Social media is not king, according to the head honchos of the Keller Fay Group, the groundbreaking marketing and research consultancy devoted not to the Twitterverse but to good old-fashioned word of mouth. In their new book, CEO Ed Keller (The Influentials, 2003) and COO Brad Fay delve deep into the fallacies behind the “Social Media Gold Rush,” and give great thought to the media strategies that really work best for business and not just buzz.

Here, Keller answered a few of our questions about The Face-to-Face Book, which he co-authored with Fay.

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In an age when word on the street is that social media is the wave of the future, whatever possessed you two to write about face-to-face communication?

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It is interesting that you refer to “word on the street.” We agree that’s what matters most, more than online buzz via social media. Our research consistently finds that the vast majority of word-of-mouth conversations continue to take place in the real world, primarily face to face. We feel it’s important for people to know how social influence really takes place and to realize that there are many social pathways that can be taken. In The Face-to-Face Book we try to open people’s eyes to the full range of possibilities rather than looking narrowly at just one channel.

How do you define success when you’re working in the world of word-of-mouth marketing?

We believe that for marketing to be successful in today’s social era, it is no longer enough for marketing to raise awareness about a brand. And paid marketing alone is not likely to be as persuasive as it once was. We believe that the objective of all marketing should be to encourage conversation, and even more, to encourage advocacy. That is the future of marketing—consumers persuading other consumers, either based on their own love of a product or service, which they in turn share with others; or being asked for their advice and recommendations. It is this consumer-to-consumer interaction, based on real-life relationships, that has the credibility to persuade others to take the advice. 

What don’t people “get” about social media and its value?

The biggest misconception relates to its size and its centrality. People are shocked when we tell them that most conversations, and the most productive conversations, take place offline. They assume that social media is ubiquitous and central. We liken it to American Gold Rush of 1848-1853. Social media represents the latest gold rush, with too many businesses and marketers in search of Facebook and Twitter gold dust that they hope will rub off on them, chasing an immense social wave that they don’t fully understand. While the growth of online social networks is impressive, the largest social gold mine is literally right beneath our noses, in the word-of-mouth conversations that happen next to the office water cooler, powered by the intimacy and ubiquity of face-to-face communications.

How can companies strategize to reduce their risk of exposure to social media gone awry?

Negative word of mouth is a worry for many companies as they consider a social strategy. And certainly from time to time there are negatives that get people talking online or offline. But people often overestimate the potential for negative word of mouth. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of the time when people talk about brands they have positive things to say—two-thirds of brand conversations are positive, according to my firm’s research; less than 10 percent of the time are conversations mostly negative. There is a lot more opportunity for brands to benefit from encouraging word-of-mouth advice and recommendations. Negative feedback allows management to act, rather than leaving problems to fester. That’s the best way to deal with negative feedback.

What are the key ingredients to running a word-of-mouth campaign?

They most important ingredient is to realize that word of mouth needs to be built around authentic consumer experiences with a product or service. This suggests that marketing strategies that hope to tap the power of word of mouth should focus on current customers—especially, brand advocates. This represents a big change from many marketing strategies that focus primarily on prospects, meaning nonconsumers.

Another key ingredient is to focus not on social technologies but rather to focus on people and the stories they are likely to tell about your brand. In short, don’t limit word-of-mouth marketing to a single set of practices. All marketing should have as its goal to get people talking and advocating for your brand.

What would a “backlash” against social media look like, and what would you anticipate the effect would be on business?

One form of backlash comes when businesses have “drunk the Kool-Aid” and have unrealistic expectations for what social media can deliver for their brand. Online social media can be part of the mix, but most of the time it shouldn’t be the centerpiece or the primary focus. From a consumer perspective, a backlash might come if services that grew up providing consumer-focused experiences introduce a growing number of advertising opportunities that people feel are overly intrusive. Only time will tell. 

What do you see as the biggest challenge to establishing real relationships in a digital marketplace?

The biggest challenge to establishing real relationships in a digital age lies with businesses that fail to understand that the majority of consumer conversations still take place in the real world and not online. A failure to realize this leads many brands to focus singularly on online social networks when they think about their social strategies, at the expense of the far bigger and more varied set of opportunities that they should be considering and pursuing. They leave the biggest opportunities untapped when they do this.