Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Word-of-mouth marketing in action

I had completely forgotten that I had been exposed to “word-of-mouth” marketing before, but my memory was refreshed when I rediscovered a very relevant website yesterday while deleting most of my thousands of bookmarks in Internet Explorer. As I was poking through concert reviews and other random, unrelated posts on my favorite musician’s message board a few months ago, I came across one post that mentioned a person participating in “BzzCampaign.” Never having seen or heard of this term before, I entered the post and visited the website it referred to. BzzCampaigns, which are run through BzzAgent.com, are word-of-mouth marketing campaigns which “[let] you experience a product or service first hand either via a product sample, coupon or other means… after you form an opinion about the product and spread the word to others, you go to BzzAgent.com and submit BzzReports detailing your Bzz activities. BzzReports can feature positive and/or negative Bzz, so long as the Bzz is honest!” Basically, companies submit their products to BzzAgent, and BzzAgent sends samples or coupons to unpaid “volunteer brand evangelists” to test the products and spread the “buzz” about them to people they talk to. The volunteers write up reports about their experiences using and discussing the product with others, and submit them to the site.

I bookmarked this site before because I thought it was interesting (and because I happen to like free samples), but I had never bothered to sign up for it. When I came across it yesterday, I decided to give it a shot and see if I could learn more about it by signing up. The site contains a ton of information, links, and quotes about word-of-mouth marketing. Anyone can sign up to be a BzzAgent, and participation in any campaign is voluntary. However, when you register, you have to fill out a survey with details about your demographics and some of your communication and media habits (i.e. how many people you talk to per average day, how many hours you spend online per average day, etc.), so that the site can refer you to campaigns that target similar demographics or characteristics as your own. There are a few training programs on the site to teach new Bzzers the ropes, and to allow them to earn points, which can be accumulated and redeemed for prizes like music, movies, and gift certificates. Points are earned mostly through submitting reports, however. The BzzReports are supposed to detail the process of spreading your opinion of a given product to other people, and the more detailed and creative your report is, the more points you’ll earn. However, I couldn't help but think: how many people just make up detailed and creative stories to receive the products and prizes without having to do any work? Because all of this action and communication is done through the internet, are people really spreading a “buzz,” or are they just pretending to because there is no one really monitoring them? Although people volunteer to participate, there’s always the possibility that they aren’t being honest about their “work,” so how can anyone be sure that services like this are fulfilling their purpose? I’m sure if a person strongly likes or dislikes a product, they may tell a few friends or family members about it, but how many people are going to go out of their way to spread the word about it without monetary compensation for doing so? The purpose of this service is similar to "rep" and "street team" programs for musicians, but in my opinion, the people who participate in their favorite band's promotional team are more likely to spread the word about their music because they are passionate about it; with BzzAgent, people are promoting products that they have little experience with, and they probably could care less about the product's or company's success. I think that BzzAgent is a great idea, because word-of-mouth marketing is proven to be a successful tactic, but the credibility of the information the site receives from its volunteers raises a lot of doubt, at least in my mind.

Also, ironically, while I was writing this post and looking over the site again, one of our own Dr. Carl’s quotes popped up:
"WOM takes place within a context of everyday, routine, relational intereactions.... [E]ffective WOM and buzz marketing is not rooted in the marketing of a particular brand, product, or service, but rather is based in the everyday relationships and conversations of people discussing other matters." -Walter Carl, Northeastern University Professor, May 2005