Friday, August 17, 2007

Urban Legends and Word of Mouth

Urban legends thrive in an atmosphere of bias. I took one folklore class in college and, in my business, it has turned out to be invaluable.

Urban legends are to word of mouth communication what radioactive dyes are to determining blood flow. It gives an immediate sense of how fast word of mouth travels and how often it circulates and re-circulates.

An example followed a newspaper article in the Raleigh paper a month ago that the largest source of relocations to that county were from Durham. The insinuation was that they were fleeing Durham. I missed reading it initially but people quickly brought it to my attention, obviously believing it to be true and alarming.

DCVB dug out the data upon which the newspaper article was based and discovered something left out of the story. Raleigh/Wake county is also the largest source of people relocating to Durham. Examination of patterns quickly revealed they have nothing to do with "popularity" and everything to do with personal issues, e.g., job changes, commuting, housing and land costs etc.

It isn't clear why the original story didn't give the full story, other than it wouldn't have really been news then. The data made it obvious the patterns had nothing to do with popularity. Otherwise Smithfield/Johnston County would be more popular than Raleigh/Wake and Durham more popular than Chapel Hill/Orange etc.

We let it go by, though, and only alerted a few opinion leaders. But that news didn't travel at all. Positive news rarely ignites word of mouth like negative information does. And a few months later, another news outlet picked it up and ran a story with the same premise. Then a Raleigh news executive began using the information to prove that people were fleeing Durham.

We made a mistake by not distributing the data more broadly. But the experience reminds us of how negative word of mouth works. Interdiction has to be swift, visible and repeated. Distributing information to provide perspective and amping up the positive can never outrun the effects of negative word of mouth. The longer that time goes without interdiction, the more virulent the negative word of mouth becomes. Just ask someone running for election.

It is not easy to practice interdiction. People who spread this type of word of mouth have put their reputation on the line. They have embedded it in their belief system. They almost always react with hostility, believing you are showing them up.

Oh well, I guess that's why there are destination marketing organizations.

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