The most important aspect of buzz marketing is being able to create a story that consumers as well as the media will find interesting and relevant. That story can be simple—but it must be visual. It can start with a product, but it must have a contagious element added in. The reason that people talked about the Palm Pilot, for example, was its "wow" effect—and it was visible.

Some may say this is not part of marketing. Our panel disagrees. Marketing's role is to think about how the product can generate buzz. Another example is Lance Armstrong's campaign to raise cancer awareness, made visible through the yellow Livestrong bracelet. Essentially, it generated conversations—buzz.

Polaroid's idea to place glue on the back of iZone camera pictures, which then turned into stickers that you could give to kids, soon resulted in their multiplying around schools like an epidemic. It was contagious.

Common mistakes when executing a buzz campaign

We have all been trained to look for a specific audience of consumers to be involved in buzz marketing. But you must look beyond the ideal demographic, beyond your customers. Marketers often talk about targeting customers and capturing them. It is just as important to ask "who is talking to the customer I am trying to reach?" Often, they are different consumers: Moms talk to their kids; husbands buying clothes are influenced by wives....

Some marketers make the mistake of being inauthentic or deceptive, or otherwise trying to fool the consumer. The consumer cannot be fooled. The truth will be revealed. Buzz campaigns must involve honesty and authentic information.

Marketers also frequently jump into word-of-mouth marketing campaigns without planning. Successful programs involve studying the way people already talk about your product and developing your campaign based on that information.

Identifying and targeting the people most likely to spread your buzz is a complex matter. Essentially, any time you stimulate discussion in the buzz networks using the tactics and strategies highlighted here, you are more likely to expose people who also have friends who are more likely to hear these things. Some of them also come to you for information.

One of the characteristics of network hubs is that they are hungry for information. They love information, especially the expert hubs or mavens, because that is what they feed on. It is critical for people in your organization to understand that people who ask a lot of questions should not be scared away. It is not a guarantee that those who ask a lot of questions are a network hub, but there is a good chance they are.

You can also identify them by category. Consider the Power Bar. Coaches are obviously people who influence the decisions of athletes—very simple conceptually, but very complex in execution for a campaign. Sometimes, you can identify network hubs by category, but can you spot them in the field? Even if you can't find an opinion leader, there are many other opportunities—for example, someone who loves to talk and has many friends or connections.

More and more methods that identify people systematically and scientifically will arrive. Tremor is one organization that has used self-designating methods, with people reporting their own actions. It may not be as reliable as other methods, but it is easy to implement and can deliver good results. A variety of other methods exist to plot the network of people and to whom they are connected.

Consider the phenomenon taking place around traditional influencers. Mom always suggested to other moms what to give their kids for lunch; dad, at the family barbecue, told everyone where to look for a new car. Those people have now moved online; instead of having an impact on 10 people within their personal network, they are now influencing tens of thousands of people.

Study online conversations to find people who talk, not just most actively around a particular topic but also most influentially. Look for the people specifically sought out by consumers within these large communities to answer questions on very specific topics. You might look for people in a professional role who demonstrate knowledge, give relevant advice to others and are read a lot—people whose messages are well received. In the healthcare world, we often see doctors or nurses or dieticians posting to online communities or blogs. Those people tend to carry a lot of influence. Study online conversations to find the people who drive them; then build relationships with those people and involve them in word-of-mouth programs.

Identify your evangelists, the people who not only buy from you and are loyal to you but also spread the word about you—for many organizations, that could be 20-25% of their customer base. To find your evangelists, first measure who is talking about you and referring new customers to you. Go to your call center logs and find out who is calling in most frequently and whether they are calling in with suggestions or ideas on new ways for you to get the word out. Certainly, measuring what the blogosphere is saying and what bloggers or fans on blogs are saying about you is a good way to connect with them. Contact them directly via email or call or invite them to a product demonstration or to a beta program. Pulling them into your marketing planning at the strategy development stage is a good way to spread buzz.

If you don't have an evangelist base, or your company is new or you have a new product, the best way to find people who are going to spread buzz is category evangelists. Pull them into the planning session and incorporate them into what you are going to do; that way, they will feel ownership in your buzz marketing programs.

Will it ever get any easier?

There is no doubt that buzz marketing can do nothing but get harder, especially as more and more marketers enter the field and new ideas to generate buzz dry up.

Look at Super Bowl advertising. Although there is still buzz about what will air during the Super Bowl, over the last two years the buzz has become more and more about how disappointing the ads were and how they didn't live up to expectations.

Tide Cold Water (see part one of this article) is an example of how, given the right message, the right product and the right audience—those who really care about that message—it will always be possible to generate buzz.

The role of new technology in creating buzz

With the emergence of blogs, podcasts, peer-to-peer, cell phones, moblogging, iPods and RSS, there has been a lot of talk about how companies will use these technologies in buzz marketing. Perhaps more interesting is the trend of "citizen marketing": that is, customers or consumers using these technologies to do your buzz marketing for you.

We have seen very skillful people accessing tools to create media that help amplify word-of-mouth for a product. Remember that great shot by Tiger Woods at the Masters? Within hours a fan named Joe Jaffe had made a commercial for Nike based on that shot, and the buzz was all over the blogosphere.

Converse embraced customers to help create buzz; amateur-filmmaker customers created some really great clips that were then showcased on the company Web site, in the Converse Gallery. Some of these clips were made into commercials for broadcast on MTV, VH1 and elsewhere. The key question is, How do we embrace these consumers who are already creating media to help us amplify our message?

One important contribution of technology is that it creates an explosion of so-called weak ties. Many buzz marketers are familiar with the work of Mark Granovetter, The Strength of Weak Ties; the idea is that most information that is new comes to you not from close friends and people whom you spend a lot of time with but from acquaintances—people with whom you have weak ties. Whereas 20 years ago you talked mostly to people around you (people at work, people you see on a daily basis, your family)—and you still do—what the Internet really does is create an explosion of additional, weak ties.

The truth is that all customer-created media adds on to the media that we see via TV and other sources. It allows people to not only talk one-on-one but also broadcast information. People can podcast or broadcast or just send an email to a hundred of their friends or acquaintances about something they are very excited about.

The bottom line is that more people will be spending more time connected to each other. And when people are connected to each other, they talk. While they do not talk primarily about brands, products and services, these are becoming an important part of our lives and so there will be proportionately more time spent talking about them.

When you forward information to your friends, they know you and know of your credibility on the topic; they know whether they are going to read or ignore what you said.

With weak ties, however, you really have no idea who those sending information are, and whether what they are saying is legitimate. For the new kinds of technologies to ultimately have an impact, at least in relation to consumer-generated media, there needs to be some Amazon- or eBay-type rating system that offers endorsement regarding whether an entry has validity.

Companies that use these tools effectively, particularly among those loyal consumers who can never get enough of their products, will be searching for ways to become more engaged with the brand or product. Feeding it to them via RSS, blogs or podcasts will become an effective way of reaching that group.

Tracking and measuring impact

There are several traditional ways that marketers can measure the impact of word-of-mouth, such as adding questions to tracking surveys, and even phone-based surveys that ask, "How did you hear about this product?"

It has traditionally been difficult to gauge how people are talking about your company and how that talk changes over time. But one of the neat things that's happened over the last few years is that there is now a database of natural conversations—the ones that consumers are having online: on message boards, in blogs, on email lists, and on product review sites. All those millions of conversations can be archived and studied by companies, which can then start to measure the impact of word-of-mouth on brand.

So, say, if you launch five marketing programs comprising nontraditional and traditional media, you can ask questions like these: "How is the needle moving on our brand word-of-mouth? Is it positive or more negative? Are people talking about our quality more because that is what the campaigns are focused on?" All of those conversations can now be captured because there is that database of word-of-mouth. Unfortunately, you cannot do the same thing offline; it is impossible to capture and quantify the conversations that take place in restaurants or bars. But a lot of those same conversations now take place online; therefore, studying them would gauge the impact of the various marketing programs launched.

Many folks initially lean toward traditional measurement metrics such as CPM or CPA. From a pure metrics standpoint, there are ways to measure the success of a buzz marketing campaign. If a campaign is run regionally, you can measure the lift in the campaign, with word-of-mouth versus without, and whether it integrated with media like direct mail, TV or PR.

Understanding whether people are communicating positively or negatively about your product perhaps starts with the basics—especially if you are a small company. Ask: "How did you hear about us? How likely are you to recommend us to a friend?"

Tap into your customers before, after and during a buzz campaign to glean information.

You can also measure impact on sales by way of a pass-along coupon. Power Bar, in the very early days, did a simple pass-along campaign and so knew exactly how many people actually passed on the coupon to friends.

Companies can fine-tune their knowledge, too. When is the best time after a person purchases the product to ask for a referral? Right after purchase may not be the right time, because the customer still hasn't seen the impact of the product; it can take time for a consumer to start liking it and getting excited about it.

Many marketers are employing what is called market-mix modeling. These are statistical models that take weekly sales data, which is matched against weekly marketing spending data, with other factors like the economy and consumer confidence thrown in. There is no reason not to throw in some measure of buzz as one of the variables to see how closely it correlates to sales. That is really what marketers are looking for: tying it to sales, not just changes in attitude.

Harnessing the power of buzz marketing

Can a small business with a commodity product effectively harness buzz marketing? Are there companies that are not well suited to using it?

One may say that laundry, fast food and commodity products are not buzz-related categories. But look at Morton Salt. It is the same chemical composition as any other kind of salt, but it has been able to create a brand. Commodity producers need to determine how to create something that differentiates them from the rest, whether it's service or personality. Yogurt is yogurt, right? But look at Stonyfield Farms. It has created a personality and soul around its brand that people want to talk about and share with their friends.

Counteracting negatives

Consumers are going to talk about you in whatever way they choose.

Therefore, you certainly need to be transparent about what your product does—you need to face the consumer openly and honestly. You certainly need to pay attention to what people are saying and make changes if necessary. One of the powers of buzz and word-of-mouth marketing is the capability to move very quickly because consumers' thoughts are open to adjustment as new information is revealed.

Marketers need not be worried about negative buzz as much as they are. We see a lot of negative buzz that is essentially positive. When people are saying negative things, a new group of consumers starts popping up—those quiet advocates who come out to support a brand that is not being treated fairly. Negative buzz is also one of the best ways a company can learn what it is doing wrong, and can then work on fixing it.

Negative buzz will happen to everyone at some point. How you respond to it is what's really important.

Creating an irresistible idea, message or offer

"Forward this pitch to friend" does not seem to cut it, so what does?

Keep it simple, for one. Too often, messages are complicated. Many of the ads and messages that companies put together struggle to reveal what the real consumer benefit is. Sometimes, it's buried in the small print.

If you do not have a clear competitive advantage, you may want to put together a story that is unique. Outrageous messages, of course, are more likely to be reproduced. Conflict is another thing that gets talked about.

One advantage about this concept is that in the case of word-of-mouth the sender actually knows the recipient and his/her situation. This means that you can create two, three or four unique and simple messages and send the one that is most relevant to your recipient. Make it simple and engaging, and fun as well, and do not let your creativity get in the way. First and foremost, communicate the real benefit to the consumer.

Simplicity makes the spread of buzz so much easier and faster. Simplicity is often dragged down by committees representing multiple departments that feel they have to have their goals and strategies represented in the overall communication plan. The plan gets weighed down by pure mass.

One way that an organization can develop a unique or irresistible offer is to resist making assumptions about what customers think, believe to be true or find irresistible, because much is missed by organizations in which one person believes that he or she speaks on behalf of 10 million customers. You can overcome this problem by involving customers in the buzz creation process. From a small group of some 12 people to a larger panel of 100 or 1,000, people could be enlisted to test out ideas or even generate ideas at the outset and test them, and then democratically give them a vote. This worked pretty well for the Howard Dean Campaign spin-off Democracy for America when it created a billboard campaign targeting Tom DeLay in his own district of Texas. It became a buzz-worthy campaign in some political circles.

The shape of buzz marketing to come

With experts and researchers sharing information, we will develop much more expertise about how to do buzz marketing better.

In a few years, companies with strong marketing and advertising practices will need to have organized word-of-mouth as part of their underlying marketing concept, or even their knowledge and research concept. They are going to need to engage with consumers much more differently. The lines between the company and the consumer are changing. Buzz marketing will look at working with customers, instead of marketing at them, to make things happen.

Then there is the issue of trust. We always talk about the fact that people do not trust the media as much as they used to, but the truth is that people do not trust other people as much as they used to.

If one were to compare, say, 1962 with 1999, a constant decline in trust would become apparent—not because people have changed their minds, but because younger generations are not as trusting. Companies that do unethical things such as encourage people to enter into undercover marketing schemes, which we saw in 2000 and 2001, further reduce the trust that people put into word-of-mouth—at the same time increasing the trust that people have in close friends.

There is a difference between people you really know and just other people. It will be interesting to see in 5-10 years where people are in terms of trust. One study from NOP World, conducted in early 2005, showed that most people feel comfortable about a company's giving someone a product and asking to spread the word about it. They feel that person can still be trusted. But, in the same way that large companies lost trust after a few scandals, the same can happen to buzz marketing. So it is important that the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) and an ethical code exist.

We all agree that buzz marketing can be a powerful component of anyone's marketing plan. Of course, wielding it effectively can be tricky. Thanks to our illustrious panel of experts, we have some great fodder for doing a much more effective job at buzz marketing in the future.

Editor's note: A transcript and MP3 recording of the Buzz Marketing Summit (as well as for each Thought Leader Summit) are available for download in the Premium library.

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Stephan Spencer is the founder of Science of SEO and an SEO expert, author, and speaker.

LinkedIn: Stephan Spencer

Twitter: @sspencer