"You cannot sell a man who isn't listening; word of mouth is the best medium of all" - Bill Bernbach, the B in DDB Advertising

The next time someone sidles up to you in a bar and starts telling you how much they like a particular beer, be careful, you may have just fallen into the trap of word of mouth advertising. Yes folks, advertising agencies and marketers, whose behavior can be described as closely resembling the proverbial canary in a coal mine (picture though, Tweety on speed and cannabis, hyper and paranoid), are beginning to feel the pinch of all of us simply tuning and dropping out of the commercial landscape. I don’t know about you, but I am in the business of advertising and I don’t watch commercials, that’s what my ReplayTV is for, a sort of TiVo device that skips the commercials automatically and lets me watch a thirty minute show in fifteen minutes once the ads are stripped off. This is a problem, and all those advertising executives are running around like chickens with their heads cut off, if you will indulge me in a horrible mixed metaphor.

So what are advertisers to do? They have advertising everywhere, billboards, posters, the ATM, the coffee cup, the radio, our favorite web sites, the subway, the dentist office, the airplane, the movie theatre, hell, the movie and we just don’t care, we are desensitized, cynical, totally past it. No worries though, these are very clever people and they are going to get you where you live, where you drink, anywhere you come in contact with other people. Word of mouth advertising is a relatively new practice whose roots can be traced back to marketers recognition that there are in any given population, people who act as influencers. Look around you and think hard and you will soon identify that there are members of your tribe, whatever that happens to be, that you go to for sdvice: the unrepentant geek that can set up a wireless network in their sleep, the foodie that always knows the right place to find a good crème brulee, the voracious reader that never lacks a good book suggestion etc. Over the last ten years or so the desire on the part of marketers to harness this force has been gaining momentum. Fueled by books like Malcolm Gladwell’s obscenely successful The Tipping Point and the increasing pressure on traditional advertising, it was only a matter of time before someone institutionalized it. As far as I can tell, the first formal buzz agency specializing in word of mouth advertising was started around 2001 in Boston with the establishment of Bzzagent. Since then it has taken off to the point that a couple of years ago, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, WOMMA for short, a trade association devoted to promote the benefits of word of mouth advertising, was founded. Now, you should not confuse WOM with people handing out miniscule packages of stuff you will never be interested in on street corners. Neither are little snippets of performance art performed by hired shills to promote a product. No siree, WOM is engineered to be insidious and governed by a strict code of conduct. Scarily enough, buzz agents receive little and in some cases no remuneration beyond getting product samples, yet Bzzagent for example claims to have access to a network of 130,000 BzzAgents. The way it works is that these agencies get large groups of people to sign up to be buzz agents. Whenever the agency has a client that wants to promote a product, it will match the product against the interests of their agents and come up with a group that believes in the product or is just interested in the category. Let say that you are Levi’s, you will want loyal 501-wearing buzz agents or at least people who like jeans and shopping. Once people have self selected, they are part of the campaign and will be expected to have spontaneous interactions with their friends, acquaintances and appropriate strangers where they will extol the many benefits of the product they are expected to create buzz for. These interactions though, are supposed to be in context and not just random sales blather. Once they have had the interactions, they will fill out a report which will be aggregated by the agency and passed along to the client. The reports submitted by the agents are just narratives of the event where the agent chatted up the product. These reports are vetted by editors to attempt to eliminate fabrication, lying and just plain old bad reporting. The agency turns the reports into quantitative data of how many people were reached, the classic measure of advertising efficacy.

Some of you may think I am joking so I have included a couple of links below to show that they are deadly serious. The code of conduct is being worked out still by the Ethics Comittee of WOMMA, but they have the following in their website:

Our values

We rise to a higher level.

We believe that word of mouth marketers have a special relationship with consumers and must go above and beyond the normal expectations of marketing ethics and honesty.

We believe in honesty and transparency at all times.

  • Honesty of relationship, opinion, and identity
  • Respecting the rules of the forum
  • Rising above the minimum requirements in privacy and permission

Children must be protected.

We have heightened ethical obligations involved in working with children. Authenticity is the cornerstone of word of mouth.

The voice of the consumer is our medium. We amplify and facilitate true consumer opinion; we never pollute it in any way.

Now, do you believe they will keep to this?

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