(Promo) Last month, we wrote about marketers’ fast-growing interest in social-networking sites as platforms for promotions (“Should Friends Be Marketers?”). Momentum is building even as brands and agencies formalize word-of-mouth marketing with official consumer panels and measurement standards. Welcome to the era of conversation marketing. Now “pass” marketing strategy is supplementing — and sometimes replacing — the classic push-pull model. This month, we address the ethics of seeding brands into consumer conversations, the quest for measurement standards, and the mundane stuff consumers like to chat about.
In September, General Motors put video clips of flying cars on its own Website to supplement its TV ad campaign, themed “Elevate.” But GM caused sparks when it also planted the clips on video-sharing sites. The three clips pulled in more than 25,000 viewings on non-GM sites in the first few weeks. But they drew criticism, too, from viewers who felt duped into thinking the ads were member-generated videos.
“The decision to put [the videos] out and let people discover it on their own seemed like the natural organic way to do it,” says Scott Lahde of Deutsch, GM’s ad agency that created the clips. “When you start promoting things too heavily, people get annoyed that it is a promotion rather than something interesting.”
The clips are just a small part of the “Elevate” campaign, and consumer response has been mostly positive, Dan Keller, GM’s general director of marketing told “Promo” reporter Andrew Scott at the time. Most consumers “think it’s positive and appreciate that GM is trying to do something different to reach them in a unique, non-traditional way.
“That’s a part of the beauty of a viral campaign. Some people will get it, some will never find out,” Keller added. “Some will think it’s humorous and forward-thinking that a company like GM will do something like this.”
TV network ABC ticked off some New Yorkers when it sent runway models out to flirt with commuters to promote the premiere of its series “Six Degrees.” The models caught the eye of a passer by, then handed him (or her) a hand-written note that said, “Remember me? Get in touch” with an e-mail address for either “Steven” or “Whitney” (both “Six Degrees” characters). Those who e-mailed got a reply an hour or so later, so it didn’t seem like an automated response; the follow-up sent readers to Steven or Whitney’s personal Website, which turned out to be a promotional site for the show. Civic Entertainment Group, New York, handled the promotion.
The weeklong push coincided with print, online and, in New York, transit and elevator ads from Los Angeles-based BLT & Associates, promoting the show’s premise: You never know how you might be related to the strangers around you.
“We want people to be intrigued by it and think, ‘Do I know this person?’ That’s so feasible in New York,” says Darren Shillace, ABC’s vice president, advertising and marketing.
A handful of bloggers ripped the promotion, criticizing ABC for flirting with reality and duping consumers.
“People might be upset if they instantly fell in love with the model, but it’s just designed to make you think,” Shillace says. “People are realistic enough to understand what we’re trying to do.”
But consumers hate feeling punked. And backlash against stealth promotions could hasten the development of clear marketing venues on social-networking and video-sharing sites. This summer YouTube — which hired its first chief marketing officer, Suzie Reider, in September, then sold to Google for $1.65 billion last month — began selling “brand channels” that let marketers showcase videos that support a brand’s image, and “participatory video ads” that let viewers post and pass along TV spots they like.
YouTube launched the services to make money off marketers’ interest in the site, not to set a barrier between members’ videos and ads. But as brands crowd into social-networking environs, marketers will discover, again, that honesty is the best marketing strategy. It’s a lesson the industry is still digesting for word-of-mouth campaigns, where full disclosure has become the norm.
The ethics of disclosure
Word-of-mouth agency Bzz-Agent is in the process of expelling about 10,000 “pests” from its consumer panel, members who have broken the rules by opening multiple accounts with different profiles, filing false reports or selling their samples on eBay. The Boston-based agency also added a check box to its reporting form, where an agent confirms that he has disclosed that he’s an agent while chatting up a product. (The shop averages 30-35 campaigns at a time, for products ranging from books and apparel to food, fragrances and travel. Most campaigns run 12 weeks. Agents are invited into campaigns based on their demographics; they choose how many to accept.)
BzzAgent’s “communications developers” — the 20-30 contractors who read and respond to all agent reports, in person — also scan report notes for signs that agents disclosed their affiliation during a chat. Agents who don’t must take online training about disclosure before they can participate in another campaign.
BzzAgent launched in 2002 with the exact opposite policy: Don’t tell. “Conventional wisdom said it would work better if you were quiet about your affiliation,” says BzzAgent director of public relations Joe Chernov. “The idea was that it would be young, hip influencers who’d make these campaigns work. But [it turns out] it’s regular everyday people who make it work. You don’t have to be young and plugged in to be credible talking about pet food.”
Besides, agents were telling friends about this marketing network they had joined — word-of-mouth for the messenger — so in 2003, BzzAgent adopted a new policy: Tell if you want.
By December 2004 backlash against stealth marketing had risen; at the same time, research showed that BzzAgents who disclosed their affiliation got their own friends talking to 60% more people. Disclosure actually improved the ripple effect. By December 2005, BzzAgent had shifted its policy to: Tell, or there will be repercussions.
At the same time, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) championed the fledgling word-of-mouth industry with an adamant disclosure policy, right out of the gate. Its “Honesty of ROI” rule tells marketers — and consumers — to be honest about their relationship (“Say who you’re speaking for”), opinion, and identity.
“Word of mouth is self-regulating: If you put a bad product in people’s hands, they won’t lie for you. You can’t get a whole army of people to lie for you,” says WOMMA CEO Andy Sernovitz.
As managed word-of-mouth mushrooms, consumers get more skeptical — so honesty becomes almost more valuable than the endorsement itself.
But disclosure can be distracting, too. Brand messages sometimes get overshadowed by the novelty of formal networks like BzzAgent, say promotion agency execs.
Agents don’t draw the distinction. If the novelty of the medium overshadows the brand message, “then they’ll get someone else interested in BzzAgent,” says fledgling BzzAgent Sarah McCracken. That’s cold comfort to brands footing the bill.
Chris Wallace, who’s been in BzzAgent for two years, says he was more interested in the network than he was in the chicken sausage his friend served. (It was that dinner, in 2004, that got Wallace to join Bzz-Agent.) “What really appealed to me was the marketing concept.
“But,” he adds, “I still talk about chicken sausage to this day.”
Just everyday stuff
Word of mouth works for mature products as well as launches: About two-thirds of the work handled by the mom and teen panels run by Procter & Gamble’s Tremor division is for existing products, says Tremor CEO Steve Knox.
And it’s often the mundane that sparks the biggest buzz. “There are people who are inexplicably enthusiastic about boring stuff,” Sernovitz says.
Like WD-40′s pen. And cleaning supplies: Niche brand Method invites fans to sign up as advocates on its recently launched Website, PeopleAgainstDirty.com. The small company relies on word of mouth instead of ads. (“It’s the most time-honored, low-tech marketing known to humankind. And we love it that way,” the site says.)
Then there’s Fiskars’ fan club for scrapbookers, the Fiskateers. A dedicated site carries blogs from four women; members post pages from their own scrapbooks, chat on bulletin boards and consult a calendar for in-person and online events.
One of BzzAgent’s most successful campaigns was for a light bulb. “People asked agents if they redecorated their rooms,” Chernov laughs.
“People like to talk about everyday products that make a difference in their lives,” he adds. “Products that are too revolutionary can be too hard to explain.”
And then some products are so dirt simple that they need a more orchestrated push to spark consumers’ interest. The Centers for Disease Control has walked that fine line all year, passing out 500,000 Yellowball playground balls to get kids playing along with its Verb campaign (“Pass It On). The viral campaign works like this: Each ball has a code on it. Kids play with the ball, then go to verbnow.com to register the code, blog about what they did, then pass the ball along.
The trick has been making the balls desirable, but not so precious that kids wouldn’t pass them on. We’ll all share our opinions, but give away the actual ball? Hmm.
“This is a physical premium, so we had to get people past thinking, ‘This is a cool thing, I want to keep it’ and feel the responsibility to pass it on,” says Chris Cancilla, senior vice president/group creative director at Arc Worldwide, the Chicago-based agency that handles Verb for CDC.
So CDC and Arc carefully cast its street teams, with a performer (think gymnast or acrobat), a rally maker, and a manager to draw kids’ attention, make the ball seem valuable, and — critical to the campaign — make kids want to share it.
“It was like being at the theater,” says CDC marketing director Lori Asbury. “It was totally different from a traditional guerilla approach, with a much higher level of performance ability.”
By early September kids had registered 10,000 of the 350,000 balls distributed so far — and passed on 22% of them, judging by the 13,000-plus blog entries from ball handlers at VerbNow.com. That’s about a 4% response rate, better than the 1%-to-3% rate that CDC projected for its 9- to 12-year-old audience. Layers of buzz help, Asbury says: “We’re continually injecting word of mouth because you can’t just put a plan out there and watch it. The movement wouldn’t stay alive if we didn’t keep adding to it.”
CDC piggybacked the Dew Action Tour, Major League Soccer’s weeklong camps and Minor League Baseball with Yellowball’s own mobile tour. In June, CDC added a video mixer to VerbNow.com to let kids edit, post and e-mail their own video using CDC’s film clips of kids playing with the balls. So far, 100,000 videos have been posted, says Cancilla. “We knew the balls would be scarce; this gives kids another way to participate, and helps spread the program.”
Pass-along videos and online word-of-mouth panels raise another question: How does online word of mouth compare with face-to-face conversation? Apples and oranges? Skimming a stranger’s book review vs. chatting with your best friend over coffee?
“It’s scale vs. depth of connection,” Sernovitz says.
Perfetti van Melle USA and its agency, Launch Marketing, considered hosting Mentos’ video contest on its own site, but opted for YouTube instead because it’s cheaper and has built-in traffic. “It has a huge number of subscribers, and there were already something like 4,000 Mentos videos out there,” says Tom Baer, who consulted with Chicago-based Launch to create the Mentos Geyser campaign. Launch used YouTube’s message system to invite those posters to enter its contest.
Blogs, too, garner word of mouth. Intel and Microsoft are among the companies that host (but don’t police) blog sites for employees. “Real blogging always wins; fake blogging never works,” Sernovitz says. “When a blogger says something negative about a brand, if you object as a corporate marketer, you won’t succeed. You need to build credibility and relationships [via blog] before then, and use those when comments get negative.”
The best official blogger for a company? “The guy who wears the company shirt on weekends,” Sernovitz says.
Make it too techy, though, and conversation feels like a transaction, not interaction. That’s why BzzAgent eschews automation in its reporting process. Its crew of 20 to 30 freelance “communications developers” read and reply to every message from BzzAgent’s 215,000 members. The contractors are all trained on ethics, the corporate “voice” (“positive, friendly, engaging,” says Chernov) and BzzAgent’s “share, don’t sell” philosophy. They get deeper training on specific campaigns, enough to chat easily with members. When Levi’s sent members a Dockers outfit (slack, belt, shirt, socks), one guy’s wife told BzzAgent that he wore it to a wedding and got lots of complements. “I hope it was a day wedding,” the contractor teased.
“It makes you feel like there’s a person on the other end,” says Wallace, the BzzAgent panelist. “Even if they only skimmed it, it feels like at least they pay attention to what you have to say.”
That two-way conversation is like a heightened, continuous focus group — pay dirt for marketing research. “Connectors are filled with wonderful ideas and have no systemic way to talk back to companies,” Knox says of Tremor panelists. “We give them a way to talk back.”
In fact, word of mouth is probably 30%-40% research-driven, says Jamie Tedford, chief creative officer at Arnold Brand Promotions. “One key goal is to hear the true voice of the consumer in an unfiltered way,” he says.
Volkswagen of America got an earful with its 2005 Alpha Drivers campaign to relaunch Passat. VW invited current and former owners to register as Alpha Drivers to get a peek under the tent during Passat’s design, earn a 24-hour test drive and win a two-year lease. Members also chatted live with executive VP Len Hunt online. The loyal VW owners “felt rewarded that VW was putting a face to the brand and finally listening,” says Tedford, who helped spearhead the campaign at Boston-based Arnold. “It opened Len’s eyes to the research power of communicating with your best customers.”
Consumers like to feel like they have a say in R&D — even if the production line is already running. “I’m getting products that are pre-production, so I test it out for the company, and my feedback makes a difference as they design the products,” Wallace says. “My feedback matters; it’s not just about the marketing technique.”
Practitioners are kicking around a few measurement models, most notably the “net promoter score” developed by Bain & Co. consultant Fred Reichheld in his March 2006 book “The Ultimate Question.” A company asks its customers “would you recommend our brand to a friend?” and scores the responses to identify “promoters” and “detractors.” Subtract the number of detractors from the number of promoters, and that’s the net promoter score. Bain analyzed 100-plus companies across 25 industries in the U.S. and U.K., and found that those who concentrated on repeat sales and referrals — those with the highest net promoter scores — grew 2.6 times faster than their industry averages.
BzzAgent measures shifts in net promoter scores for all its campaigns, as well as sales lift, number of total conversations, and the number of people reached through a ripple effect (since every person that hears from an agent passes the message along to an average of 1.6 more people). P&G’s Tremor measures sales and brand-equity scores geographically, since word of mouth travels mostly face-to-face, which keeps it local. “We consistently see well over double-digit sales and brand equity increases,” Knox says. “Our all-time best was when we doubled a brand’s business.” Some brands also ask Tremor to track trial level and repeat levels. Hershey Foods, which tapped Arnold and BzzAgent to sample Take 5 candy bars this summer, is tracking the number of participants, number of samples distributed, and number of conversations to gauge trial rates and brand awareness.
WOMMA’s Research & Metrics Council — under cochairs from Buzz-Metrics, GfK NOP and Harvard Business School — is developing tools to standardize word of mouth measurement across all kinds of executions.
Pricing, too, is under construction. WOMMA is working on a cost-per-conversation model that could be done by yearend. That system, comparable to traditional broadcast cost-per-thousand pricing, would help marketers fund campaigns through media budgets. “The question is, how do you weight true brand engagement?” posits Tedford. “You can’t compare word of mouth with media advertising for how engaging it is.”
The other factor worth measuring is chatters’ fatigue. Consumers rarely quit word-of-mouth networks; they just fade into “ghosts,” as BzzAgent calls them. The network’s “ghost rate” is affected by the number and applicability of campaigns that new members can join, Chernov says: “If we don’t engage them right away, they’re more likely to become ghosts.”
But too much enthusiasm can be a problem, too. “If someone joins every single campaign and tells everyone about all the products, people will start tuning them out,” McCracken says. “The key is to make it valuable for friends by choosing which products they’d be really interested in.”
And marketers? Should they, too, be choosy about how, and how much, to use word of mouth so they don’t overdo it and spoil its organic value?
Don’t worry, says Upshot senior vice president Rich Scarle. “It’s not that long ago that the Internet was an organic entity, and its seems to be doing fine now.”
Brand efforts to control social networking are likely to fall flat. Wal-Mart Stores shuttered its teen-targeted site, The HUB, after about 10 weeks. The site launched in July as part of Wal-Mart’s “School Your Way” back-to-school campaign, but its stiff parental controls and overt marketing tone — asking kids to post wish lists of clothes and goodies from Wal-Mart, for example — turned teens off. (The site now redirects visitors to Soundcheck.com, where Wal-Mart hosts music downloads and clips of concerts that run on its in-store TV network.) Wal-Mart has said that it always intended to fold the site once the promo ended, but industry observers suspect Wal-Mart hoped to start a longer conversation with kids as part of its image makeover to woo more upscale consumers. Still, Wal-Mart keeps its MySpace profile (called “Wal-Mart’s college page”) with a little more than 10,000 friends.