Book Review: Brains on Fire: Igniting Powerful, Sustainable, Word of Mouth Movements

This blog entry / book review was originally published in November, 2014

Phillips, R., Cordell, G., Church, G., Jones, S. (2010). Brains on fire:  Igniting powerful, sustainable, word of mouth     movements.  Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

First off, I can’t express how impressed I am with myself for remembering the above American Psychological Association (APA) Editorial Style format for citing a text. Once a psychologist, always a psychologist. But I digress…

Let me start this review with a quote from a contributor cited in the latter half of Brains on Fire:

“I’ve never been comfortable with social media. I think it’s an oxymoron”.

The speaker is a Ph.D. in Complex Systems and Brain Sciences. She was addressing how businesses are drawn like51rS2MJM8LL moths to a flame when it comes to The Next Big Thing in social media. But Brains on Fire reminds the reader early and often that “90 percent of word-of-mouth happens off-line”.

That has been my own experience with Next Big Thing marketing. To wit:

“We have 19,000 websites hits!”

“We have 35,000 followers on Facebook!”

So…? What is your company doing with this supposed fandom?

Brains on Fire is about creating a movement, not another ad campaign. In fact, the authors posit that companies shouldn’t be forking over huge dough to ad agencies to influence behavior, when the company could start by inspiring behavior.

The authors suggest that it’s time for marketers and advertisers to shut up and (gasp!) listen. All the buzz in the world won’t necessarily create raving fans, but fans can certainly create the almighty buzz. And a movement’s buzz is based on the stories people tell about your company. Traditional marketing and advertising require a big budget and an ever-extending deadline to accommodate art, copy, proofing, rewrite, printing, etc. And if the stars all line up just right, the final product will be a colorful, controlled, one-way testament to: The Company…..?

Brains of Fire contributor Greg Cordell reminds readers that no matter how much inventory you have and how many people are in your employ, “your company is the stories people tell about it”. And no matter how pithy an ad slogan, it will have neither the real meaning nor the staying power of a customer’s story. And those stories are passed on by (surprise!) word-of-mouth – not by slogans pushed out at you.

Brains on Fire would have had more punch if it could have cited more than the handful of illustrating cases, to which the contributors returned often. The one that stands out for me was the Fiskars company. Yes, the scissor maker. The company is something like 350 years old. And you may roll your eyes, but when Brains on Fire notes the power of the small-town scrapbooker to influence products and sales, well – you’d better listen up and take some notes to discuss at your next managers meeting.

The bottom line is yes – use social media. And maybe whatever The Next Big Online Thing will be. But use it with off-line – use online to build off-line gatherings, relationships, etc. Judicious use of Facebook and Twitter can indeed help the off-line relationships today. But Brains contributor Chris Sandoval warns against shifting the balance to favor online, because technology “is like the philandering girlfriend. Technology is not going to stay faithful to you”.

But the customers with your company’s stories might.

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