Go online and have a look at what products people are chattering about. The results won’t surprise you. New gadgets, trendy apparel, delicious cupcakes: These are the sort of attention-grabbing products that spur people to post on Facebook or comment (positively) on review sites.

So, does that mean if you sell toothpaste, lawn chairs, auto parts, or something else that’s decidedly unsexy, you’re out of luck when it comes to word-of-mouth advertising?

Common sense may suggest yes, but apparently, new, in-depth research from a pair of Wharton marketing professors says no. The multiphased study delved into an anomaly noticed in earlier studies of what gets people chatting--discussion topics seem to be quite different online and off.

What Marketers (and Online Daters) Know

First, to determine if this effect was in fact true, the researchers conducted a series of lab experiments in which they asked study subjects to talk about products both face to face and through text messaging. Online communication did indeed focus on the new and shiny, they confirmed, while face to face we are more likely to mention products nearly everyone would classify as boring.

So why do we apparently get less interesting in person (a question asked not only by marketers but also frequently by online daters)? The answer, as revealed by further experiments, is probably the same in both cases. The slower nature of online communication means we have more time to rack our brains for interesting topics and consciously think about and manage our level of coolness. Put people on the spot in person and their well-cultivated exterior cracks under the time pressure, leaving them with nothing to discuss but what’s top of mind, however interesting--or not--that might be.

Putting the Research to Work

The insight that we all talk about more boring things in person than online is interesting, but what good is it to you as a business owner? For less-sexy products, the key isn’t to be new or noteworthy, the research suggests, so skip that video of the gorilla playing the drums, and instead try to associate your products with everyday situations to have it top of mind and easily accessible when people are stressing about what to talk about next.

Study co-author Jonah Berger offers the example of a recent campaign for Kit Kat candy bars: "Think about a coffee break; think about Kit Kat. Kit Kat and coffee, coffee and Kit Kat. Did that make Kit Kat seem really exciting?

"No. Is it going to make people talk about it a lot online because it’s interesting? Not really. But that campaign got huge word of mouth offline, because it triggered people to think about Kit Kat every time they were having coffee."

The message from the researchers is simple: Don’t abandon all hope of word of mouth if your product lacks excitement. Just tweak your approach to getting folks to talk about it. "Some of the brands I work with say things like, ‘We could never do word of mouth, because there’s nothing exciting about us,’" Berger commented. "But people talk about the weather all the time.

"They talk about what they had for lunch. It’s not that these are the most exciting things in the world; it’s that they’re top of mind and people are thinking about them. So that’s a great way to get people to share as well, particularly offline."