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« Interesting post from Tom Peters | Main | Word of Mouth isn't everything in marketing »

September 17, 2005


Steve Hershberger

Recently, Mathew Creamer, a writer at AD AGE, wrote an article titled, 'Is Buzz Marketing Illegal?' Wow, want to fan the flames? As you read this a number of WOM providers are preparing a response to the title and the body of content associated with the article.
To be honest, I like advertising as a medium. Sometimes as great commerce, sometimes as great art. On occasion, a balance of both. A few (only a few) ad guys I like and respect. Some I know (Mark Pearson), others I don't (Donny Deutsch). Both, because they are who they are. Period. They infuse their passion, direction and genius into what they deliver. They aren't afraid of mistakes nor do they shun from risk or innovation. Bravo guys.
Back to WOM. Recently, at a WOM conference, I had conversation with a fellow marketer in which I painted a picture of a Senator calling for hearings into the need to regulate our industry due to the need to protect the consumer from…well, you get the picture. Truth is, both myself and the other marketer see this as a reality given Washington’s shameless need for grandstanding and the belief that paid WOM marketers are hiding in the crowd, posing as you and me, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting citizens and empty their wallet and brainwash them.
In the world of WOM, we can (and should) take lessons from the early days in technology. I speak from experience, as I directly participated in this world, running a tech firm and participating in the hype that spread from Northern Highway 101 (Palo Alto/Burlingame/The Valley) to Silicon Alley (New York) and all ends in between. Spam is tech's red-headed step-child. We didn't set rules or pay attention to what could happen if things got worse, and they did. We didn’t pay attention to the communication vehicles, only the apps. Shame on us and lesson learned.
Tech's got spam. The ad world has advertorials and direct mail. WOM has shilling. So what's shilling? Read the AD AGE article. Paid or incentivized endorsement done undercover. There is a BIG grey area here in terms of what is paid or incentivized endorsement. Points? Rewards? Cash? Also, how ‘under-cover’?
To better understand the impact of this, you have to know that Word of Mouth is really broken into two distinct categories-Buzz and Advocacy. Buzz can follow Advocacy, but visa-versa is tough. Advocates move the needle-long term. It generates marketshare and profit. Advocates are sustainable; they deliver results, consume more, communicate more, recommend more, and are more passionate, knowledgeable and loyal. They don't like to be 'overtly' paid. They won't endorse hot dogs one week and cell-phones the next. Buzz is quick and a little thin on meaningful content…or trust. That is unless, it has some degree of advocacy intermixed or on the back-end.
As much as I want to say that the AD AGE article is full of hot air and an advertising industry conspiracy to discredit WOM marketers, I can't. Why? In large part, the article is valid.
With that said, from my vantage point, few ad agencies I am aware of are capable of matching the focus, efforts and results of WOM-centric firms such as ComBlu, Intelliseek, GfK (and a dozen or so others), etc. We are specialists, not generalists. We don't create brands, we make them better. The one exception to this is Organic. They are great. They get it.
What we (WOM specialists) do is based on discipline, measurement and lots and lots of expertise in very specific areas center around research, psychology, sociology, public relations and to some degree, database marketing.
So in conclusion, remember that WOM can be a double-edged sword. There is NO magic bullet. Be careful. Don't take anything for granted and if you are paying a spokesperson, call it what it is, no matter if it is on TV or grass-roots. It's only a matter of degree. We need to learn from history. Spam and the excess of advertising have taught smart marketers a lot. We need to heed and adhere to these lessons if we are to be more effective and also respected.

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