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Alf's Articles

Keep Up With the Buzz On Buzz Marketing

by Alf Nucifora

This is a difficult time for marketers. Marketing communications, in most forms, particularly advertising, is both expensive and playing to marketplace increasingly weighted down with clutter. There are too many messages being broadcast too often, with diminishing impact on the consumer. This situation grows even more acute in the case of the Gen X and Y segments. While these groups are still highly susceptible to brand influence, they show signs of being more cynical in their response to the marketing message and are eager to acquire brand news and information from less traditional sources.

Enter Buzz Marketing

It's a combination of a number of influences including good old word-of-mouth (WOM), viral marketing, and the current fixation on early trend setting and spotting. Buzz marketing works because it is both interruptive and yet subversive. It's marketing's Trojan horse and its growing acceptance is evidenced by the fact that some of the world's most authoritative marketers have now entered the field. As online marketing newsletter ICONOCAST notes, "To get clients to spend on fringe ideas, agencies are creating buzz marketing units. An example is MindShare's WOW Factory, which is characterized as a group of people dedicated to surprise."

Buzz marketing, and its earlier incarnation, word-of-mouth have been around for some time. Record companies and fashion-related brands are notorious for some of their stunts. In the case of the liquor industry, it was not uncommon to have paid agents provocateur visit trendy bars, order the brand of choice (normally an unknown foreign import from the white spirits family) and strike up conversations with both barkeeps and customers in order to establish cool buzz for the brand. And in many cases it worked. Formerly unknown brands acquired hip acceptance and generated volume growth without the necessity of an outrageously expensive advertising or marketing budget.

Even today the process continues. Abercrombie & Fitch, the national chain that primarily retails to the college crowd, creates and lives by what Potentials Magazine terms, fake controversies "in which the company creates a storm of controversy around the brand name, apologizes (or not) for any offense then sits back and watches as curious shoppers react." Recently, A&F promoted t-shirts with a risky racial slant (example: Two oriental men accompanied by the slogan "Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wong's Can Make It White"). The offense prompted protests, complaining phone calls and e-mails forcing the t-shirt line to be pulled. This was followed by a corporate apology. But was the whole affair deliberate? The company isn't saying. You be the judge.

Then there's the case of Sony Ericcson and its introductory campaign for the T68i cell phone. As Potentials Magazine notes, the company has hired "120 actors and actresses to play tourists at popular attractions around the country such as New York's Empire State Building. These paid performers ask passersby to take their picture with the company's new T68i cell phone that offers an add-on digital camera. And what the unknowing consumer gets is a marketing message not from a corporate pitchman, but from a much more powerful endorser: a cool, attractive, enthusiastic stranger." And so the viral marketing process begins.

Finally, let's not forget the most recent example of "Yours is a very bad hotel," a PowerPoint presentation developed by two disgruntled travelers that was initially forwarded to five friends but since then has been passed around virally on the Internet to an estimated audience in excess of a million. The presentation, which hit a nerve with the downtrodden, traveling public, has been the subject of articles in a number of national magazines and newspapers, has generated its own discussion Web cast and is now taught as a case study in business schools. It proves the point that when buzz touches a topic or product of compelling interest it can be an extremely effective way to spread the news without incurring much expense.

The Latest Iteration

As was to be expected, professional marketers were bound to co-opt buzz marketing and attempt to professionalize it as well as make money from it. An interesting new play in the field is BzzAgent (www.BzzAgent.com), a collection of consumers who get an insider's preview of new products. If they like what they see, they get points when they report back on how they helped spread the word about the product. The points they accumulate over time earn rewards but most BzzAgents do it for the fun. The company's proprietary software keeps track of all activity and results thereby satisfying the marketer's most compelling need: metrics and accountability.

According to BzzAgent President Dave Balter, the company provides a sophisticated program for acquiring exponential WOM. BzzAgent is always looking for "connectors" to add to the family network and is currently growing that list by 100 new BzzAgents a day. Says Balter, "We let the community build itself." Not surprisingly, the bulk of BzzAgent's agents/connectors are under 25 years of age. Surprisingly, 30% are over 35. More impressive is the claim that each agent/connector has an exponential viral impact of 15 to 1. In essence, every agent/connector action inevitably ripples out to influence 15 others. And the process is measurable. Says Balter, "Our responsibility is to harness and measure the activity of WOM advertising."

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