Buzz Catalyst: Doubt
I'm reading Kerimcan Ozcan's paper titled "Word-of-Mouth as a Dialogic Discourse"(pdf download). I'm not through the whole thing yet, but one idea quickly emerged--on that I've heard also from the research of Walter Carl: that WOM sessions are generally prompted or precipitated by other events.
In Ozcan's paper, though, there's a particular interesting observation: that WOM exchanges relieve some amount of tension on the part of the provider of information. You can most easily see this when the information being passed is bad or the initiator of the exchange feels particularly wronged (see Jarvis v. Dell).
I think we can find an expansion of this idea, if we look back to Pragmatism, an American school of thought and philosophy from the late 1800s, concerned (primarily) with understanding the dynamics by which an idea becomes true. In "How to Make our Ideas Clear", one of the key essays describing Pragmatism, Charles Pierce writes:
"...the action of thought is excited by the irritation of doubt, and ceases when belief is attained; so that the production of belief is the sole function of thought."
It is in this concept--the irritation of doubt--where you can begin to understand WOM exchanges are so powerful and the messages passed so resonant: Regular advertising is simply a message dropped in from nowhere, prompted by little if anything. Standard ads, even if they are markedly clever, does not induce or add to the "production of belief".
When a consumer hears, though, a message about a brand that they had not previously considered, that irritation occurs. There's a good chance that a consumer already has an idea about Dell--perhaps its that skater kid in the commercials, or the story of Michael Dell starting the company in his dorm room. When the overwhelming force of the Jarvis incident comes into view, though, that concept is shifted, changed and added to. If you had a positive image of Dell, that irritation may be more extreme.