Tuesday, November 01, 2005

More buzz about buzz

Yesterday's column about Tremor, Procter & Gamble's secretive word-of-mouth marketing venture that has enlisted a quarter-million influential teens as a volunteer force of "buzz" marketers, drew this response from Maryann Devine, director of marketing and public relations at Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts:

Dear Jeff:

Have you seen the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s Code of Ethics, which puts transparency among its chief points? My own opinion is that word-of-mouth marketing, whether between teens or adults, only works if the buzz is honest and the product is fantastic. Anyone who deceptively promotes an item to their friends and acquaintances will soon lose credibility - and therefore lose value to the company who recruited him in the first place. Although I'm sure the stats are different for teens (for whom instant messaging and text messaging are extremely important), WOMMA's research says that 80% of word of mouth happens face-to-face, not via the Internet as many assume. By the way, I’m not a member of WOMMA.

In fact, I was curious about how word-of-mouth marketing firms work, so I signed up a year or so ago to participate in a couple of Bzzagent’s campaigns. Sure, I got a free book out of the deal, but it was so awful that I would never recommend it to my colleagues. No one tried to coerce me into talking positively about what I felt was a poor offering. (It was Return on Customer, by the way.) Bzzagent is upfront about only talking up what you love, and not hiding your part in the campaign.

On the other hand, my husband and his friends carefully planned their attendance of the movie Serenity for opening weekend – not because they had to be among the first to see it, but because they’re keenly aware of how opening weekend box office revenue affects a sequel’s prospects, and they’re all serious fans of the canceled series, Firefly, that spawned the movie.
They also planned to see it again in that first week, for the same reasons. I understand there was a word-of-mouth campaign for Serenity, but my husband didn’t know about it till after the fact, when I mentioned it to him. He and his friends do that on their own, for films they care about. I’ll bet if Tremor or Bzzagent had given them some other ideas, they’d have been happy to put them into action.

The point is, people are doing this anyway, and they’re savvier about the effects of their actions and influence than you might guess. This is not to say that deceptive marketers don't exist, but people will always buzz about great stuff. And buzz that is suspect is worthless to everyone, including Tremor.



My (slightly edited) reply:

Dear Maryann -

Thanks for the thoughtful note. My 14-year-old makes much the same point, albeit with a lot less sophistication, about buzz only working if the products are worth praising.

Yes, I've seen the WOMMA code of ethics, and interviewed a couple of the association's top officials. I'm still skeptical, though, in part because Tremor is not a WOMMA member, and the worst "stealth" marketing may come from nonmembers. But beyond that, I'm skeptical because I can't escape the idea that this involves more man-behind-the-curtain manipulation than most of us expect from traditional marketing.

PR people are always hoping to influence "word of mouth" or "viral" spreading of positive opinion about their clients or their products. At some level, that's your main goal, isn't it? Sure, you want mass or niche media to cover what you do, but ultimately, you must want positive opinion to spread as far as people can carry it.

The question is what levers you're able and willing to pull. Some word-of-mouth techniques are hard to criticize -- Andy Sernovitz of WOMMA told me about campaigns such as Krispy Kreme's selling donuts at a discount to nonprofits, to spread positive feelings about the company, and a software company's decision to sponsor user groups so that customers could share feedback (and even criticism) of its products, and feel good about the company's willingness to promote such useful discussion.

My concern is with the campaigns that aren't so obvious and visible. Your story about "Serenity" suggests a plausible example. I've got no problem with savvy fans taking it upon themselves to see the film quickly and repeatedly because they want it to succeed and encourage a sequel. I've got no problem with their trying to spread the word to other fans via e-mail or on the Web - probably the only real way individuals could have a chance at much impact with films that open on thousands of screens around the country.

But I don't like the idea that marketers, watching that organic behavior, might then be scheming about how to manipulate it - say, by systematically identifying a quarter-million "connector" filmgoers and sending them all sneak-preview or first-weekend passes. A decent film marketed that way might surpass much better films in those crucial early measures. Come to think of it, the studios are probably doing that right now. Maybe that's why so much shlock is so successful - as well as why we'll never know.

But I agree that this isn't a black-and-white issue. Thanks for sharing an insider's perspective.




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