How Can I Trust Anything I Hear About Seth Godin? Or Anyone Else?

Yes, it’s time for another “I hate BzzAgents” rant.

I just learned that the last two books written by Seth Godin have been marketed by the evil BzzAgent machinery. This is kind of a funny, Catch-22, recursive, ouroborosian sort of situation. Seth, the marketing guy, does all sorts of “creative” things to promote his books, which are about marketing. However, in the process, although they have been marketed to the nines, I will never ever ever read one, because they are being marketed by a bunch of disingenuous folks who shill products to friends (oftentimes surreptitiously) in exchange for loot. According to their site, “…you can earn all sorts of rewards. We’ll grant you BzzPoints for your BzzActivities, which you can redeem for BzzRewards such as music, gift certificates, sports gear, movies and galley proofs of novels!”

Bzzzthp on that. Although the BzzAgent founders and website vehemently declare that their “agents” are on the up-and-up, and that honesty is encouraged, the lure of lucre — or more likely, the lure of a shortcut to some sort of feeling of mass-produced “cool” — is going to be too great.

These people, and this model, break the implied social contracts between individuals, the contracts that say “I’m interacting with you because I value you, and I value spending time with you.” Once the trust and the implicit social contract is broken, one’s antennae need to be up at all times, even moreso than before. Every Amazon review. Every worthwhile mention of a co-worker. Every mention on a website. Every interesting thing being read by a stranger at a coffee shop…are they doing these things in order to explicitly influence?


In some ways, it’s almost cult-like. The BzzAgent drones have defined an opaque vocabulary. (Like any other group trying to create cohesion, this acts as a shibboleth to enable the “agents” to easily identify others of their clan.) They get people to donate time, and a lot of it (5-10 hours per week) for the “privilege” of “belonging.”

Of course, the founders of the group preach “transparency!” and claim that everything is above board. However, the recent NYTimes article (reg. requ’d.) shows otherwise.

“For starters, Desjardins said, BzzAgent ”turned me on to reading.” And having enjoyed ”Purple Cow,” he wanted to do his best to spread the word. The Bzz guide suggested he call a bookstore. For a while, he put it off. He would look at the phone and tell himself, I can do this, and he would try to rehearse what he would say, and this would go on for 15 or 20 minutes. ”I thought: What have I got to lose?” he said. ”I’m never going to see this person.” And finally he called and pretended he did not know the name of Seth Godin’s new book. ”He’ll call anybody now,” Melissa said, smiling.

He printed slogans from ”Purple Cow” (”Be Remarkable or Be Invisible”) onto card stock and hung them where his fellow employees could see them. He posted reviews on Amazon. He started conversations with co-workers, customers, strangers. He submitted a rave review for a fantasy novel he was buzzing called ”Across the Nightingale Floor” to The Concord Monitor, and it was published; there’s a laminated copy of the review on the fridge. He wrote to the governor touting Mail-Block. At the grocery store, when a co-worker moaned about not liking her job, Desjardins practically turned into a motivational speaker, waving his hands and quoting from another book called ”Five Patterns of Extraordinary Careers,” telling her that if she wasn’t happy she needed to take control of the situation. ”She did end up finding another job after that,” he observed. Desjardins is ranked the 45th most effective BzzAgent, out of 60,000 nationwide, and proud of it. He has learned to influence. “

Which leads us back to Godin. According to the article:

“Godin is not just a BzzAgent fan — he’s also a client. ”Purple Cow” was marketed through BzzAgent, and Godin quietly plugs the company at the end of the book. He describes BzzAgent as a company at the center of a conversation between its corporate clients and thousands of agents who serve as a kind of guild of consumers.”

The most nauseating thing, however, is how the company promotes this sort of “pimp your family” mantra as a shining example to be emulated. From the BzzAgent site, a testimonial from one of their agents, all giddy with his success at selling out his relatives:

“As I neared the Top 10 [BzzAgents], I was excited and set my sights on bee-ing BzzAgent Numero Uno. I knew that I couldn’t casually wait for Bzz opportunities like I had in the past, but had to actively seek them out. I had a lot of success with family and friends, but now I had a better understanding of what it took to create Bzz and hook a target — influencing a person’s buying habits isn’t just as easy as bringing up a subject and diverting the conversation onto a book or other product. No, it required really finding out what made the product great and how to connect it to the target’s needs or experiences. As I got good, I began to appreciate the impact that I was having in shaping the buying habits of the people around me.

The prizes are nice — I’ve been happily rewarded — but the noticeable influence on the purchases of family, friends, and colleagues is the real reason that I enjoy bee-ing a Bzzagent. They now ask me what I think, opening the door for new Bzz, and in some cases, the product is helpful to them, and they wouldn’t have known about it otherwise, had I not brought it up. Bee-ing a Bzzagent has enabled me to reach out to people in ways that I hadn’t before.”

No thanks.

Others talking:

Ad Rants
(line of the day: “It’s all simply an ongoing, multi-billion dollar battle of wills between marketer and consumer. Marketers want eyeballs. Consumers want to tear marketer’s eyeballs from their sockets.”)


Church of the Customer

Tom Guarriello


John Moore

Press Marketing

Risley Ranch

Slacker Manager

Doc Searls

NYTimes Forum

Update: The Don’t Trust List

The following organizations are companies (and individuals) known to be BzzAgent customers, based on the BzzAgent website. Caveat emptor…


  • AirTran Airways
  • Anheuser Busch
  • Coca Cola
  • Conair
  • Estee Lauder
  • First National Bank Omaha
  • General Mills
  • Kayem Foods
  • Kelloggs
  • Ralph Lauren
  • Lee Jeans
  • Johnston & Murphy
  • Mailblocks
  • Procter & Gamble
  • Radica
  • SC Johnson
  • Weight Watchers
  • The Wharton School of Business


  • Seth Godin
  • Tom Peters

Update 2:

Great follow-on BzzAgent commentary taking place over at Brand Autopsy. Be sure to check the comments section.

Social Networking, Competitive Intelligence Key Points For Entrepreneurs

Paul Allen, of Infobase Ventures, has posted a gauntlet of eleven things that an entrepreneur must do before approaching him for mentorship. Allen states that he is “getting more requests for mentoring from entrepreneurs than [he] can handle.” So, to ensure that everyone’s time is time well spent, he has put together his list of requirements for anyone wishing to approach him for advice. His requirements are:

  • You must be using and have at least 10 connections and 2 endorsements. That way there is a good chance that I will know someone who knows you. It will be easier for us to gain mutual trust this way.

  • If you have a management team or key employees, each of them must be on with at least 5 connections.

  • You must have an advisory board of 3 or more successful business people (preferrably 6-10) who believe in you and are willing to meet with you monthly or bi-monthly to dispense advice and help you with your challenges.

  • If your company is at revenue stage, you must be using Quickbooks Online Edition so that I can review your financials with you as needed. This costs only $19.95 per month and gives 3 users access to your data. I need to see the real picture and not just hear about the big ideas.

  • I need to see a simple cap table (showing the ownership of your company, including options and warrants)

  • You must know your company’s SIC code and have a list of any publicly traded competitors that you might have. I want you to be familiar with SEC reports and gaining competitive intelligence. Too often entrepreneurs have an idea, think they are the only one doing it, and they are unaware that there are large well-funded competitiors doing the same thing. This doesn’t mean you can’t succeed by being faster and smarter than the larger company (in business, often large=slow), but I don’t want you to be unaware of your competition.

  • If you do have publicly traded competitors, you must have a My Yahoo portfolio listing all their stock symbols, so you can stay current with their news and financial status.

  • For your privately held competitors, I need to know the Alexa rankings of their web sites and how many employees they have. (The best way to get this info is to download the Alexa toolbar.)

  • You must have set up Google Alerts so that whenever any of your competitors are in the news, you will hear about it and know what they are all up to. I want to see a complete list of your Google Alerts keywords.

  • Finally: don’t dare ask me for advice or help if you haven’t read Guy Kawasaki’s Art of the Start. I think it’s the best book ever written on startups. I expect you to have marked up every passage that struck you as important, and I expect you to have followed his formula for startups, including the MAT approach, the 10/20/30 rule for Powerpoints, and the bottoms-up business model and forecast.

  • I don’t need to read a business plan, but if you have a 1-2 page executive summary that’s okay, but certainly not required.

Let’s break this down. Out of the eleven items:

  • Four are spent on the importance of competitive intelligence.
  • Three are spent on the importance of social networking.
  • Two are spent on current finances and capitalization.
  • Only one is spent on preparation.
  • Only the final one is spent on the need for a “formal” business plan.

I would tend to agree with the breakdown of these items. Have a solid knowledge of the marketplace and who you are going up against. Have a solid network of advisors who will not only support, but also challenge. Pay attention to the numbers, but don’t be slavishly beholden to them.

The thing that surprised me, though, was the lack of ANY mention of customers. No mention of who the entrepreneur is trying to serve; no mention of the problems being solved. Perhaps the belief is that if there is a market (and therefore competitors) and a group of advisors, the answer to the question of “who is the customer” is intuitively obvious?

The Cowards And The Clueless

The CEO Blogger’s Club had a nice bit on “sales people who are afraid to blog.” (hat tip: scoble). The gist of this group of sales folks:

“The first reaction of the sale team was negative, as they are afraid to see their client talking about prices or problems they might have when using company’s product, rather then sharing together feedback that might be much more constructive and usefull for the sale team itself.

What better CRM tool can we provide than a blog to get immediate inputs, feedback from users ? If a company has to choose one single kind of public to talk to , who should it choose ? Client of course. And who speaks to the client: sales team.”

I agree. Hang it out there. Learn. Listen to what the customer has to say. Implement the suggestions if they make sense. Say “no” if they don’t, and then explain why. Have a rational discussion.

Now, there are some sales people who are blogging…and who I would be hard-pressed to do business with. From a quick skim of his blog, Frank Rumbauskas appears to be one of those people. Don’t know him, never met the guy…but I was so put off by this piece that simply seethed with utter disregard for his customers that he’d have a hard time ever gaining my trust:

“Not in my house. My company gets calls all day long from people who want extra guarantees, names and numbers of references, previews of my book, etc etc before they buy. Instead of catering to these people, my customer service reps are instructed to say, “I’m sorry, but we cannot provide that. If you feel that way then don’t buy it.” Why? Because I would lose money having my staff spend time on these people.

When I sold telephone systems there were those customers who paid full price and those who drove hard bargains and wound up negotiating the price very low. Guess what – the customers who paid full price had my full attention whenever they needed help. I was always happy to drive out to their offices to assist them. Those who got deep discounts were simply told to call the 800 number. Not my job, sorry.”

I read this and I think “this guy is out for the quick buck, not the relationship.” I think “he’s trying to sell units of whatever he’s selling, he’s not trying to help me solve my problem.” I think “he’s not trying to partner with me. He’s not going to be there for me down the road, he’s going to be thinking about whoever his next ‘big kill’ is.”

I also note that he has trackbacks turned off. Pity. He might not even know this conversation is taking place.

Tearing Down The Walls In Spokane

(via Ed Cone, Dave Winer)

Kudos to the Spokane Spokesman-Review for grabbing the clue by the horns and adding "citizen-journalists" to their team to fill in and add depth to their news coverage.  These bloggers are covering nearly two dozen different beats that the Spokesman-Review would certainly not have the time or budget to cover themselves.

That’s awesome, and a great way for the S-R to put a toe in the water.  Now for the really cool stuff.

What’s not been pointed out anywhere else is that the editorial board of the S-R has set up a blog to interact directly with readers and defend a number of their editorial decisions.  How’s that for "transparency?"  Just one example…good stuff here:

Why do the editors present their endorsement for elections and candidates? I would expect the SR to have some obligation to remain silent and/or neutral and give the news, not influence the voters. I
would assume their picks would be to further SR’s climb up the economic ladder. I know we all vote for the candidates and issues that personally affect us and our family, but the paper has a obligation to
the public, even if it is privately owned. Their endorsements, I hope, is to benefit the City of Spokane and the surrounding areas.

Answer: Daily newspapers traditionally offer election endorsements on their editorial pages. Those pages are built around the presentation of opinion. Editorial endorsements are not connected to news coverage in any way. Reporters and editors responsible for covering the news are not involved in endorsement decisions and don’t even know which candidates will be endorsed until they read the editorials in the paper. Endorsement decisions take into account candidate stands on issues on which the board has previously taken positions, take into account how cadidates match up against our published editorial values and, significantly, take into account the candidate’s ability to address the needs to
citizens in communities we serve.

In the just-completed election, we endorsed 15 Republicans and 12 Democrats, indicating our
party allegiance may be somewhat less predictable than some would

Can Customers Turn The Tables Via Videotape?

Seth Godin has a great post today, musing that accountability and instances of “correct behavior” would go up if service providers (and politicians) knew they were on tape.


I’ve been counting more and more mail from enraged customers (thanks, but I have enough!). These are people who feel outrage when they are deliberately mistreated by someone who should know better…I wonder what happens once it’s on tape?

All as a way of asking you to bring your videocamera with you when you go to vote on Tuesday (regardless of which side you’re on). The biggest impact of the Net on this election, it seems to me, is that so many things are “on tape.” So many people are now embedded in the process that the process has changed forever.

Another good example of this trend.

(Hat tip: Jeff Jarvis)

How To Drive Your Customers Away, The AT&T Wireless Way

Having myself been stung by the AT&T Wireless process and service nightware, I read with great interest the story of their downfall and presumed sale next month. The toll: a significant number of the company’s 31,000+ employees will likely lose their jobs, and the remaining customers will have to migrate. One take on the root cause:

“Years of substandard customer care, spotty coverage and dropped calls had taken their toll.

‘The line from the company was that we lost those people out of bad luck,’ said a regional sales manager. ‘But they walked away flipping us the bird. They aggressively walked away from us. They couldn’t wait to get away from us.'”

Ok, it’s not rocket science, folks. Do these things:

  • Listen to your customers
  • Make sound business decisions based on that input
  • Do what you promise, when you promise to do it
  • When your customers are defecting in droves, don’t spend millions of dollars upgrading the “company’s Falcon 50 jet to a bigger Gulfstream jet for commuting — then put millions of dollars more into a new interior for it.”

(shakes head…)

Killing Marketing As We Know It

I love how SUN’s President & COO, Jonathan Schwartz, dispenses with the boring, uber-sterile traditional glossy marketing approach and just tells customers what’s going on.

For example, the organization has recently begun selling their systems directly on eBay. Instead of overdone PR, he states what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how it affects their strategy, customers, and partners (and, not incidently, this move also gives them perfect information on the true market price of their systems). Schwartz also uses it as a bully pulpit to raise doubts about SUN’s competitors. He also dimisses a minor confidentiality leak that took place when the marching orders he gave ended up on a t-shirt wearing dog.

What SUN has done goes beyond simply giving their fromage grand a microphone, however. They actually have set up an environment that is is accessible to any Sun employee to write about anything. Sports. Music. One of their bloggers, “Mary,” even states “I use this blog to explicitly and without apology market to you.”

SUN is in the process of killing Marketing as we know it and, in the process, is getting closer to their customers

(thanks to Rick Klau for the lead)

”News” Site Fark Accused By Customers Of Below-Board Practices. General Crankiness Ensues.

Ultra-popular web destination Fark has been accused of seeding their headlines with sponsored links without noting for readers which stories are sponsored and which are not.  The result is a potential blurring of the line between editorial and advertising, according to this rant by Jason Calacanis.  According to Calacanis — who was also a potential advertiser on Fark:

"I was shocked…all this time I’ve been reading it turns out that some percentage of the stories are paid for…I feel like I can never trust Fark again.

The stupid part about all this is that could easily just put ‘Advertisement’ by the stories and their readers would click them 2x as much just to support Fark. It is so dumb."

After the discussion continued in this followup, the story was picked up by Wired News and Drew Curtis of Fark finally comments on the situation, saying:

"Wired called me the other day and asked me a few questions about Calacanis’ comments regarding an ad representative selling links. I gave no descriptive comment because I’m not in the habit of airing difficulties that I have with individuals."

The feedback on the issue is polarized.  In reading through a number of the comments on both sites, some readers of Fark seem to feel that this issue is a tempest in a teapot — they don’t care if the links are sold, as long as they still find them entertaining.  Others seem to feel that their trust was betrayed, and they will stop visiting the service.  Additionally, one potential advertiser — read "customer" (Calacanis) — has gotten into a web-based shouting match with a company that he originally wanted to spend money with.

This is a case where the vendor (Fark) has chosen secrecy and a non-committal approach over transparency, and in the process has alienated a vocal group of readers and advertisers.  From where I’m sitting, Fark’s Curtis needs to come clean and explain what’s going on as to not erode his brand’s credibility any further.


Here’s A CEO Who Gets What CRM Really Means

Holy cow…talk about listening to your customers. Technorati’s CEO David Sifry gets it.

A little background: Technorati is a site that indexes weblogs (like this one), and provides a means to search the blogosphere and get a pulse as to the hot topics of the day. The site has generated a ton of buzz in the blogging community, and is even one of the darling sites of those following the political conventions here in the US.

Unfortunately, they’ve been a victim of their own success. Reports of technical issues abound, and there has been no shortage of criticism.

One of the critical sites is located at Micro Persuasion. In a post entitled “Smells Like Dot-Com Spirit,” the Technorati site is taken to task for a long list of issues, ranging from technical instability to their PR strategy.

Now, click on that link again. And scroll down to the comments section.

“Hi folks.

Thanks for the feedback and criticism. A lot of your commentary is dead-on, for example, our biggest issue is making sure that that the service is reliable and accurate, 100% of the time. We’re not there yet. I’m sorry that we haven’t met your expectations, there’s no good excuse for service failures.

We are seeing a tremendous growth in both the size of the blogosphere and in the number of people coming to the site and using the service. Our recent service upgrade this week is a start – but there’s still a long way to go.

I’m really sorry we haven’t met your expectations. We’re working really hard to achieve 100% reliability and 100% accuracy. I hope that we haven’t lost your confidence entirely, but I understand if you don’t ever come back. We’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, just trying to keep up with the incredible demand we’re seeing.

Please don’t hesitate to send me direct email at dsifry@… or call me at 415-846-…. if you want to discuss this directly.

Again, I’m sorry for the problems.


Posted by: David Sifry | July 27, 2004 10:38 AM”

Damn. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.