with each other, post messages, etc. Extremely basic functionality, ‘graphics’, etc, and again, reserved to a very small local packet of people. The great thing about BBSes was you got to meet local people, and we’d occasionally have ‘meetups’ which of course was the forerunner to the Tweetups we have today.
As the late 80s turned into the early 90s, those BBSes started linking to one another. I could get on one BBS, and go to a special forum and see messages from another BBS in Denver. Then the messages we were leaving there, would be sent to the BBS in Denver. So a very crude form of online communication and network beyond just the one BBS was developing. Of course, CompuServe had been around since the early 80s, and then Prodigy in the early 90s, and of course AOL in the mid 90s. These ‘online services’ marked a way for people around the country, and even around the globe, to more easily connect with each other. The internet itself was becoming more widely used, and websites started popping up like Kudzu in the South.
Which began to mark a change in how people got their information. No longer did you have to watch CNN to get the latest news, now you could go directly to CNN’s website and get the latest news at a time that was convenient to you. So as such, we began to talk about news, events, and companies online. We still didn’t have the best tools to organize and connect with each other, but still, word of mouth was no longer reserved for the offline world only.
Then around a decade or so ago, blogs started popping up among the early adopters. By 2004 and 2005, blogs were becoming more well-known, and growing in popularity by leaps and bounds. By 2007, Technorati was tracking over 70 million blogs. In 2006 we got YouTube and Twitter, and a year later the ‘social media kids’ discovered a social networking site that had already been popular on college campuses for a few years called ‘Facebook’.
As social media tools gave us the ability to quickly and easily create and distribute online content, we began to hear a debate about which was more important: online ‘word of mouse’, or offline word of mouth? The ‘social media’ camp often argues that social media is the ‘wave of the future’, and that every is headed online. The people that favor offline word of mouth will point to studies that suggest that 90% of word of mouth still happens offline, and that it trumps social media.
To me, this debate over which is ‘better’, ‘word of mouse’ or ‘word of mouth’ misses two key points:
1 – Both online and offline conversations and experiences feed INTO each other. Look at your own experiences: How often have you been with friends and discussed something you read online? Or how often have you gone on a trip, and taken a ton of pictures that you shared with your friends on Facebook as soon as you got home? The line between our offline and online experiences is blurring. We can no longer separate the content and conversations we have online with those we have offline. For most of us, they are feeding into each other, and as a result, both our online and offline activities are richer.
2 – Mobile is greatly accelerating the blurring between online and offline. Remember the title of this post is the THREE pillars of modern customer communication? Mobile is the third pillar. Think about what’s on your smartphone, on mine right now I have an app that lets me access Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, even my WordPress blog if I want. Add in a camera, a video player, and I have all the tools necessary to link the online content that I and others create, to the offline world that I am in right now. Note above how I mentioned you could take pictures from a trip then upload them to Flickr when you get back home? With the proper mobile device, you can cut out the middle man, and take pictures right there, and immediately upload them straight to Twitter or Facebook, all from your smartphone.
The line between what is our offline and our online experiences is blurring and will soon disappear. It’s pointless to think about which one of these three is the most important, as each is feeding into the other.
Look at this picture. In terms of this post, Online or Social Media would be the locomotive. It pulls the load behind it, which is Offline Word of Mouth. Sometimes the load gets enough momentum that it can even push the locomotive. They both work together. But the tracks are mobile. Mobile makes it much easier for the locomotive to pull the load, and for the load to move because it has the nice smooth tracks under it, instead of a rocky and uneven terrain.
All three work together to create something bigger than the individual parts. Your company has to understand that your customers are likely going to use all three channels to get, share, create, and distribute content. There’s no ‘winner’ among these three, they are all on the same team.