The Hidden (in Plain Sight) Persuaders debate

Not sure whether any of you saw Rob Walker's article on Word of Mouth Marketing in the New York Times the other day:
'The Hidden (in Plain Sight) Persuaders'

Well, there's been a follow-up discussion on the NYT forum and there's been a bit of backlash with regard to the use of influencers/agents/evangelists to spread product/service recommendations. Doesn't look like BzzAgents are coming out very well from it: Word of mouthmarketing needs clear definitions

So it was funny to see Jim Hanas of Adcritic basically accuse every blogger who wrote about the article to be Bzzagents.

"At one store, Gabrielle asked a manager why there was no Al Frewsco sausage available...Gabriella asked me not to use her last name. The Al Fresco campaign is over--having notably boosted sales, by 100 percent in some stores--but she is still spreading word of mouth about a variety of other products, and revealing her identity, she said, would undermine her effectiveness as an agent."

This is interesting because Dave Balter from Bzzagents was 100 per cent behind total transparency at Ad:Tech:

BzzAgent’s Balter pleaded expressly to marketers in the room to be transparent in their viral efforts or the medium would be killed.

In fact, BzzAgents ended up changing the way they recommend that their BzzAgents spread the word after the Ad:Tech forum, which I was on too, because their recommendation "Be Discreet" with their 'Bzz' made some people feel like they were asking their BzzAgents to be deceitful: Be Anonymous, Be Discreet, Be OPEN!

BzzAgents are now recommending that their Bzzagents be open but as the NYT article shows they actually have no control over how the Bzzagents actually spread the word. So it is all very well to be championing total transparency but it it's a pretty meaningless stance if you can't control that transparency:

"Finally, while BzzAgent tells its volunteers that they are under no obligation to hide their association with the company and its campaigns, the reality is that most of them do hide it most of the time. They don't tell the people they are ''bzzing,'' that they really found out about the sausage, or the perfume, or the shoes, or the book, from some company in Boston that charges six-figure fees to corporations. ''It just seems more natural, when I talk about something, if people
don't think I'm trying to push a product,'' Karen Bollaert explained to me. Other agents said the same. Gabriella, for instance, insisted that she really does think Al Fresco makes the best sausage around. Basically, they trust BzzAgent, and they trust themselves, so they don't see a problem."

I guess it's a question of whether you think it's OK to say that after having made recommendations to your Bzzagents transparently it is out of your hands as to whether they are transparent or not. However, if you are going to call for total transparency then you should have to ensure that you can enforce it otherwise it can be seen as being disingenuous.

This issue of transparency is being hotly debated by the Word Of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) of which BzzAgents are a member.

Hopefully, they will be discussing the issue of transparency in terms of degrees rather than in terms of all or nothing because there are very diverse set of approaches in the viral, buzz and word of mouth marketing arena, as mentioned in my recent interview here on Adland:

"Arguably the approaches are as diverse as those used in advertising, PR and CRM, so it's impossible to apply one set of standards that apply to all ... although this isn't stopping some from trying."

I guess I would be happier about their code of conduct if I knew who their members were at least that way everyone could see who's opinion was being reflected by their code of conduct. Perhaps more importantly, they need to make sure that the members of ethics committee are made public to show that practitioners are being
properly represented.

I also think it would be better if they actually went out canvassed opinion from practitioners in this field rather then expect practitioners to make their opinions clear to the WOMMA ethics committee. This isn't a very inclusive approach.

For example, the Viral & buzz Marketing Association ( VBMA) has over 50 members now from all over the globe including around 20 from North America.
Certainly their opinions should be canvassed before WOMMA issue any code of conduct in this field.

My other concern is the terms of reference WOMMA are using. There is a big difference between spreading crafted advertising messages through consumer networks - either through media, ambient or online (i.e. buzz/viral) and the accelerating, amplifying and measuring natural word of mouth recommendations (i.e. Word of Mouth).

Sadly, their 'webinars' on this issue don't seem to be accessible from here in the UK, so I have no idea about what their code of conduct actually refers to in terms of practice.

It will also be very interesting to see whether they also raise the issue of marketing WITH teens/minors as opposed to marketing TO teens/minors in their code of conduct. This is a very hot issue at the moment and deserves equal if not more attention than the issue relating to transparency.

If WOMMA ignore the teen/minors issue in favour of the transparency issue then it will look like they are using transparency as a smokesecreen because obviously Procter & Gamble and BzzAgents to a lesser extent both carry out marketing WITH Teens.

I guess my point being that this issue is obviously important but should not be rushed and any code of conduct issued in this space should have had due process with regard to the consultation of practitioners in this field whether they be members of WOMMA or not.

As mentioned in the Adland interview, the funny thing is that the viral advertising work my company DMC helps plan seed and track is really branded advertainment, so transparency is not so much of an issue at our end of the buzz, viral. Word or mouth marketing spectrum. However, I think there is real danger that any Code of Conduct focusing on the issue of transparency will throw away the buzzbaby with the bathwater if not carefully considered.

Maybe it's because I'm based in Europe but I'm also a little sensitive about what seems to be a knee jerk reaction and one that is emanating out of North America ... know what I mean!