Thought Leaders Summit: The Buzz on Word-of-Mouth Marketing (Part 1 of 2)

October 4th, 2005

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Originally published in MarketingProfs

Your brand, products and services all benefit when people are talking about you in positive terms. Word-of-mouth can be a wonderful tool to add to your marketing arsenal. Of course, it’s not new, so how has word-of-mouth marketingâ??also known as buzz marketingâ??evolved into the 21st century? How does it differ from viral marketing or customer evangelism? And how do marketers use buzz marketing strategically?

MarketingProfs recently convened a Thought Leaders Summit to get the answers to these questions and more. On hand were Dave Balter, founder and president of BzzAgent and founding member of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association; Luanne Calvert, founder of Mixed Marketing; Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba, authors of Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers become a Volunteer Sales Force; Jim Nail, principal analyst with Forrester Research; Jerry Needel, vice-president of client services at BuzzMetrics; and Emmanuel Rosen, author of Anatomy of Buzz. What follows is their collective wisdom.

What is buzz marketing?

Emmanuel Rosen, author of Anatomy of Buzz, defines buzz as “all the person-to-person communication about a brand.” More specifically, all your company’s activities and efforts geared to stimulate positive person-to-person communication about your brand, products and services.

Sure, that’s a broad definition. But his definition is broad for a reasonâ??buzz marketing is the responsibility of everyone in a company. It’s not only about creating products that people will pass on to their friends, but it encompasses all our efforts to stimulate person-to-person communication about our brand.

People are always searching for (and sharing) honest opinions about a product or service. Buzz marketing is about getting your product noticed by creating an event or experience that will get people talking. Tactically and for the short-term, it’s great for product launches. It’s authentic. It can be online and offline. And you can leverage PR and publicity along with it. The bottom line: Buzz can differentiate your company on a grand scale.

Buzz vs. evangelism vs. viral

Buzz marketing is about creating an event. Viral marketing targets people and places to spread the word. As an example, the launch of Tide Cold Water appealed to the Coalition for Energy Efficiency by playing up the product’s inherent energy savings. And the approach proved to be very successful. The Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, which actually started in Chicago in 1936, is still out there today creating buzz.

Customer evangelism, meanwhile, is a long-term strategy that is designed to build, over time, an emotional connection with customers so they will sing your praises to others. Quick buzz campaigns normally do not incite immediate evangelism.

Buzz marketing in action

The Greenpeace project, in which two Minnesota men are attempting to cross the North Pole on foot and in canoes, is designed to raise awareness about climate changeâ??in other words, it is designed to get people talking. Behind it is an important strategic message. For example, the explorers will offer periodic updates on their Web site, urging people (and their friends) to contact Congress. Finally, there will be an opportunity to win a five-day tour for two to the Brazilian Amazon.

The Greenpeace effort is a story worth repeating. And from a marketing standpoint, it is a winner because it encompasses all angles: charitable, promotional and online. Here is viral marketing at its best, and just one of many opportunities that people are using to get the word out and create buzz.

Product sampling is another way to spread buzz, such as the Wrigley Company’s handing out gum samples on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.

SalesForce.com took its software product to a new sampling level by making the product freely available for an entire year. It became the basis of the entire company launch and eventually led to a fairly successful IPO.

Blogs are another example of how you can use buzz to spread word-of-mouth. Yogurt maker Stonyfield Farms is an oft-cited example.

Publicity stunts are also buzz marketing. Just about anything Richard Branson does, for example, is a publicity stuntâ??garnering a pretty good amount of press and certainly a lot of word-of-mouth. Tapping a really great spokesperson like Branson is sure to create buzz for your campaign.

There’s also the standard (but still effective) technique of the “tell-a-friend” functionality built into so many Web sites these days.

At its core, buzz marketing comprises a range of decisions and activities that effect word-of-mouth, starting with the spirit or attitude of your company. Jackie Huba and Ben McConnell describe it well in their book, Creating Customer Evangelists, when they talk about how the attitude of your company can influence word-of-mouth in a big way. Company climate affects customer service and what your customers tell their friends about how they were treated, for example. One of our experts was convinced that this was the number-one factor in whether customers recommend products to others.

Short- or long-term strategy?

Buzz marketing requires short-term input to create an event or experience that delivers a long-term benefit.

Every productâ??no matter how greatâ??has a finite window of opportunity. To build a brand over the longer term, companies need to be integrating buzz marketing or word-of-mouth into their overall marketing strategies. It’s important to get the balance right.

Buzz also ties into a larger trend in consumer behavior. As individuals take more control over their media, marketing and entertainment consumption decisions, marketers need to find new ways to connect with those who really love your product and use them to help spread the word. Marketers need to focus on incorporating short-term tactics that identify those evangelists so they can be cultivated over the longer term.

Word-of-mouth can be quite dangerous if used in isolation. Once people start talking about your product or service, the focus of those conversations can change very quickly. Word-of-mouth is authenticâ??so the conversations that begin as positive can quickly change to the negative and work against you as well.

Remember, you cannot fool the consumer, no matter how good an event you create, or how much noise or how much excitement. The consumer will always share honest, authentic word-of-mouth. The real magic in generating buzz and word-of-mouth is picking a product that people are going to like once they get it.

The piece in the puzzle

What should you be doing to incorporate buzz marketing into your marketing mix? Many marketers have great ideas around a specific buzz marketing event, but they are not looking at how they can apply buzz marketing across the entire marketing mix.

It is not just about stimulating conversation, after all. It’s about making it easy for consumers to share their thoughts, feedback and comments with other consumers. We also see a lot of people sitting on assets they don’t know they have: information that may appear trivial or uninteresting to you but would attract thousands of evangelists or enthusiasts who would just love to talk about it.

When in campaign development mode, it is a legitimate question to ask “Is this is a buzz-worthy product launch event that we are doing?” And then ask “How do we put the media and PR plan in place to get that kind of buzz happening?”

Customers are now in control. Engaging them is definitely part of the overall marketing picture.

Traditional media still works, but it’s harder to get your messages heard. And it no longer creates credibility. Consumers are very skeptical; therefore, only buzz and word-of-mouth can lend credibility. A company marketing manager should ask himself or herself: “How can I improve the chance of a customer passing on a positive word-of-mouth about our company?”

Buzz has to reflect a company or organization’s overall feel, its philosophy or its cause. It is not a one-off buzz for the sake of buzz building, tactic or gimmick, but rather continues to build a solid marketing foundation. Think of taking an airplane trip on Southwest, and the flight attendant is singing at the end of the flight. That’s a terrific buzz-building tactic. Buzz needn’t cost a lot of money, but it sure gets people talking about you.

Buzz marketing also provides very fast feedback to companies to latch on to what people are saying, and how they are saying it. They then can use that information to direct additional buzz marketing tactics, make rapid product improvements or target new markets.

A question of ownership

Who should own word-of-mouth and buzz marketing? The PR industry? Direct marketers? Media specialists? Ad agencies? Corporate in-house departments? There’s an intense battle right now about whose “discipline” it is.

Of course, it needn’t belong to a single entity. When you are talking about evangelists and influencers and encouraging direct relationships with consumers, PR might direct the buzz.

On the other hand, media planners combine an understanding of where word-of-mouth fits into the overall marketing mix and a knowledge of the audience, focus on ongoing tracking and their ability to develop channel-agnostic marketing approaches.

Advertising agencies have become brand stewards. With word-of-mouth taking place online as well as offline, interactive agencies are becoming much more involved in buzz marketing as well.

In other words, we are seeing all disciplines starting to develop dedicated word-of-mouth practices. In the end, it may be big enough for all groups to have a stake in, but it is going to be interesting to watch over the next year or so.

When it’s not the right solution

If you are desperate to create a message that is going to be exciting and you have no other great ideas other than launching a buzz marketing campaign, you know you are in trouble.

If you have a bad product, do not get anyone buzzing about it. Advertising guru David Ogilvy said years ago: “The best way to kill a bad product is great advertising.” Word-of-mouth marketing is another great way to kill a bad product. Ideally, your product is new, exciting and effective.

If your brand or product does not have “soul” and your campaign does not have authenticity and genuineness to it, your buzz marketing is going to fall flat.

Avoid creating a buzz campaign in a contrived way. Two examples come to mind, both from the fast-food sandwich world. The first is Subservient Chicken, Burger King’s attempt to goose up sales for its chicken sandwich. Subservient Chicken had absolutely nothing to do with how good the chicken sandwich was, and the campaign didn’t sell sandwiches.

The second example is the McDonald’s campaign that put out a bounty to rappers to mention Big Mac in their songs. Trying to buy culture in a highly contrived and inauthentic manner can instead serve up a backlash online.

The question does linger, however: If Burger King had not done Subservient Chicken, which changed its image dramatically, would people have ever come and witnessed the changes afoot at Burger King? Tracking immediate sales of a product may overlook some of the bigger affect that a good buzz campaign can have on a brand image.

If you are trying to reach an audience that is very chatty, like young people, it makes a lot of sense to use buzz marketing. But if you want to market paper clips to Trappist monks who have taken a vow of silence, buzz marketing is not the way to go. Likewise, when the players in your audience are disconnected, it is probably not the right solution for you.

The biggest obstacles to creating buzz

The biggest enemy of buzz is routine. It is sad when events follow a standard formula because of the missed opportunities. Companies often put a lot of money and effort into creating an event where there is nothing to talk about. Products that are neither truly remarkable nor unique don’t help, either.

Sometimes the biggest obstacle can be the person sitting at your front desk annoying your customersâ??somebody who doesn’t return phone calls or respond to emails. People will not buzz about a company that does not treat them well. Your company may be acting on several fronts and intriguing me, maybe through some clever viral marketing. But if I really do not like your company I am not going to recommend your product.

Marketers, too, can create barriers because they get so wrapped up in their products and fail to take a step back to ask, “Is this going to be important to the customer?”

Real performers

Who does buzz marketing well? Red Bull for one. Whether you like it or notâ??once you taste it, you have to say something about it.

Red Bull keeps innovating by coming up with events like its Flugtag, an event that involves the customer in trying to fly manpowered flying machines over a body of water. Involvement is a very important part of creating buzz. The more someone thinks about the product and the more you allow someone to be creative, the more that person is going to talk about it. Red Bull also works with network hubs or opinion leaders through the Red Bull Music Academy, which is its way to recruit DJs in different countries.

Red Bull uses a well known phenomenon called “uneven distribution” of information. When something is not available to you, you tend to want it and definitely want to talk about it. When Red Bull enters a new market, it does not go for mass distribution immediately. First, it allows selected outlets to carry their product. Its advertising focuses on reinforcing a message rather than introducing the product in the marketplace.

As a concept and idea, it is as much about cool events, how the product is mixed, where it all started, the amazing CEO and how hard it was to get it approved. Red Bull combines all these elements, not just the product itself, to get people talking.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) wins the category for consistency and strategy in buzz marketing. About six months ago, The New Yorker ran a thoughtful article about the kinds of strategies PETA developed to create its brand. PETA is not a big spender, but it is always in the news and it gets people talking about its stunts.

A few years ago, Taco Bell placed a target in the middle of the Indian Ocean and said if the Mir space station hit it everyone in America would get a free taco. It got an insurance company to cover it, just in case. The campaign was as smart as it was low cost.

Target also does a great job. To generate sales on Black Friday, it gave people a wake-up call, with selected celebrities calling early in the morning and reminding people they could shop Target at 6:00 am.

Anyone can do something shocking or different and get a lot of buzz on TV, but it may not tie back to the product and to product sales.

Remarkable campaigns

One of the best examples of a very well-integrated buzz marketing campaign was the launch of the Mini Cooper, for its consistent and strategic message about the joy of driving. The “Let’s Motor” campaign played off the terrific design of the car and the fact that it is still the smallest car on the road.

Instead of launching millions of dollars in TV advertising, which we often see with a new car launch, the company bolted a Mini Cooper on top of an SUV and drove it around cities with a sign saying, “Let’s Motor.” It also placed cars in the stands at Major League baseball games. While the car itself is buzz-building when you see it, placing it in certain contexts compels you to talk about it.

Its website encouraged you to design your own Mini, add all the different features, customize and then, of course, send that design to a friend. Even the print ads were different and people took notice. The result was long waiting lists for the Mini Cooper.

Another, albeit smaller, example of a remarkable campaign was the previously mentioned campaign for Tide Cold Water. Determining that one of the benefits of using cold water was energy savings, Tide did not try to convert the entire world into cold water washers. It did not try to create 14 million unique visitors to the Web site. It zeroed in on people who were concerned about high-energy consumption and put the product in their hands. It was an intelligent way to scale buzz marketing to an appropriate level for the product.

Perhaps the ultimate buzz campaign was the introduction of Trivial Pursuit to the US market in 1983. The woman behind that campaign was Linda Pezzano. What accelerated the campaign and got people talking about the product was uneven distribution of information, sending advance copies to celebrities who were mentioned in the game, and sending mystery envelopes with one card from the game at a time to buyers in toy stores.

People went to bars and other places and started playing the game with each other. Celebrities hosted trivia parties. Approximately 150 radio stations staged a trivia event, giving away games. It was a well-planned and well-executed campaign.

Trivial Pursuit sold 20 million copies in 1984, and it was not a cheap product. But it was a unique product. There hadn’t been a game like it before. It was totally new and different.

And to top it all off, someone with a lot of energy and creative ideas capitalized on countless conversations around the product.