There's a new marketing catchphrase that's getting rave word-of-mouth reviews. From articles in the popular press to conversations in the classroom, huge companies to boutique marketing firms, suddenly it seems you can't talk about new products without addressing 'buzz marketing.' "People are buzzing about buzzing," says Wharton marketing professor Barbara Kahn. "People think it's cool. There is something almost empowering about the idea of being able to 'buzz' your way into the products people buy."
"Buzz marketing needs to be used very judiciously for it to remain effective," he adds. "Otherwise people will become so skeptical and annoyed by it that they will become completely immune to the marketing virus that [marketers] are trying to spread." Fader doesn't think companies will succeed in preserving buzz marketing as an effective tool because they simply don't exercise restraint when they have discovered a new marketing approach. And perhaps even more importantly, Fader says, they regularly confuse useful marketing tactics for real marketing strategy.
Once set on strategy, tactics come into play. "There could be a role for buzz building in both skim and penetration marketing strategies," Fader says. But buzz marketing should be combined with other forms of marketing to create a pattern of tactics that support the overall strategy. "It needs to be decided in concert with decisions about what other forms of both traditional and non-traditional forms of marketing should they be using, and exactly how much of the budget should they be spending on each form of messaging. Too many companies are starting with tactics and backing into them as a strategy. I'm a little afraid that people are loading onto particularly small bandwagons such as this and losing sight of the larger, more important issue of resource allocation."
Bell, however, also discovered something else: Word-of-mouth apparently has a shelf life. "Before people try something once, they don't have their own experiences to make judgments, so they will try something based on what their social acquaintances tell them. But for repeat customers, there was no spacial pattern at all because the decision to purchase again requires no input from others. You will buy something if you liked it the first time. Period."
For some, buzz marketing raises not just strategy questions, but serious ethical issues as well. In most cases when marketers talk about buzz marketing 'agents' they mean regular citizens who have volunteered to be product guinea pigs -- people who receive no financial compensation, but do get products in advance of their release to the general public in exchange for a promise to talk them up if they like them, and to provide feedback to companies about what they and others think. Sometimes, however, marketers blur these lines in their effort to create buzz, hiring actors to pose as Average Joes, similar to what Sony Ericsson did to promote one of its digital cameras.
Actions like these raise the question of whether there is something inherently unethical about buzz marketing itself. After all, even those 'buzz agents' who are not monetarily compensated do receive free products in exchange for their services, and few freely admit their status as agents to the people they are buzzing to. For some, the ethical question amounts to just a vague twinge of discomfort when they realize a friend's excitement over a new product is part of an orchestrated corporate effort to create buzz on the street. For others, it raises the specter of a paranoid future where corporate marketers have invaded every last niche of society, degrading all social interaction to a marketing transaction, where no one can be certain of anyone else's true opinions or intentions.
Wharton marketing professor Lisa Bolton is one of the hard-liners in the buzz marketing ethics debate. "I realize not all buzz marketing is subversive. Sometimes it's just a case of getting people on the street and getting the word out. But stealth marketing, where you don't know that something's part of a marketing campaign because people don't identify themselves as such? I thinks it's wrong. It's unethical. Over the long term, when people find out, they will feel deceived and betrayed. Ultimately, it will damage a company's brand equity."
Bolton, who teaches consumer behavior at Wharton, recently discussed buzz marketing in her class. During the discussion several students identified themselves as buzz agents for various boutique marketing companies; some were currently aiding buzz marketing efforts for everything from forthcoming books to new consumer products. Most students were intrigued by the idea of buzz marketing, and few said they perceived any ethical conflict. "They claim that they only act as buzz agents for products they truly like; therefore, they aren't lying when they praise them. They seem to focus on what they are saying, not why they are saying it," Bolton says.
Still, the students don't identify themselves as agents unless directly asked and this is what makes the difference, according to Bolton. "Whenever the buzz agent doesn't identify himself upfront as a marketer, the customer interaction is deceptive and, therefore, unethical. Research in psychology suggests that consumers are more readily persuaded when they do not know that the other person is trying to persuade them. By not revealing their persuasive intent, the buzz agent is gaining an unfair advantage that undermines social interaction. We usually assume that other people, in ordinary discourse, are not trying to sell us something; when we know we are being marketed to, we can raise barriers to try and protect ourselves," she says.
Bolton's students changed their tune a bit when she proposed this scenario for them to consider: "At one point I said, 'So John, you're sitting in a bar and a cute girl chats you up and you're feeling like 'Oh wow, this attractive person is talking to me.' It's only after she's gone that you find out it's a marketing ploy. Suddenly they said, 'Yeah, I'd feel pretty bad, [like I had been] taken advantage of'. Because now they are the victim."
Wind disagrees. "I don't see any ethical problem as long as the company provides the product to a person and that person is totally independent in terms of saying whatever they feel about the product to the customer. If we say, 'Here's the product and here's what to tell people,' then you're not allowing them to really express themselves. That's when it undermines credibility," Wind says. "Consumers are more sophisticated than people give them credit for. Buzz marketing is like sampling; it's simply providing exposure to the product. You're not forcing them to buy anything; you're just exposing them to it. They are not stupid. They will try it and if they like it, they will do more research and maybe buy it themselves. It's useful. If they don't like it, they won't buy it."
Besides, adds Wind, relying on word-of-mouth marketing may actually force companies to create better products. "Research shows that negative word-of-mouth is seven times more powerful than positive word-of-mouth. This really forces people to have good products. Otherwise, when you turn people loose to say whatever they want, you could be in real trouble."