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Wind-up or pitch?
Boston is swarming with thousands of word-of-mouth marketers. You may have already heard their proposals
BY MIKE MILIARD

A guy walks into a bar. Letís call him Joe. He checks out the beer selection, but doesnít see what he wants. So he orders another brand. Taking a sip, Joe tells his date about this new brew heís tried recently, the one he was looking for but wasnít on tap. Itís a premium lager, light but flavorful. Itís domestic, but tastes like an import.

He tells her about the last time he had it ó he was at a trendy club with a crowd who usually drink cocktails. He encouraged them to try it. They all loved it. Problem is, he hasnít seen it anywhere since. He asks the bartender if heís heard of it. He hasnít, but says heíll mention it to his manager. Joe writes the name of the brand on a napkin and gives it to the guy.

The rest of the date goes well. After a good-night kiss, Joe goes home, flips on his computer, and writes up a summary of the night. There are juicy details. Many exclamation points. But heís not writing a diary entry, or a triumphant e-mail to his buddy. Heís filing a report with BzzAgent, a three-year-old Boston company thatís a leader in the burgeoning and controversial business of word-of-mouth marketing. Heís telling them about talking to his date about beer.

The brewery has paid BzzAgent $347,000 to round up Joe and 7999 others like him. To send them literature about their beer, maybe some samples. To outline a few talking points, suggest good times to mention it, and point out the kinds of people with whom he might talk. And Joe talks. To his date, to the bartender, to the guy on his company softball team. To anyone he thinks might want to listen.

Heís not lying. He really likes the beer. And although tonight he was so excited about his date that he forgot to mention his affiliation with BzzAgent, usually heís upfront about it. Itís a cool operation, he says. He gets free samples, gets the inside dope on new products no oneís tried yet. He doesnít just buzz about beer, either. He talks up food, books, jeans, coffeemakers, video games, motor oil. And, if you donít count the "BzzPoints" he accumulates with every report he files and can eventually redeem for prizes like books, CDs, and even airfare, he does it for free.

Joe is fictional. But you may have encountered someone just like him. There are 6000 BzzAgents in Massachusetts, and 4000 in metro Boston alone. By this time next year, there may well be more than twice that number.

BzzAgent insists it encourages openness, transparency, and honesty in all its agents, and it vociferously distances itself from the deceptive practices of other "shill" and "stealth" marketers. But is it creating a merchandising meritocracy, with consumers no longer marketersí targets but active and willing participants? Is it causing the commodification of basic human interaction? While critics wax Orwellian about "seeding programs" and "viral marketing," BzzAgent beams about its "brand evangelists," a "community of communicators" spearheading a "reality marketing revolution!" Which is it?

One watchdog group has asked the Federal Trade Commission to look into the word-of-mouth phenomenon. (The industryís trade group, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, has more than 200 members; some studies have estimated itís a $60 million industry.) In Massachusetts, state representative Michael E. Festa (D-Melrose) has introduced legislation to ensure word-of-mouth marketers canít exploit children. AdAge magazine even ran a story recently titled "Is Buzz Marketing Illegal?"

It is a contentious practice, but one thatís probably not going away. Because, as hundreds of corporations have discovered, it works. "Word-of-mouth is a marketerís dream," writes BzzAgent founder David Balter in his just-published book (co-written with John Butman), Grapevine: The New Art of Word-of-Mouth Marketing. "Itís the most powerful, adaptable, fast-moving communications medium on the planet. Millions of people talking about your product ó what could be more spectacular?"

Depends who you ask.

TO BEE OR NOT TO BEE?

BzzAgentís Central Hive occupies the fourth floor of a building on Summer Street. Itís bright and colorful, newly renovated, with high ceilings and exposed beams. In the center of the office, a few dozen hip, stylish employees pore over spreadsheets glowing on sleek new Macs.

In a spacious conference room, sitting before a bulletin board adorned with a blizzard of brainstorm detritus, 33-year-old Balter is describing how he went from psychology major at Skidmore to where he is now. He used to be in promotions, making gimmicky gizmos for companies to market themselves with, like digital business cards and holographic lollipops. But, he says, "people didnít care."

Around this time, Balter was reading books like The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, and Unleashing the IdeaVirus, by Seth Godin, books that explore how everyday human interaction affects commerce and world events. When a friend recommended economist Paul Omerodís Butterfly Economics, which frames economics not as a predictable mechanism but as a capricious living organism, Balter was hooked. He studied the word-of-mouth algorithms worked out by Pattie Maes, an associate professor in MITís Program in Media Arts and Sciences, and consultations with her validated his theory ó that harnessing the power of human conversation could prove infinitely more effective than traditional, tried-and-tired marketing practices. Others werenít so sure. When Balter first approached potential clients, "There were agencies that almost literally threw us out of the office. ĎWhat are you talking about? Go. Please.í They couldnít imagine that their consumers would ever care enough to do this."

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Issue Date: November 11 - 17, 2005
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