Perception being what it is, if asked what they think of gossip in business settings, many people would be quick to point out the negatives and hurtful outcomes that are likely to occur. However, if those same people were asked what they think of creating buzz, viral marketing, or word of mouth efforts; and their response would be much different. For many small business owners, those represent a much less expensive and effective way to communicate with their prospects and customers than more traditional advertising avenues. The reality is that the use of those more new age methods is little more than trying to create and in part; manage gossip.
The etymology of the word gossip is from the combining of the word ‘God and ‘sib’ and denotes the connection between the loftiness or spiritual underpinnings of relating the message to a loftier purpose. While most gossip is now seen as being closer to the work of less noble forces, there is a long history supporting the value of gossip and the good it can do when properly understood and directed.
Rumor is different than gossip in this regard. Rumor is factually incomplete communication. Gossip is much more specific and purposeful in that it refers to the morals or intentions of a person or organization. Gossip can take two forms:
1. Praising gossip – providing example or insight into one’s character that is viewed positively by the group
2. Blaming gossip- where perceived moral shortcomings are identified and shared with the group.
In both instances the intention is to reinforce or strengthen the binds of the group’s values, perceptions, and links to each other by providing a basis of comparison between the entity or person being gossiped about and the group.
Different Names, Same Results
Contemporarily, organizations work hard to get mentioned in blogs, create events that generate buzz, and endeavor to be the benefactor of word of mouth or viral marketing efforts. While being called different things, they all are attempts to harness and influence the gossip shared with prospects, customers, suppliers, and even competitors about the company. As a function of the human experience, we all tend to give more credence to information received from friends, colleagues, or that has been crowd-sourced to use a more current term that refers to how many people sharing opinions or insights are more trustworthy than an official or endorsed view from a single source. Especially when that source is recognized as being affiliated with the organization or product being discussed.
Forms of Gossip
Researchers have identified three distinct reasons or purposes for gossip. Those three reasons for gossip are:
Gossip, and for that matter any marketing message, serves to offer information. Updating the group or others about something or someone for comparison to the group’s beliefs and behaviors. Of course, that also means the person sharing the information has to evaluate:
• Who is the target for the message
• How to best tell it
• Whether the information is anonymous (I heard “someone” say) vs. attributed (my supplier of printer ink just told me, and he should know!)
• What is the impact of the information or newsworthiness of it
• What will the reflection be back to the sharer of the information
• How will it change the social unit or group, if at all
• Which value the group shares is it related to in terms of criticality
The informational aspects of gossip, and by extension, social media types of marketing are critical to the maintenance of social mores and values. Companies understanding that can leverage it to be sure that messaging serves the purpose of reinforcing or challenging as appropriate the conventional thinking of the group.
The influence value of the gossip or message can also be of vital importance. The gossiper can act out of self-interest to secure scarce resources that are being competed for with others. Whether the resource is attention, allegiance, the dismissal of a competitor’s claim or anything else, the pursuit of influence over the group is a strong reason for gossip’s success. The interest in the use of key community communicators in creating fads or sustaining brands or company performance over time is addressed in Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book, “The Tipping Point.” Of course, if the target of the message does not see the person delivering the message as credible or representative of the group’s views; the message’s ability to influence will not be sufficient to change behaviors. It is for that reason that it is of paramount importance to match the message with the credibility of the messenger for company’s looking to seek the benefit of a targeted gossip or viral message.
The third rationale for gossip is entertainment. While this may be self evident, it also serves a more serious outcome. Surely people enjoy a good story or laugh, but it also reinforces what the group perceptions are about what is funny, what is salacious, what is consistent with the group’s views, etc. This gossip or message is more self affirming and hedonistic in that it focuses on what the group and the individual see as pleasurable.
Related to the entertainment value is also the importance gossip plays in maintaining the social structure, unity, and control over the group. By ascertaining what the group views as entertaining, the messenger can provide messages that consistently entertain by sharing the point of view of the group in message delivery and construction.
By using the insight of how gossip is more than just the idle chatter of people with nothing better to do; companies can better use blogs, community events, word of mouth, viral marketing energies, etc. to connect with those that are most influential and likely to react positively to the message. One current example is the competition between Microsoft and Apple. People identify themselves through their computer purchase and all that it says about them. Both companies have worked hard to create a community of users that are very closely affiliated with the brands.
By cleverly engaging in lifestyle marketing approaches more than just messaging about product features, these companies are working to use the power of gossip to their advantage as users or wanna’ be users amplify the value and benefits of the company and products. In effect, one’s computer purchase now represents one’s values and what they see as important in their personal identities.