3 Ways Utility Drives Word-of-Mouth

A large part of how we communicate about products, and experience a brand, occurs online. The power of social media and its effect on decision making has been well documented. We know online word-of-mouth has a large impact on purchase intentions. We know that the amount of trust consumers have in a brand (developed through social interactions) influences their purchasing decisions.

Similarly, we know that consumers turn toward others’ consumption habits to inform their purchasing decisions. When making purchasing decisions, most Millennials report that social media (online) is where they would prefer to do the bulk of their shopping , product research and to hear what others say about that product. It appears that what is happening between people is becoming much more influential than traditional mass marketing.

At our essence, we are social beings. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Online, we use content to communicate. In Digital Advertising: Past, Present, Future, Chris Baylis captures this sentiment perfectly: “People don’t connect to share; they share to connect.” Brands, and brand-related content often act as vehicles for much of what we communicate.

From a management perspective it’s becoming more clear that understanding why consumers spend more and more time engaging in word-of-mouth (i.e what drives consumers to talk) is imperative. On Facebook alone, users share over 30 billion pieces of content each month. Secondly, understanding these motivations are key to the development of any social media strategy. In fact, social media has made word-of-mouth (WOM) farther reaching, more targeted and can be a mechanism to build trust between consumer and brand. Social media has heightened our already social behavior. And what is implicit is that we are very much influenced by the cultures we embed ourselves in.

Those active on social media look to other users for opinions and cultural references. In an online context, WOM is much more influenced by a consumer’s network and their current worldview. We are able to observe and communicate with those who we feel most resemble us. Additionally, we get most of our pre-purchase information from family members, peers and those online. This is why online word-of-mouth, or social sharing, is central to understanding how marketers can begin to create content that stimulates that sharing.

The people-as-a-medium analogy has contributed to resurgence in word-of-mouth research. The Keller Fay Group’s Brad Fay wrote: “The single most important factor in the success of an advertisement is this: Does it stimulate consumer conversation and sharing? Nothing else matters as much.”

So, how do we stimulate conversation?

In the new people-as-a-medium conversation, marketers build their messaging around the arguement that for content to be shared it must evoke emotion, be informative or provide utility. Rarely does an examination of what this means follow the proclamation.

In order for social media strategies, and subsequently content strategies to be effective, it is important to understand what motivates people to share content and the value that they derive from sharing. Similarly, how do we take these three sharing strategies and use them to inform what content is created?

Let’s talk about the concept of utility:


In many cases we share content because it is useful in how we aim to manage our social media presence. Utility is defined as “fitness for some purpose, or worth to some end”. When it comes to social sharing, we often use word-of-mouth behavior (sharing content) as a means to manage our social media presence- or our “some end”. Thus, the purpose of sharing content is motivated by what we want the end result to be.

Brands have the ability to stimulate conversations based on providing useful content that facilitates a value exchange among participants- thus, providing utility. For example, the content that was created, and shared via the Ice Bucket Challenge, was useful because it allowed people to promote their participation in something philanthropic. The content was used as part of one’s self-presentation strategy.


So, when we say that a brand’s content must provide utilility to stimulate conversation, we should consider the different utilities derived by people when they engage in sharing behaviors.

Below are three typologies that describe how brand-related content can provide utility for social sharing, or stimulating online WOM.

Alignment Utility

Aligment utility relates to expressions of uniqueness or membership. Often expressed through consumption or possession, brand-related content is another tactic used to define a specific identity. In many cases WOM is a means for signaling these types of specific identities through social media exchanges. Not only can the sharing of content signal an identity, but also social exchanges provide knowledge of how to properly execute certain behaviors and project consumption-related cues (Crossfit + Paleo). We exercise identity through both convergent and divergent behavior. Brand-related content can aid in how we reconcile this self-presentation strategy.

Early this year, Reebok launched its “Be More Human” campaign. The global campaign hoped to reverse the brand’s loss of market share. “Be More Human” is a campaign that seeks to align itself with the “tough” and “grassroots” fitness trend. This is a great example of content built on an idea.”Be More Human” denounces the sterile, florescence-infused messaging toward the chain-enthusiast crowd, and creates a reference point for those seeking to identify with very specific culture. Not only is this a statement that can take on multiple meanings, but it can be remixed and embedded into consumers’ lives. The content itself can be recreated, too.

The campaign focused on content that had alignment utility. Both #bemorehuman and #breakyourselfie were hashtags created that stimulated conversation through identity-signaling. Through the Be More Human Experience machine, people could find out what type of human they were.

The machine created a profile that users could ultimately share. You could celebrate your Aspirer profile. These profiles, paired with the visuals associated with the campaign, stimulated WOM because they helped people exhibit desired images of themselves.

Access Utility

Access utility relates to the perceived control of the supply of information. Altruism and reciprocity are often described as the main motives for information supply. People share content to provide useful information to help others; both in terms of access and to help with seemingly complex brand or product-related issues. Outside of altruistic behavior, people perform WOM to enhance their reputation as an expert.

Brands can specifically disseminate content that allows people to drive their own desire for brand or product expertise. In this context, an individual facilitates the flow of important information from the brand to other people. Research has shown that people who believe that they are more knowledgable about a brand are more likely to engage in WOM. This belief can be spurred through brand familiarity or being made to feel that they are in-the-know.

Patagonia creates content that provides access utility. At the most basic level the brand’s content allows people to pass along information they believe important to like-mind individuals. For example, content created during Buy Nothing Day gave people ways to facilitate information around particular Patagonia-related values. People could exhibit that this was an issue they cared about and were informed.

Patagonia also creates social environments (see their “about pages” and Footprint Chronicles) for interested customers to become more involved with the brand and to stimulate sharing. These initiatives provide depth to the content they create. The more moments people have to interact with Patagonia, the more opportunities for the brand to become a driver of WOM.

In a way, Patagonia’s content serves dual purposes. On the surface, it provides content that allows people to act as facilitators for useful information. Patagonia also provides enough content with depth, so that people who want to exercise their expertise can share many of Patagonia’s work to do so.


Currency Utility

Currency utility relates to content created between the brand and an individual- and then shared. The creation process can be a direct collaboration between the brand and individual, or exogenuous components of the brand can be adopted by an individual.

Through co-creation or product design, people have the ability to experience a sense of ownership. Similar to the IKEA Effect, we tend to place added value to things we make. What we ultimately create, derives utility through its benefit to a group or the person.

From a business perspective, co-creation has been shown to increase purchase intention, strengthen brand affinity, build community and drive social sharing. Currency utility has linking value. It enables people to generate social objects used to facilitate creating social connections.


Recently, Lego invited children to help the brand create a “kronkiwongi”. Children must first describe what a “kronkiwongi” is and then build one out of legos. The goal is for parents to then upload their children presenting their finished creature. The campaign allows children to show off their creative potential and build something with Lego.


While the example above highlights co-creation as it happens both on and off social media, Nike managed to sustain long-term co-creation projects through its Nike ID site. Nike created a social networking site and provided software tools for teams and athletes to create their own Nike shoes. Value is created through the participation, influence and sharing of one’s design. Currency utility is derived from the sharing of a person’s final product.

From Tumblr: User-generated content displaying a Nike ID creation.

According to Mckinsey and Company, two-thirds of the U.S. economy is driven by word-of-mouth recommendations. As trust in traditional advertising fades, how people use brand-related content to connect with others becomes vastly important.

These three typologies suggest that social sharing is often motivated by our desire to align, facilitate information flow and create social objects.

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