An interesting study, “Why recommend a brand face-to-face but not on Facebook?” has just been published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, looking at differences between word of mouth recommendations in social media and in person.

Bottom line, people are far less likely to recommend brands to each other in social media because of the perceived ‘social risk’ social media recommendations entail (‘social risk’ = risk to your public image and reputation if your recommendation sucks).  People don’t recommend (often) on Facebook because Facebook recommendations are public, written and broadcast (in contrast to the private, oral, and personalised one-to-one recommendations of traditional word of mouth).

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense – you might make a private personal recommendation to a friend, depending on their particular needs, but would you make a blanket public recommendation to everyone you know, without knowing their needs?

The implications for digital (and traditional) marketing are key

1) Digital (and traditional) marketing should get back to focusing on stimulating traditional word of mouth (via content that gives people the reasons and language to recommend) – private one-t0-one recommendations

2) Digital (and traditional) marketing should focus on stimulating professional and expert recommendations and reviews, rather than peer to peer recommendations.  Professional reviewers and experts are paid to make recommendations – the social risk is part of their job.

The study also helps explain why  ‘would you recommend?’ is a better predictor of profitable growth for brands than ‘do you recommend’; actually recommending is contingent on situations were social risk is low; where you can make private, one-to-one personalised recommendation – with caveats as needed.

It’s not all bad news for brands looking to drive online consumer word of mouth; the study did find that one type of person – those with a high need for ‘social enhancement’ (need to be seen positively by others, social approval seekers) were more likely to broadcast recommendations in social media.  But are people who agree strongly with the statement – “In general, I like to hear that I am a great person” really your best word of mouth advocates?