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Word-of-Mouth Marketing Creates a Buzz

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Word-of-Mouth Marketing Creates a Buzz

Business

Word-of-Mouth Marketing Creates a Buzz

Word-of-Mouth Marketing Creates a Buzz

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Word-of-mouth marketing has become a new trend in efforts to reach young consumers. Thousands of unpaid volunteers create a "buzz" about certain products, which they get for free. Corporations trying to use word-of-mouth marketing pay six figures to companies that provide these "buzz agents."

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

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Companies looking beyond traditional advertising methods are turning to so-called buzz agents. These are people who do marketing by word-of-mouth. One Massachusetts company has conducted more than 100 buzz campaigns for Fortune 500 companies.

For a fee, companies get about 3,000 agents to chat up how great their products are to tens of thousands of consumers like you.

NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

WENDY KAUFMAN reporting:

Meet Theresa Lewis(ph). She's 25, and a University of Washington graduate student in music history and performance.

(Soundbite of woman singing in foreign language)

KAUFMAN: When Lewis isn't rehearsing for a performance of Mozart, giving music lessons, or working with student athletes, you may find her chatting up new products and creating buzz.

Ms. THERESA LEWIS (student, University of Washington): I was sitting in a doctor's office, and there was a copy of a magazine called Fast Company. And inside, there was an article about an up-and-coming online Web site called BuzzAgent.com, and you could join as a volunteer and be involved in campaigns, and in the process, receive free stuff.

KAUFMAN: Today, she's one of 140,000 unpaid volunteers who've participated in campaigns for the Boston-based marketing firm known as Buzz Agent. Company CEO Dave Balter explains that so-called agents are given free samples and encouraged to talk to friends, family, and co-workers about the products.

Mr. DAVE BALTER (Founder and CEO, Buzz Agent): Word-of-mouth does a specific job, and it does it really well. It drives credibility. It helps people make a decision about what they should or shouldn't buy.

KAUFMAN: Balter's agents are given tip sheets on how to promote an individual product, but agents are free to make their own honest assessment and to say whatever they want about it.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of manufactured buzz is positive. As Lewis says, if a product is terrible, you may not want to talk about it at all. Of course, some products prompt their own negative buzz, typically without any orchestrated campaign at all.

Over the past two years, Lewis has worked on 15 or 20 marketing efforts: instant deserts, books, batteries, electronic games, and her favorite, perfume.

Ms. LEWIS: You put it on, you leave the house, and you kind of cozy up next to someone and hope that they smell you and like what they smell. What's really fun about being part of something like a perfume campaign is that you get the chance to feel like, new and fresh. And if someone said, "Oh, my gosh, I just love what you're wearing! It smells so nice!" then the whole conversation just starts really nice and easily. It just happens.

Professor PATTI WILIAMS (Marketing, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania): Well, I think it's actually a very interesting thing for her to say.

KAUFMAN: Professor Patti Williams, who teaches marketing at the Wharton School says Lewis seems to understand that buzz is most effective when it appears to be spontaneous and organic.

Professor WILLIAMS: Of course, it's not really a completely natural or organic conversation. What I wonder about is whether or not the recipient would feel so good about this conversation if they realized that she had set off with an idea that she was going to put on maybe a little extra of this perfume and then cozy up to people in order to spark this conversation.

KAUFMAN: But CEO Balter insists his agents are not trying to deceive, and, in fact, are instructed to identify themselves as being part of a marketing campaign, though that wasn't always the case.

Agents file reports on their interactions including comments from those they talked to. Those reports are passed on to the company which created the product I the first place. Theresa Lewis says she does identify herself as an agent, adding she's comfortable in that role because she only shares her honest opinion.

And what do her friends think about her efforts? Lewis says they seem intrigued.

Ms. LEWIS: Normally, not only do they want to hear about the product, but they want to check out the website and become a buzz agent themselves, because they think the idea of being on the cutting edge of new products and being able to tell their friends about something new and up and coming is very exciting.

KAUFMAN: Another big draw, at least for Lewis, is having a voice in what ultimately gets to market. As she puts it, word-of-mouth marketing is really powerful. You have to take it seriously.

Buzz marketing of this sort is still a bit of a novelty, and the evidence that it works is a bit thin. But intuitively, the approach makes sense. Surveys show that people look to individuals like themselves for advice on products and services.

Professor Patti Williams and other experts believe that buzz marketing is here to stay, and will likely increase. And that makes Williams a bit uneasy. She worries that genuine human interactions could suffer if people are constantly thinking "Is this person trying to sell me something?"

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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