I’ve just been on holiday. Not a remarkable event in itself I’ll admit but my experience of booking and taking that holiday provided some prime examples of ‘schemas’ and their role in generating word of mouth.
So what precisely is a ‘schema’ I hear you cry? In brief, it’s a little movie containing generic properties about a concept or category stored in our memories and ready for ‘play’ when someone pushes the button.
No help? OK – let me give you an example. What springs to mind when I say ‘package holiday?’ For me, it’s images of sunburnt people with tattoos at the airport, having my knees wedged underneath the seat in front on the flight, the smell of cheap fried food at innumerable cafes selling full English breakfasts and families crammed into studio apartments that allegedly sleep four.
This may not be a true reflection but my schema doesn’t have to be built from actual experience of package holidays but perceptions of them built up from a myriad of sources. You may not have driven a sports car but you’ve got a schema of one in your head.
By conflicting with schema in credible ways, you can get people talking about your product or brand. This may sound easy but first of all you have to understand which schema exist in the minds of your target market for your product or service category. And secondly, you need an offering which not only conflicts with the existing schema but one that does so in a credible way.
I see it like a seesaw in the brain – jump in near the centre (too close to centre of the existing schema) and nothing will happen. Jump and miss the seesaw altogether and your attempt was clearly too far from the existing schema to generate any action. Jump on near the ends and it will tip into action, but remember it can move both ways – one positive for your brand and one negative. A little known PR disaster when I was Marketing Manager at Austravel provides a prime example.
Back in the late Nineties Austravel launched into a joint venture with a Dutch firm to launch a charter flight from Maastricht to Australia. The inaugural flight was a big PR event – all the top brass from Austravel and their Dutch partners were there, as well as the cream of the Dutch media curious about this new venture. Problem was, the plane went ‘tech’ and it didn’t go anywhere.
The whole management team returned home with a sense of impending disaster. The commercial success of this venture was seriously jeopardised – no-one was going to book with a company that couldn’t even get their inaugural flight off the ground. But this so-called disaster had an unexpected result. The press gleefully reported the story but also included the price of the flights. The phones (no internet booking in those days) went berserk with people booking. What had happened?
Word of mouth schema theory explains it. Your schema of airlines and charter airlines in particular is that planes will occasionally go ‘tech’ – unfortunate but no surprises there. But nobody expected that you’d be able to fly from The Netherlands to Australia for the price the newspapers published and a word of mouth tide began to sweep across the country. Disaster turned into success in the most unexpected fashion. But when you look at it with reference to schemas, it all makes sense.
So back to my holiday – which provided 3 classic word of mouth ‘events’ triggered by interference with schemas. Firstly, the booking process was so badly handled (how can you spell the parents’ names right but their child’s name wrong, and do it for 2 sets of passengers with different surnames? And who spells ‘Cox’ ‘Cocks’?) that it prompted me and my wife to talk to our friends about it.
Secondly, we travelled with friends and although we’d been there before, the experience conflicted with their perceptions of a package holiday – unspoilt island, no ‘full Englishes’ in sight, spacious villa – which got them talking to relatives about booking another trip for next year (for those of you curious we were on a Simply Travel holiday – and no doubt alot of Simply’s success in the late Nineties and early Noughties was in presenting holidays far from the package in terms of environment and accommodation but in a packaged way.)
And thirdly, Thomsonfly screened an excellent safety video on the flight featuring children as the cabin crew – interfering with my schema of safety demonstrations (bored looking cabin crew member shows me how to do up a seatbelt and flaps arms in vague direction of exits). People paid attention and some even laughed and no doubt people will be talking about it (as I am now).
Getting someone talking about an airline safety demonstration must be the ultimate challenge in word of mouth marketing. If Thomsonfly can do it, surely generating word of mouth marketing for your product or brand must be achievable?