By Amy Stokes, Ph.D.
I remember growing up in church and thinking the people teaching my Sunday School classes were so old. Now, 25 years later I realize they were the age I am currently (not old!) and they are just now approaching old age. As a teenager, my mother constantly reminded me that perception is 99 percent the rule. Although her words stuck with me, it was a life lesson I could not fully appreciate at the time.
There’s an illustration that depicts a man and the descriptions of him given by a variety of people. A young boy describes him as old, an old man describes him as young, a short man describes him as tall, a tall man describes him as short, a burly cowboy describes him as from the east, a middle easterner describes him as from the west. They were all about the same guy, but if you were to compile the opposing descriptions in order to create a cohesive profile it would be nearly impossible. What matters as much as understanding the guy being described is understanding who is doing the describing. The same goes for your organization. Particularly when it comes to word-of-mouth, what you know to be true about your business doesn’t matter compared to what the ones doing the talking believe to be true. When talking about your business to friends and family, their perspective matters more than the facts in your annual report.
During the information search stage of the consumer decision making process, there are four ranked sources from which consumers seek information. The first place consumers look for information is their store house of personal experience. Obviously this will override all other sources as it is deemed the most credible. It doesn’t matter if you thought a restaurant was great if I went and had a horrible experience. The second information source is personal sources, which includes the opinions and experiences of friends, family, and coworkers. When we don’t have enough personal experience to guide our decision making, we look to those around us that we trust to help inform our decisions. Third is public sources, which includes government reports and findings from third-party organizations like the Better Business Bureau and Consumer Reports. It also includes online reviews from other customers and membership based forums like Angie’s List. Last is market sources, which includes advertising, company websites, and other company-controlled messaging done via newsletters or social media.
Out of the four information sources, you only have control over one of them, and it is the last source consumers incorporate into their decision making. While that may sound discouraging, you don’t have to have control over the other three sources in order to influence them. You have the ability to shape word-of-mouth, but it must be strategic and consistent. Your in-store experience must match the way you portray yourself in social media and paid advertising and you must repeatedly communicate your brand position across all media types. When consumers are repeatedly exposed to consistent messaging, even if they have never interacted with your brand personally, it creates a level of familiarity that shapes their view of your business. Not only will this familiarity help them form a positive opinion, it can potentially offset any negative word-of-mouth they hear that does not align with their exposure to other sources. In the instance that you find negative reviews online or through social media, try to engage with them and address the issue privately rather than in the public realm. And remember, perception is 99 percent the rule.
This article appeared in the July 25 issue of the Springfield News-Leader and be accessed online here.
Amy Stokes, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of marketing at Missouri State University and has experience as a media coordinator in private industry. Stokes has a specialty in advertising and media issues and writes about those areas as well as general consumer behavior. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.