By Jennifer Noxon

Because Web 2.0 communications tools such as blogs and social networks are making conversations between friends, colleagues, consumers and companies easier than ever before, a competitive company no longer asks if it should participate in the conversations but rather how it can make the most of these tools in its marketing strategy to become an influencer among online consumers.

The combination of accessible Web 2.0 tools and a general mistrust in traditional ‘show and be sold’ advertising is fanning the average consumer’s ‘seek and find out’ flame. According to a report on word-of-mouth marketing by Deborah Aho Williamson, Senior Analyst at eMarketer “64 million US adults regularly share advice on products or services, and over 25 million of them wield their influence online.”

Word of mouth has been around since we were cave dwellers, but nowadays, its potential as a marketing tool is being re-defined. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) believes WOM is “a pre-existing phenomenon that marketers are only now learning to harness, amplify, and improve. Word of mouth marketing isn't about creating word of mouth – it's learning how to make it work within a marketing objective.”

In other words, WOM is not about controlling what people say, it’s about planting strategic seeds and watching the conversations grow. In Karen Tumulty’s recent Time article, a Hillary Clinton strategist attributes Barack Obama’s extremely successful fundraising campaign to WOM saying, “He’s got a much more viral campaign than we do. He’s got a real buzz about him.” How did he do it? Tumulty writes, “No campaign has been more aggressive in tapping into social networks and leveraging the financial power of hundreds of thousands of small donors.”

Another great example of WOM is Apple’s iPhone campaign. Of course there were traditional advertising components of this campaign and Apple’s approach was definitely calculated, but from the moment the iPhone release date was announced in January, the buzz has been constant – the anticipation palpable. A Technorati search reports 259,628 blog posts. Jonathan Winter, sub editor at Palm Addicts, the world’s largest Palm blog, has some thoughtful musings about this “well-planned campaign”.

So, just how are companies doing in adopting Web 2.0 tools that will help them put WOM marketing strategies to work? Results of a survey by research company Melcrum show that 52% of executives anticipate their social-media budgets will increase over the next 12 months. And while more than half are seeing benefits from using Web 2.0 communications tools internally, they are still working out the kinks in areas such as security and policies related to social media:

• 63% of executives use or plan to use online video, 43% podcasts, 51% RSS, and 41% social networks

• 71% of respondents say "improved employee engagement" is the top benefit of social media for their organization, while 59% name "improved internal collaboration" and 47% "creating a two-way dialogue with senior executives”

We are just starting to see how influential word of mouth can be in the era of Web 2.0. With an ethical, honest and strategic approach, Web 2.0 communications tools will allow you to tap the potential of the oldest and most powerful form of communication. Light the flame and let the conversations begin!

(Jennifer Noxon is a Conversation Architect with market2world communications inc., Canada's Web 2.0 tech product launch and public relations agency.)