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The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), AdAge, the American Marketing Association's Marketing Matters, Fast Company, BusinessWeek and a host of sources invaluable to marketers are all covering the buzz on buzz. Word of Mouth (WOM) marketing has gained momentum — creating excitement in and impact on the marketing industry.

A January 2006 WSJ article cites that Venture Capital dollars are now flowing to companies with WOM expertise in various industries. Agriculture is no exception to industries experiencing the benefits of planned, strategically focused word of mouth initiatives. As companies try to transform their brand communication from a monologue to a dialogue, WOM strategies are destined to become an even greater part of the marketing mix.

Why the buzz? Why now? Many companies have realized traditional marketing initiatives alone are no longer enough to produce successful, timely adoption of their products and services. "In recent years, WOM has gained popularity among big companies which fear that traditional advertising has lost its punch in this age of information overload," according to a December 2005 WSJ article.

With all this interest in WOM strategies, a word of caution is prudent. Like any marketing strategy, there's a right way and countless wrong ways to accomplish an effective word of mouth strategy.

Just because it says "buzz" or "Word of Mouth," does not make it so.

"To best serve our clients, we need to be astute marketers to readily recognize the imposters," says Beck Ag CEO, John Finegan. There are several types of non-credible WOM programs underway. While many are consumer-marketing based, Finegan says they exist.

"Unfortunately for marketers and their target audiences, many of these newly minted WOM 'experts' use ploys like paid 'advocates,' non-user actors, false claims, non-user promoters, etc.," Finegan adds. "Marketers who use these deceptive WOM approaches risk alienating their audience and widening the credibility gap. And, hell hath no fury like a customer who realizes the integrity gap has been breeched!"

While some WOM approaches use incentives to lure both customers and prospects, Rice University Professor Paul Dholakia states in the November 2005 issue of Harvard Business Review, "Aggressive, incentive-driven acquisition marketing may attract new customers, but those customers are often myopically focused on the offer, rather than cultivating a long-term relationship with the company." He adds, "High-pressure approaches may actually turn off the loyal self-determined customers who companies want to keep."

Gord Butcher, CEO of AgCall says the solution lies in offering prospective customers ways to determine how your offering specifically fits their situation. "We've seen that prospects become long-term customers only if the offering fits their needs and ultimately meets or exceeds their expectations. This is exactly why peer-to-peer programs relating real world experiences are so effective and do allow prospective customers to "self-determine" their relationship with your product and your company."

So how do agrimarketers determine "The Real Thing?" Finegan says, "A marketer's reputation is the key here. If the marketplace trusts a company to provide credible, relevant, real-world information, then the risk of adopting a new product is reduced."

In more than ten years of offering word of mouth strategies, both Beck Ag and AgCall have engaged hundreds of thousands of ag professionals for clients. Finegan adds, "In the process, we've developed a strong reputation for credibility."

WOM has the ability to accelerate adoption and improve customer retention when done properly. AgCall's Butcher adds, "Our goal has always been to generate both short-term returns and long-term value to our clients and the ag professionals we engage for our clients."

Finegan concludes, "Fortunately for agrimarketers, the credibility and long track record of Beck Ag Com and AgCall as the leading WOM marketing specialists keeps us ahead of the word of mouth marketing curve being tested and created in other industries."

Kathleen Erickson is president of Erickson Communications & Consulting, LLC. based in Clarks Hill, IN.

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