If you're confused about the terminology of word-of-mouth marketing, I have a little confession to make: sometimes I get confused about it myself.

As one of the authors who's written about this topic, I have to admit that we managed to create an impressive assortment of terms: buzz marketing, evangelism, viral marketing, advocacy marketing and so on.

But, in the end, the terminology doesn't matter that much. Yes, one can point out the fine distinctions between viral and buzz marketing, but at the heart of things we are all talking about ways to engage consumers in a conversation. We're all looking for strategies to stimulate people to talk about our brands, products or services. For this article, let's define buzz as all the person-to-person communication about a brand, and buzz marketing as a company's efforts to stimulate positive buzz.

What's troubling more than the definitions are the misconceptions about what companies should do to stimulate buzz. This is where I've seen confusion that can lead to unfortunate decisions. So here are five common misconceptions about buzz marketing—and what you can do to address them.

1. 'Buzz spreads like wildfire!'

Yes, big news can travel fast. But many marketers refuse to realize that most news about products is not earth-shattering and therefore can spread at a painfully slow rate. We've all heard the story of Hotmail, which went from 0 to 12 million subscribers in just 18 months. It's an amazing story... just not a typical one.

I think that the story of EndNote is more typical. It's a piece of software designed to help researchers keep track of their references and compile bibliographies at the end of their research papers.

From 1988 to 1998, I was responsible for launching and marketing this product. A high percentage of customers told us that they had heard about it from a colleague or a friend, but did word about it spread overnight? No. EndNote was one of those "five-year-overnight-success stories."

It's true that the Internet accelerates the rate at which information spreads (many academics who were using EndNote spread the word about it online). But there are also some factors that slow down buzz.

While customers are still pretty receptive to messages from their friends, they don't remember all these messages—and certainly don't act on all. Moreover, people are selective about what they pass on to their friends. They don't automatically press the "Forward" button in their email programs (although it sometimes seems that way).

Something else that slows down buzz is that people socialize in clusters. We saw this very clearly with EndNote. Like the rest of us, academics live in small and relatively closed clusters. Geologists don't talk to business professors. History professors don't talk to biologists. Sometimes people don't even talk to the folks in the next building. Information about EndNote got stuck in small clusters.

So what do you do? First, be realistic about the speed of word-of-mouth. Second and most important: Look for ways to accelerate the rate through both traditional and nontraditional methods, as I describe below.

2. 'All you need is a good product, and the rest will take care of itself'

Great customer experience is the foundation of word-of-mouth, but usually it is not enough. For buzz to spread, you need two things: a product with some inherent value that makes people talk, and some activities that accelerate the process.

Again, there are exceptions: If you develop the ultimate cure for cancer, everybody will be talking about it without much push. There are also cases where limited capacity allows you to sit back and relax. A restaurant with 20 tables (and really good food) can rely on word-of-mouth alone if the talk is intense enough to keep these tables occupied. But this is not the case in markets (such as technology markets) where companies must act fast to turn their products into the standard.

What did we do to accelerate buzz about EndNote? We gave our customers coupons and encouraged them to pass these on to their friends. We seeded areas (by academic discipline and geography) where there was no buzz about EndNote. We worked with local opinion leaders and encouraged them to spread the word. We even made T-shirts for editors of computer publications with their personal bibliography printed on the back.

And we used traditional tools such as advertising and direct mail to fuel the buzz, and that leads me to the next misconception.

3. 'If you get buzz, you don't need any marketing'

This one scares me, especially when I hear it from small companies. Good buzz is the best thing you could wish for. But, in most cases, distribution, advertising, promotion and other traditional concepts are essential to translate the goodwill surrounding your product into sales.

During my years with EndNote, I fell into this trap a couple of times: I got so excited about the buzz around the product that I slowed down our "traditional" marketing activities. In both cases, the result was the same: Sales went down.

The buzz apparently needed to be accelerated through tools such as advertising, PR and direct mail. A 2005 study from NOP World confirms that information distributed via mass media often feeds conversations among consumers. For example, 54% of respondents in that study said that information they found in a magazine contributed to a recommendation they made to another person.

Advertising is not a four-letter word. It's a tool that can actually be very effective in stimulating buzz when used correctly. Even Hotmail advertised in campus newspapers around the country to help create the initial core group of users in each school and "start little fires all over the place," as one of Hotmail's early executives put it.

The focus should be not on whether something is classified as traditional or guerrilla, mainstream or viral—but on whether it works. Focus on results, and don't get caught up in any single marketing ideology.

4. 'To get buzz going, all you need to do is find those early adopters/connectors/evangelists (or simply really cool people)'

There are two major misconceptions folded into this statement: First, working with influencers is an important part of word-of-mouth marketing, but it isn't everything. Other strategies are used to stimulate people to spread the word. You can stimulate talk through special events or experiences. (Absolut Vodka's Ice Bar in Stockholm is an example.) You can do it by creating entertaining content that people want to pass along (check out www.redbullflugtagusa.com). You can also stimulate word-of-mouth through referral programs, and sometimes you can even do it through advertising. (I'm glad Budweiser's Whasssup?! craze is history, but it did make people talk.)

The second misconception is thinking that all of these labels describe the same type of person. Again, I admit that there are way too many terms to describe people who are involved in buzz, but not all of these terms are redundant. Some terms refer to a person's propensity to make friends, talk or influence (connector, social hub). Other terms focus on a person's knowledge or expertise (maven, expert hub). Yet other terms refer to a customer's attitude toward a company (champion, evangelist). The important point is that one should not automatically assume that these are all the same people.

For example, an easy mistake companies make is to jump to the conclusion that satisfied customers are also influential in their own networks. Happy customers can (and should) be engaged in referral programs and special activities. (Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba describe how to do this in their articles and their excellent book, Creating Customer Evangelists.) But a single customer's satisfaction has very little to do with his or her centrality in his or her social network.

The same type of confusion exists regarding whether opinion leaders are early adopters. Yes, there is a positive correlation between the two terms, but opinion leaders don't automatically adopt every new product they come across. They can be early adopters of certain products and early rejecters of others.

Similarly, just because someone was one of your first customers doesn't mean he or she influences others. In fact, the most innovative individuals may have low credibility among the average members of a network and therefore are not able to influence others.

What to do about these misconceptions? First, when you plan your buzz marketing program, think beyond the phrase "influence the influencers." Again: working with opinion leaders is an important part of buzz marketing, but there's much more you can do.

Second, make sure that everyone involved understands exactly what type of people you are trying to reach. When you are told about "opinion leaders" or "connectors," don't be shy to ask how the term is being defined and measured.

5. 'Do it online! No, do it offline!'

This misconception may not be as common as it was two or three years ago, but I still hear people talking about word-of-mouth marketing as if it started with the invention of the blog. Conversely, there are those for whom word-of-mouth marketing refers purely to offline grassroots efforts.

Don't get me wrong: I think that blogs and communication technology in general are a critical component in the rise of word-of-mouth marketing. I also think that grassroots and guerilla efforts are instrumental in stimulating buzz. My point is that online and offline are not mutually exclusive. You must consider both.

If you monitor online buzz using tools such as BlogPulse or Technorati, it's easy to start focusing all your attention on the online world. (It's also easy to get addicted to these tools.) But face-to-face communication remains a very significant medium through which buzz spreads. According to the NOP World study mentioned earlier, 80% of consumers say they have made a recommendation in person in the past year, but only about 37% say they used email to make a recommendation.

The role of technology should not be underestimated in this context. Think about how many times you read something online and talked about it over dinner. Or how many times you talked about something in person and then said, "I'll email you that link." People love to talk and express themselves, regardless of the medium—blogs, face-to-face, cell phones, or the communication tool that someone is inventing in their garage as you're reading this article. It is actually the combination of all these methods that makes buzz such a significant force. You want to make sure that you facilitate and stimulate communication on all fronts.

As more consumers around the world gain more opportunities to communicate with each other in the coming years, we can expect the importance of buzz marketing to increase. I'm sure we'll hear new terms and face some new questions. For now, I hope that I didn't introduce more confusion, and that I was able to address at least some misconceptions.

For information about MarketingProfs' upcoming seminar on Buzz Marketing with Emanuel Rosen, visit here.

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image of Emanuel Rosen

Emanuel Rosen is author of The Anatomy of Buzz: How to Create Word-of-Mouth Marketing. For more information, visit www.emanuel-rosen.com.