The Water Cooler Effect

Have you ever heard of the phrase ‘Caveman’s TV’? Basically, before people sat on the couch ogling at their favorite film actors, they stared into the orange blazes of a fireplace. And even before we humans had proper housing, for entertainment our Cro-Magnon ancestors would crouch around a hot pit of dancing flames and billowing smoke. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to find a mega-LCD screen mounted on top of a fireplace – the old and the new together.

The point being: technology may change, but our habits are far less alterable. We may think that our societal norms have undergone a sweeping upheaval when really it’s another iteration tacked onto an ever-evolving set of patterns. Letters become telegrams then wired telephones and now smart cellular devices, but it’s all still a means for two-way communications.

So, what does this have to do with social media? Consider the office water cooler. A longstanding, informal rendezvous point for brisk, non-work-related conversations, these were hotspots for word of mouth and the dispersion of topical thoughts for just about anything – gossip, the weather, new clothes, movies and, yes, travel. With all the recent attention bestowed upon social media these days, one might think that the water cooler has been utterly usurped. Well, I have a newsflash for you: the water cooler is still vastly important; and given the explosion of digital communications, maybe even more important than social media.

Just as you can have both a fireplace and a television in your living room, so too is there room for both digital and verbal consumer interactions. With so focus on the minutia of social network metrics (likes, followers, reach, etc.), we may be missing the bigger picture. Social media is not so much a usurper as it is an adjunct along with other such established word-of-mouth ancillaries like magazine spreads, direct mail, billboards and broadcast advertisements.

A good marketer understands that social media isn’t the be-all and end-all. A great marketer knows how to leverage social media to enhance not only digital dissemination of a brand but also face-to-face word of mouth, all part of a comprehensive strategy to engage consumers on as many fronts as possible.

Why the Water Cooler

Consider the three most fundamental clusters of people in your life: family, friends and coworkers. These can have overlap but they are seldom indistinguishable tribes (notable exception: the Mafia). The water cooler is firmly entrenched in the mechanisms of information flow amongst the third group – the office – and therefore it is a vastly important aspect for marketing analyses.

A significant point of distinction that applies today more so than ever before is the lack of homogeneity within the average work environment. It used to be that your job defined the entirety of your lifestyle. Salesmen working for large corporations talked and dressed a certain way, all of them dreaming of sports cars and vacations on tropical islands. The more time they spent together, the more they influenced each other’s personal expenditures. And the same could be said for doctors, lawyers, accountants, stock brokers or truck drivers. It was a society composed of cliques, largely defined by material aspects like what you wore or where you dined.

Not to say that this tribe-like nature of our culture is completely gone, but that it has mutated or fractured into an exponentially greater number of psychographic clans. As the president of a marketing firm, I can personally attest to this. You’d think all my account executives would be of a similar pedigree, but no, one is a gung-ho NFL fan while another manages a popular food blog and yet another is a part-time sculptor. Things get even more bizarre when I take a look at my creative team; one inundates himself with comic books, another runs a podcast focusing on 90s sitcoms and a third team member is the lead singer in a hardcore punk band.

Needless to say, we live in an era of rapid diversification and heterogeneity of personal interests. But everyone needs to put food on the table, so we get day jobs. And where do we meet for a quick five-minute break and discuss our various extracurricular pursuits? The water cooler. (True, there are other points of intersection like schools, bars and sports leagues, but let’s keep our focus on the water cooler because it is consistently frequented for five days of the week.)

What Does it Have to do with Social Media?

Due to how widely unique our interests have become, I purport that such rendezvous points for disparate cultural tribes –the water cooler included – have only increased in significance when it comes to breaching new social circles and telling new consumers about your hotel brand. With so much noise online vying for your attention, it’s easy to become set in your ways – only browsing the same websites or following a narrow band of personas you find most fascinating. In fact, one of the best ways to cut through the noise is to ignore it by getting consumers to discuss your brand in the flesh.

Start by considering the amount of time people devote to not only talking about aspects of their lives in person while at the office, but also how often they check in on their social network accounts (either via the desktop or, if firewalls have been installed, through their smartphones). Yes, the paperwork gets done as well, only it seems everyone has a spare two minutes here and there for a quick distraction.

This means that you have employees interacting with digital content posted to their individualized social network (that is, their specific group of online friends) and possibly forwarding said content onto those seated nearby or relaying it to colleagues assembled at the water cooler. In this sense, the ‘water cooler’ is used proverbially to denote any office stomping ground, whether it be the reception desk, a middle manager’s office, the elevator lobby or the kitchen. All are potent water coolers for the demographically fragmented masses of today to share their thoughts and opinions. Heck, social media could be called the internet’s water cooler.

As an appendix, consider the acronym NSFW. It stands for ‘not safe for work’, denoting content or media containing racy subject matter or imagery – something you wouldn’t want your boss catching you looking at. Just think about that for a moment. Most content out there is undoubtedly not NSFW, but the familiarity of this contraction illustrates the voluminous nature of viewing and sharing that transpires while at the cubicle or in the break room. No statistics required to corroborate workplace social media consumption, only clever acronyms.

Comprehensive Content Marketing

Now that I’ve inculcated you with reasons for why the office watering hole should be on your radar, you need to take a step back and ask: who really cares? While word of mouse gets at the root of all things Big Data, face-to-face word of mouth is as close to immeasurable as you can get. People will talk, conversations will happen; the key is to get them talking about you.

So, how does one do that? Simple: quality content.

Start by giving people a reason to waste their friends’, families’ and coworkers’ time. You have to remember that reputations are at stake. An individual is less likely to share boring content because this action won’t improve the livelihoods of his or her acquaintances, and at the same time it might be perceived as disruptive. You must be creative; you must be fun. A substantial part of content marketing – which is not easy in the slightest by the way – involves compelling people to share, whether that be by word of mouse or as a water cooler clutch to liven up the otherwise idle chat.

Grasping what makes for effective content marketing also means heeding the visual revolution – Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and Vine. Words don’t sell nearly as fast as images or videos after all. When you decide to share content or media with your fans (in the hope of converting them into purchasing customers no doubt), you must factor in how visually stimulating it is. These new outlets are spearheaded by the millennials and their smartphones, so if you want to appease the next generation of travelers, picture-sharing and video-sharing are the only games in town. However, coasting along at roughly 30% of the market are the baby boomers who are still lagging on the tech front and more prone to face-to-face suggestion.

Strategic Thinking

Not everyone, however, is going to have the gumption or the budget to create the next Van Damme Epic Splits campaign for their hotel firm, so you can’t bank solely on the content that is actually shared millions upon millions of times. You have to find a middle ground. And in this space, there’s lots of latitude for success.

For starters, think about candid photography taken around a property. Yes, it has to be at least somewhat catchy, but that’s only part of the equation. Why not watermark those images with your branded hotel logo then release them in and around times when office workers would be most likely to check in on their social networks? This temporal strategy might work because that way, your luscious picture (in addition to your logo) is at the top of the newsfeed. In this sense, even if your release isn’t an adorable Coca Cola polar bear commercial, it’s still hitting people right at the times when they are most likely to view it and talk about it around the water cooler.

On the flip side, it’s a given that the clear majority of people won’t be making reservations from their work terminal. That sort of activity happens at home. Ergo, direct promotional offers, which don’t rank high on the shareable quotient, would best be left for the early evening when prospective travelers are most likely to be ‘in the mood’. Understanding the water cooler effect means knowing what marketing vector best applies to each situation or environment.

Lastly, retargeting and geo-targeting play a heavy role in spurring consumers towards action. Nowadays, people are so inundated with content and advertisements that in order to cut through the noise and get their attention (let alone convince them to make a purchase), your actions must be, or at least appear to be, personally engineered to each user. This is accomplished by leveraging such accessible data points like current location, age, family situation, past visits, frequency of visits, types of visits, seasonal mindsets and loyalty program involvement.

The Intangibility of Word of Mouth

Unless you have some form of cosmic Big Brother technology at your disposal, you aren’t going to be able to gauge real time conversations that occur over the phone or in person. Additionally, you won’t be able to peer inside consumers’ minds and discern the impact an advertisement had to sway them towards a purchase. These sorts of things are ostensibly incalculable and trying to be a statistician for this will drive you crazy.

Hence, the first step is to accept the intangibility of these non-electronic forms of communications. Trust that it’s going on, that it won’t ever stop as long as humans meet in person and that it will follow certain patterns for which you can approximate. As well, know that word-of-mouth recommendations are a much more powerful form of persuasion than their digital counterparts because they are more emotionally involving.

Given the vast use of the online space for content sharing and recommendations, social media metrics can be extrapolated to presuppose what’s happening in person. For example, if a person shares a link to an exciting new video at 11AM on a Tuesday, it’s likely happening from work. Unless this individual is a total recluse, there’s a good chance he or she will mention this video in conversations soon afterwards. On the contrary, post a video at 8PM on a Thursday and it will be long forgotten by the time people have had a chance to absorb it over the weekend and reassemble at the water cooler on Monday morning.

Putting It All Together

The water cooler effect is hard to measure, but it’s there and it will help your business if you comprehend its idiosyncrasies. The key is to start with quality digital content then ask yourself, “Would I want to mention this to colleagues if we’re talking around the water cooler?” Social media is indeed highly influential on consumer purchases, but it isn’t the only connective glue or system or recommendations we must listen to. If you develop strategies to effectively get consumers’ attention while they are at work, it will work in your favor towards breaching new social circles and gaining awareness from people who might otherwise never come to know about your brand.

(Published by Larry Mogelonsky in Hotel Executive February 10, 2014)

Larry MogelonskyThe Water Cooler Effect