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!

AnonymousCoward's picture
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caffeinegoddess's picture

Nice rant Justin. I'm curious- how do you think placed word of mouth will effect honest to goodness word of mouth? Even with transparency I can see it having a negative effect in at least some cases.

Dabitch's picture

Good Q Caff!
I'm one of those people who shows off neat stuff I've bought If I happen to love whatever widget it is - to friends who have similar interests. God forbid the future where happy sharing becomes "spamified speech" and raises peoples suspicion.

Not to derail this thread but I've just spotted this post where Nick Denton calls for an ethical guidelines group to keep weblogs in check, a very timely idea. He suggests that Jason Calacanis (who revealed the FARK paid links) , with Jeff Jarvis should head it up with one other person.
I just hope that the third they suggest is not from the US, it seems rather narrowminded to have only US people try to outline rules for a worldwide problem. But maybe that's just me.

Neo's picture

Remember when people were mad at marketeers for using "the nag factor"? Aiming McD ads at children so that they would nag their parents to go to MickeyDees? Here Justin point outs that WOMMA andbzzagent are using teens to market to teens, like the GIA - which bothers me just as much as when you use friends to market to friends.

So I poked around bzzagent website to read more about what they think. Their response to the NYT forums/article was Much of the ** criticism of BzzAgent ** is actually a misguided criticism of capitalism itself, and smacks of a general condescension to the intelligence, and agency, of consumers.. Having ethics does not go against capitalism you punks.

Fellow adgrunt here that whos opinion I respect is troymcclure, he sums up nicely how I feel about this:

Nonetheless, on some level, I can't help but wonder if such subterfuege - and yes, I know I probably spelled that wrong - doesn't have a corrosive effect. If everything's a hustle, a gimmick, a come-on, people become less trusting and more cynical.

The only thing we kill with these tactics is the real thing I worry - the real word of mouth created by an actual love for the product. Or like Dabitch once said:

Do we really want to make people stop talking to strangers in 2008 because 'it's probably just a spam-pitch' as well? The industry does have a responsibility - to itself. Don't shit where you eat!
AnonymousCoward's picture

Hi CG, DB, Justin

I was of course being facetious when I suggested that all bloggers who linked to the story are secretly BzzAgents -- but, as Justin sussed out, there is a real concern behind it. Is that now my safest assumption? That I'm being duped in all interpersonal communications? Even as someone who is all for innovative marketing, I'm not really looking forward to that world, and I think marketers need to err on the side of transparency, particularly in the pure WOM plays that BzzAgents employs. Why? Unlike on the internet -- where we all have a healthy skepticism and even an appreciation for the well-turned hoax -- the interpersonal space comes with something like an expectation of honesty. I may think someone is trying to get over on me, but I don't (yet) consider social strokes they are receiving from some marketer as a possible motive. This is, of course, why such marketing can be so effective -- people's defenses are entirely down, because they do not believe what they are hearing is commercial speech. But at what cost? To follow up on CG's point, when WOM becomes marketing, what will happen to honest WOM? I think Balter called for transparency at Ad:Tech because he knows that without it, marketers will destroy the very thing they are trying to harness. And, on a personal rather than professional note, they will be creating a culture of suspicion in which the market has at last been fragmented into a collection of solitary souls.

viralmeister's picture

Forgive me for going into rant mode oh godlike one ;-)

I guess the question should really be asked of the likes of BzzAgents because I'm really in the business of branded entertainment, mostly video, that people pass around virally via email.

Obviously any technique can quickly become more clutter, particularly if there's a deluge of poor material, and something similar may happen with word of mouth marketing,

Neo's picture

Damn Jim, you said it much better than me.

viralmeister's picture

and me (Justin)

caffeinegoddess's picture

No forgiveness needed, I quite enjoyed it over my morning cup of coffee. You make a lot of excellent points :)

And you're right that the question should be posed to those wom folk, just was curious what your - and others- perspective was on that.

caffeinegoddess's picture

My head hurts from nodding in agreement as I read that. Even without WOM being on the internet, the internet will serve as a way to find out who is not being transparent. And when it all comes out in the wash- which it *always* eventually does- all it will do is make them look the fool and possibly create a negative backlash which will/could be harder to fix.

Dabitch's picture

Jim said: I think Balter called for transparency at Ad:Tech because he knows that without it, marketers will destroy the very thing they are trying to harness. While that rings perfectly true and thus passes Occam's razor without it even being a close shave, my personal razor is a tad warped. I think they'd rather kick up a storm about this transparancy issue and look like they're doing something good than to answer questions about using kids to market to other kids, which their membersmight be doing - who knows? We don't know who the members are as the WOMMA do not disclose who has joined them. That potato is too hot for them to handle, so they picked another one instead, one that people clearly would be talking about as it is of interest. What I find to be the wierdest thing here in all this is that we are having untransparent debate about transparency.

Then again, I might be mad. Y'all know me, what do you think, is it time for the loonybin, or to become a CEO of a marketing company?

viralmeister's picture

In terms of my take, I wonder how new Word of Mouth Marketing is. I think Dabitch mentioned that Tupperware parties are in the same ballpark and I guess some would argue that so are pyramid schemes. I feel more comfortable in the overtly branded space myself although I know that this isn't eveyone's cup of tea or coffee.

caffeinegoddess's picture

hahaha- now that *is* funny!

A couple weeks ago there was this article over at the Seattle Times about teen recuits for WOM firms.

If teens "find out later that someone recommended a product because they were getting paid, we'd think less not just of the product but the whole company," warned Jake Ferrigno, 18, an advanced marketing student at Lake Washington High School. "And maybe less of the person too. It's not good business ethics. It undermines the relationship between people."

Neo's picture

Now, I never thought of that, your warped razor might be the best shave I've ever gotten.

Those are really good questions why is there no list of members publically available of the WOMMA members?, also, why does it cost a fortune to join? Are the Tremor P&G members? I think so, are the people behind teen buzzmarketeers GIA members? I bet you a pint that they are.

Very good points, I will now always shave with Dabitch razor, it cuts down to the chase of things.

viralmeister's picture

Some great advice from author and consultant Jackie Huba to BzzAgents in response to the NYT article and backlash:

Church of the Customer - Six ideas for BzzAgent

thanx to Dabitch