by R. S. Mellette
I moderated a conference of film industry professors a while back, and when one of them said that Hollywood relies heavily on word-of-mouth marketing, I laughed.
I couldn't help myself. Here is an industry that considers a 20% or 30% drop in sales a success! That's not word-of-mouth. Or if it is, good words are not being spoken.
Interestingly, the Hollywood insiders on the panel thought I was the crazy one for doing a spit-take with the Koolaid they were serving. But of course, none of them had theatre or publishing experience.
In those disciplines, word-of-mouth marketing means sales INCREASE with time, not drop. A play that is worth the time, money and effort of going to see will build an audience. A book worth the read will see an increase in sales.
In Hollywood, my filmmaking brothers and sisters have forgotten the difference between Buzz and Word-of-Mouth. So let's take a look at them side-by-side.
Buzz: "I want to see that movie," says one friend to another before it premieres. "Yes," says the friend, "I've heard it's good."
Word-Of-Mouth: "I saw the best movie this weekend, you should see it."
In writing, we call that passive vs. active voice. In court, it's called a firsthand account vs. hearsay.
Marketing generates buzz. The product itself creates word-of-mouth.
Why is that a distinction worth discussing? Because buzz owes only a passing fealty to the quality of the product. Producers in Hollywood will actually judge a script on "trailer beats," meaning juicy stuff they can put in the preview to create buzz. A script that tells a good story but has no trailer beats will be passed over in favor of another script that is more easily marketable.
Compare this to the world of self-publishing today. Sure, sure, there is a sub-culture of writers trying to get good reviews—or spam their competition with bad ones—in an effort to increase buzz. There is nothing wrong with an honest pursuit of good buzz, but the runaway hits in the self-publishing world come almost exclusively from word-of-mouth marketing.
And word-of-mouth marketing is entirely dependent on the quality of the work. It is first-person, active, marketing. One friend telling another, "I enjoyed that, and I think you'll like it, too."
What does this product-oriented marketing technique look like on the sales charts, graphs, and tables? That's easy. No drop off. Sales go up the longer the product is available. And when the same people create a new product, their sales start higher because they have become a trusted brand. As long as they keep up the quality, then their work will generate its own buzz.
And the opposite is also true. How many of us have been fooled so many times by a great preview for a lousy film that we no longer trust the studios? Like so much of the rest of American Industry, studios have lost sight of long term success in favor of instant gratification. They have confused buzz with word-of-mouth.
So the work suffers. We, as consumers, suffer. And worst of all, we artists who must try to make a living in this environment suffer.
R.S. Mellette is an experienced screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist. You can find him at the Dances With Films festival blog, and on Twitter, or read him in the Spring Fevers and The Fall: Tales of the Apocalypse anthologies.