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Wind-up or pitch?, continued

So, like any smart fledgling entrepreneur, he decided to test-run his idea — for free. In 2002, he approached the Penguin publishing company, which, somewhat skeptically, enlisted BzzAgent to market a book by first-time author Adam Davies, called The Frog King. Balter and his right-hand man Jon O’Toole — "the only guy who would agree to join the company ... but only after he asked if I was sure it was legal," Balter writes in Grapevine — drew up a list of memorable passages to cite and suggestions for sorts of people to chat up, and sent them to a small pool of BzzAgents. Before long, they started reporting back with success stories. And soon, the book started selling. The campaign worked so well that Portfolio, a division of Penguin, is now publishing Grapevine. And, of course, BzzAgent has launched a BzzCampaign to promote it.

Flash forward three years. BzzAgent has since launched roughly 200 campaigns for about 160 clients, everyone from Kellogg to Sun Microsystems to Castrol/BP. Each campaign lasts 12 weeks and involves a network of at least 1000 agents who will perform five or six activities over a 12-week program — anything from casual conversation to dropping off of a suggestion card to mentioning a product on an Internet message board. (Balter says that 80 percent of buzzing happens offline.)

Clients pay $95,000 for those thousand BzzAgents, and $36,000 for every thousand thereafter. (Balter says BzzAgents’ rates will increase in January.) The number of BzzAgents in regional campaigns — for Boston Museum of Science, say, or Garelick Farms — varies. National campaigns usually involve around 8000 agents.

There are 34 BzzCampaigns ongoing at the moment, implemented by more than 115,000 BzzAgents who sign up online at BzzAgent.com (and 2000 more sign up each day). They fill out a profile — name, age, location, interests, how much they travel, how much they read — and are assigned campaigns based on demographics and behavior patterns.

So far, it’s worked. "I can’t talk figures, but I can tell you that this year we’ve grown from 20 employees to about 50," Balter says. (A Boston Business Journal article, published a year ago, reported a projected $3.3 million in revenue by the end of 2004). "We’re growing by about 250 percent over last year. We never expected this. I expected this to be a little family business, just sort of a fun time. But this has succeeded beyond our wildest expectations."


Reacting to a New York Times Magazine article about word-of-mouth marketing in which BzzAgent was profiled, Talking Heads singer David Byrne wrote on his blog that, "It’s a Philip K. Dick world. There are tens of thousands of these ‘agents’ out there. Ordinary people, not necessarily trendsetters or celebrities, who are living breathing advertisements.... [I]n this world, which is our world, no one is to be trusted. No one’s word, on this stuff at least, is to be taken at face value."

This past April, Creative Commons, the nonprofit licensing organization, announced it had entered a partnership with BzzAgent to spread the word about its innovative and elastic copyrights. (BzzAgent took on the campaign pro bono, as one of the three "GoodBzz" campaigns it undertakes every year for groups like the March of Dimes and Global Health.) Almost immediately, the blogosphere was in high dudgeon, with many CC partisans calling it a "betrayal" of the group’s grassroots aims, and casting BzzAgent as "evil" and "creepy." Barely a week later, the groups parted ways.

Balter was disappointed. Not just because he believes in Creative Commons, but because it was an object lesson in the strong feelings BzzAgent evokes — and what he says is its persistent mischaracterization. "People too easily assume that word-of-mouth marketing only works through deception," he writes. "They don’t see that, when there is full transparency and the system is based on the honest sharing of genuine opinions, word-of-mouth can be harnessed without it becoming a nightmare world of paranoid fantasies and secret agents lurking inside your brain."

Buzz marketing happens all the time. You do it too. Balter cites a study that found that 14 to 27 percent of conversations include a reference to products or services. "Word of mouth happens. Whether marketers want it or not," says Idea Virus author Seth Godin, whose book inspired Balter to start the company. "Citizens like to talk about stuff. Always have."

But word-of-mouth marketing has to be transparent, Balter says. The BzzAgent Code of Conduct insists that its agents always be truthful and up-front about their affiliation with the group. That they "deliver authentic Bzz ... naturally, in an unforced way." And that if a product sucks, they should say it sucks.

"That is the way this has to work," says Balter. "This isn’t about selling your friends, or deceiving them.... It’s about having an opinion and sharing it."

In the beginning, however, BzzAgent did tell people to keep their connection with the company secret. "But," claims Balter, "they started saying to us, ‘I had to tell ’em. It was great. Y’know, he’s my brother, and he thought it was so cool!’ " It wasn’t long before the numbers crunchers found that openness wasn’t just ethical, it made economic sense. Agents who were transparent had more success.


You’re wondering. Who are these people? These BzzAgents with numbers and code names? And why do they do it?

They include everyone from students to homemakers to senior-level executives, says Balter. Some of them say Bzzing helps them be more social. Others like knowing their opinion is valued, or crave the affirmation and sense of purpose they get from being listened to by a big company. But most seem to just like being insiders, getting products before everyone else, and trying cool stuff for free.

Derek Archambault, 29, lives in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. He was one of the first BzzAgents, and has worked on 35 campaigns in the metro Boston area. For him, "it appealed to something I did anyway, which is talk about stuff that I like."

"I keep it pretty natural," he says of how he slips the products into conversation. "I don’t force it. It’s not like I get up in the morning and say, ‘I’m gonna go buzz Bare Knuckle Stout today for 15 minutes to five people. I don’t go looking for opportunities, it’s just when they present themselves." A corollary to that casual approach however is that he doesn’t always mention his BzzAgent affiliation.

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Issue Date: November 11 - 17, 2005
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