Word-of-Mouth 'Buzz Agents' Spread the Hype

Tens of thousands of unpaid volunteers are circulating in city hot spots, chatting up friends, family members and strangers in hope of generating buzz for companies and their new products. Sometimes they disclose their "buzz agent" identity — other times, they don't. Companies are hoping these conversations will boost sales.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. From NPR News, I'm Alex Chadwick

Technology, the boon of our times, because we can use it to skip TV commercials; and the bane of our times, because what's a marketer to do?

NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports that a lot of traditional companies are trying to use on-line entertainment and networking sites to generate buzz.

WENDY KAUFMAN reporting:

When Dell Computer wanted to promote its new MP3 player, sold only online, it turned to a fictional character named Mitch.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Unitentified Announcer: (In commercial clip) Introducing Mitch Ferrence, master of the…

KAUFMAN: He's a cheesy-looking, overweight guy in a tracksuit who performs cheesy videos on the company's website. He lip-syncs, plays air guitar, and dances.

Unidentified Announcer: (In commercial clip) Count it off, Mitch.

Unidentified Man: (As Mitch Ferrence) Four, five, six, seven, and…

KAUFMAN: Mitch wrangled an invitation to the set of a television reality show for aspiring rock stars.

Mr. JIM ELLIOTT (Creative director, Cole & Weber Advertising): I think a big part of word-of-mouth advertising is nurturing it, but being open to serendipity.

KAUFMAN: Jim Elliott is the creative director of Cole & Weber Advertising, the firm that did the campaign for Dell's MP3 player. He says Mitch made early appearances in blogs and on the social networking site, MySpace, where he has more than a thousand online friends.

Mr. ELLIOTT: You know, how many years ago, five years ago, there really weren't that many outlets to extend a brand and to help bring it to life. So now, I mean, it just seems like every day there's a new opportunity to have these conversations with people.

KAUFMAN: For example, the accounting software company, Intuit, created an on-line community where plumbers, architects and other professionals can direct questions to other individuals in their line of work.

At the other, far more frivolous extreme, is Burger King, which promotes its chicken sandwich with a website for a subservient chicken. College students in particular seem to love the site, which allows them to type a command, and a character, dressed in a chicken suit, will do what they tell it to.

The companies who do these kinds of things are not so much selling a particular product as engaging you with their brand. And, suggests Patti Williams of the Wharton Business School, they are hoping you'll tell your friends about it.

Professor PATTI WILLIAMS (Business and Leadership, Wharton Business School): Consumers are tuning out of television, they're watching it on TiVo and fast-forwarding through the ads, and so, you know, there's a desire to find new ways to reach out to consumers and new, more trustworthy ways.

Consumers don't trust television advertising, and we know they trust word-of-mouth marketing. And so, there's this desire to find a new, more credible, venue for talking about products.

KAUFMAN: Think about the very first time that Amazon.com said, Rate This Product, and posted that review right next to what was being sold. For marketers, things have never been quite the same.

Today, many companies are tracking blogs to see what people are saying about them. Indeed, the company that does the Nielsen TV ratings recently bought two firms that analyze buzz and blogs.

Peter Kim, a technology marketing expert at Forrester Research says if you want an example of the power of the blogosphere, think about politics.

Mr. PETER KIM (Technology Marketing Researcher, Forrester Research): If you think about what happened to John Kerry with Swiftvotes and what happened to Trent Lott with his remarks at Strom Thurmond's birthday party, both of those issues were kept alive and stoked by conversations that were happening in the blogosphere.

KAUFMAN: Companies that embark on word-of-mouth campaigns face challenges that TV advertisers never did. The television couldn't talk back; consumers can, and do. Last month, for example, Chevy introduced a website that allowed visitors to create an ad for the Tahoe SUV. Chevy was hoping that visitors would e-mail their video ads to friends and generate enthusiasm for the brand. But it didn't work out that way. The most e-mailed videos were those attacking the SUV's poor mileage. Again, Peter Kim of Forrester.

Mr. KIM: Marketers have to understand that they can generate the initial thinking and conversation about a topic or a new product or service, but where it goes beyond there is totally out of their control.

KAUFMAN: And from the perspective of Andy Sernovitz, that's the exciting part.

Mr. ANDY SERNOVITZ (President, The Word-of- Mouth Marketing Association): You can't lie to consumers anymore.

KAUFMAN: Sernovitz heads up a trade group called, you guessed it, The Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association.

Mr. SERNOVITZ: No amount of advertising, no amount of just sheer tonnage of brand marketing and paid ads or anything else you do can hide a bad product anymore.

KAUFMAN: But beyond all the examples lies this fundamental question: Does positive word-of-mouth marketing translate into sales? The truth is, we don't really know; it's hard to measure. Still, there is anecdotal evidence and a gut feeling among many marketers and academics that word-of-mouth is effective, and is here to stay.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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