Reconsidering Word of Mouth

Photo: Occupy Joplin, MO

Traditional marketing sells Pepsi cans, Dove chocolate and mainstream political candidates, but never sells books or movie tickets. Books and movie tickets are high-commitment purchases that deserve deliberation. The Avengers sold so many tickets not because of excessive marketing or a five-film build up. Those never hurt I suppose, but the real punch came when Joss Whedon finished the hard work of story and moviegoers were moved to laugh or feel chills. Those emotional experiences translated into word-of-mouth phrases like, “You have got to see…” and “Have you seen?” and “Whatever you do, go see…” Word-of-mouth made Avengers the third highest-grossing film of all time.

I have a hunch that social movements work the same way. After all, true political action costs each individual something. It’s not like buying a can of beer or a chicken shawarma. Asking people to join “the movement” is like getting them to spend fifteen bucks on a hardcover book or a RealD movie ticket. In Joplin, Missouri, when the tornado first hit, most people felt the overwhelming urge to do something about the problem, but with phone service down and little way to communicate, we relied on word-of-mouth.

Someone will want me to mention Twitter and Facebook at this point, I’m sure. It’s true, that was the one way to communicate in those first few hours—that and CB radios, which Southwest Missourians own in abundance. Problem is, whether CB or Twitter, those services yield to the basic rules of word-of-mouth. This is why I ask everyday people, “Did you see them shut down Fifth Avenue on May Day? You didn’t? It was incredible,” or “You know cops were breaking into homes arresting people associated with Occupy before NATO?” People respond to our word-of-mouth because, in the midst of their busy lives, many remain ignorant of the power of our movement — particularly  the limits to which the government goes in order to squelch it.

I say, spread the word. Get people excited about our progress. But first, use the good old-fashioned tool that helped Joplin:

Your mouth.

Originally published in the Occupy Joplin Newsletter.

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