Monday, December 06, 2004

Do You Believe in Word-of-Mouth Marketing?

Rob Walker takes a close look at the world of viral marketing in the NY Times Magazine cover story, "The Hidden (in Plain Sight) Persuaders." Walker investigates the world of BzzAgent, a Boston-based ad agency that relies on tens of thousands of volunteers to spread the word (or "bzz") about its clients' products.

Walker starts by asking the question, "Why do so many people voluntarily spend their free time marketing for BzzAgent?" Even before reading the article, you can probably guess the big reasons. It's cool to be the first person on your block with a particular product, and even better when you can persuade people to follow your lead.

Lots of other interesting questions come up. Is it ethical to talk up a new BBQ sauce to your friends when your main points come off a BzzAgent tip sheet? BzzAgent volunteers answer "yes" definitively -- they only talk up the products they like, after all. But Walker discovers that there are powerful psychological forces behind the scenes that cast doubt on BzzAgents' talk.

Along the way, Walker explains how BzzAgent volunteers have found personal transformation by signing up to help BzzAgent sell stuff. Suddenly they find themselves striking up conversations at every oppportunity, and emerging from their shells.

In fact, BzzAgent has found that just about anyone can be an effective agent. Unlike other carefully screened word-of-mouth marketing teams, which add only the coolest teenagers to their ranks, BzzAgent simply lets people sign up and volunteer. This raises a serious challenge to the "Tipping Point"'s world of connectors, mavens, and salespeople, a topic that BzzAgent and Walker both give serious consideration. (See "Personality and Propensity to Brokerage" for related thoughts on this topic.)

What is the biggest reason of all for BzzAgent's success? Walker comes to an uncomfortable conclusion, in conversation with Jason Desjardins, one of BzzAgents top-ranked volunteers:

Some people are lucky enough to find meaning and fulfillment through their work, family or spirituality. But many people don't. Many people have boring jobs and indifferent bosses. They feel ignored by politicians. They send e-mail to customer service and no one responds. They get no feedback. It's easy to feel helpless, uncounted, disconnected. Do you think, I asked Desjardins, that there's some element of that going on with BzzAgent?

''I think for some people it probably is,'' he answered. ''For me, it's being part of something big. I think it's such a big thing that's going to shape marketing. To actually be one of the people involved in shaping that is, to me, big.'' That made sense to me too. After all, there is one thing that is even more powerful than the upper hand, more seductive than persuading: believing.


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