Does “Word Of Mouth Marketing” Poison The Well?

So, back in December, the Concord Monitor (Concord, NH) unwittingly broke one of its own ethical guidelines, by publishing two reviews submitted by a BzzAgent.

From the Monitor (8Dec2004), in an article entitled “Feeling The Buzz…New Marketing Tool Is Testing Ethical Limits Of Advertising“:

“Deep in an article in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, we learned that the Monitor, and perhaps you, had unwittingly been buzzed by Jason Desjardins of Bradford, one of the company’s [BzzAgent] most successful buzz agents.

Desjardins wrote two brief reviews of books he received from BzzAgent. He submitted them in response to the Monitor’s standing invitation to readers to send us brief comments about books they had read. We published them.

By telephone yesterday, Desjardins said the reviews of [ed. – let’s call them “book one” and “book two”…no sense in rewarding this behavior] reflected his honest opinion and he had no intent to deceive us or our readers. He did not realize that reputable newspapers would not knowingly publish anything that was part of an advertising campaign without saying so.” (emphasis added)

Therein lies the rub.

Something new that inspires interest, spread by word-of-mouth from friend-to-friend => great.
Something new that is spread by word-of-mouth from friend-to-friend as part of a compensated, premeditated strategy => potential ethical dilemma for every party involved.

What are newspapers, broadcast media, bloggers to do? Does every comment that comes in need to be vetted for ulterior motives? Do newspapers, broadcast media, bloggers stop taking unsolicited input altogether? (unlikely) Does every piece of communication need to have a caveat?

No easy answers here.

Offtopic Shiny Thing: “Therein,” as typed in the paragraph above, is only one letter away from “theremin,” the coolest musical instrument, ever.

Who Talks Like This?

Just finished listening to Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba’s podcast, wrapping up last week’s WOMMA (Word Of Mouth Marketing Association) meeting from Chicago. Featured on the show was Dave Balter, CEO of BzzAgent.

The whole BzzAgent thing. I still just don’t get it.

Here’s a transcript of Balter’s spiel from the ‘cast.

“From a basic description, Light Loyals are really everyday people. In the case of this campaign, the Light Loyals were the individuals who experienced the brand but didn’t meet any of the sort of the criteria that was predefined as making someone really exceptional at creating word-of-mouth. They weren’t an expert, they weren’t an opinion leader, they didn’t write reviews on websites or restaurant sites, they didn’t write for Zagat’s, and they also weren’t the people who we would call the Heavy Loyals who were going once a day, once a week…often enough that most of us would say “that’s a lot of times to go to a restaurant.” These were people who would go to the restaurant once every two months, maybe once every six months.

These are people the way that we measured, and we had loyalty card data. These are people who had a card, and we could know exactly how often they were going, how much they spent every time. So, in the case of what we’ve defined now as Light Loyals, are people who might trickle to the bottom of that segmentation database of how are people acting as they are purchasing, but, on the other side, they’re really valuable at being able to create word of mouth that has an effect. And that’s because, of a few things. One is they haven’t influenced the network around them. We found many Light Loyals have this sort of “a-ha moment” when they say “oh, yeah…wait minute, I do like that restaurant. Wait a second, we have that Friday thing at work where everybody recommends a restaurant, and I’m recommending this Friday. Yeah, that’d be great, I should tell everybody!” And so, it was this consciousness of the opinion that sort of turned them on, and then they hadn’t influenced around them yet and so they could be really effective.”


Dear Dave,

We’re not segments. We’re people. We don’t want to “influence around us.” We want to have meaningful relationships with cool, smart, funny people with whom we like to laugh and drink and tell stories.

We don’t “experience the brand.” Branding is for cows, purple or otherwise.

We don’t wait for “recommend a restaurant day” or “Hawaiian shirt day” or any other kind of contrived office holiday that has been anally extracted by a clueless organization in hopes of creating a distraction from the mind-numbing sameness and bullshit that has been created around us.

“Trickle to the bottom of the segmentation database?” Seriously? Who talks like that?


(added: Looks like Jason Calacanis had some similar thoughts today as well.)