Updated: 5/16/2006; 3:05:23 PM.

Current events
Post-9-11 events and analyses

daily link  Sunday, December 05, 2004

NYT Magazine: The Hidden (in Plain Sight) Persuaders:  Fascinating long article on how marketing has started to infiltrate word-of-mouth communication, with substantial discussion of what motivates the "agents" that carry the messages.  Makes me wonder about recent intense polictical campaigns (Dean, born-agains), and blogging, how this might apply to politics in general.  (My apologies for the length of the excerpts here, but there were many points I wanted to preserve).

"This idea -- the commercialization of chitchat -- resembles a scenario from a paranoid science-fiction novel about a future in which corporations have become so powerful that they can bribe whole armies of flunkies to infiltrate the family barbecue. ..

[BzzAgent] agents have essentially volunteered to create ''buzz'' about Al Fresco sausage and dozens of other products, from books to shoes to beer to perfume. BzzAgent currently has more than 60,000 volunteer agents in its network. Tremor, a word-of-mouth operation that is a division of Procter & Gamble has an astonishing 240,000 volunteer teenagers spreading the word about everything from toothbrushes to TV shows. A spinoff, Tremor Moms, is in the works. ..

[BzzAgent had a rewards points system.  But the agents did't use them much.  They said] that there was nothing wrong with the rewards; it was just that the rewards weren't really the point. Even now, only about a quarter of the agents collect rewards, and hardly any take all they have earned. .. What Balter said he learned from his agents is that lots of people like to tell others what they are reading and what restaurant they've discovered and what gizmo they just bought. In his view, BzzAgent is simply harnessing, channeling and organizing that consumer enthusiasm. ..

Most teenagers have 25 or 30 names on their instant-messaging ''buddy list,'' whereas a Tremor member might have 150. Tremor recruits volunteers mostly through online advertisements and accepts only 10 or 15 percent of those who apply. The important thing, Knox said, is they are the right kind of kids -- the connected, influential trend-spreading kind. ..

[Agent] Onyenucheya gets free stuff from Tremor, and sometimes even a small check for taking surveys and participating in focus groups. .. This past July, she was invited to an advance viewing of two television shows, ''Lost'' and ''Complete Savages,'' at the Millennium screening room in downtown Manhattan. There were about 70 teenagers there, and pizza and sodas for everybody. Onyenucheya particularly loved ''Lost.'' ''When I came home,'' she said, ''I immediately told my five closest friends, like: 'Oh, my God, you just missed the greatest shows. I got to go down to the Millennium and saw a show called 'Lost' and it was so good, and we have to watch it when it comes out.' And I felt like I had the upper hand. Like, 'You don't know what I know.' '' ..

[By contrast, BzzAgent] agents are not screened. They are not chosen. They simply sign up. They are all kinds of people .. Maybe it's altruism, maybe it's a power trip, but influencing other people feels good. .. Word-of-mouth marketing leverages not simply the power of the trendsetter but also, as Balter puts it, ''the power of wanting to be a trendsetter.'' ..

One reward Bollaert did collect from BzzAgent was, of all things, the William Gibson novel ''Pattern Recognition'' -- an actual paranoid science-fiction novel about a future in which corporations have become so powerful they can bribe flunkies to infiltrate your life and talk up products..

A loyal opinion leader -- someone who was seen by her social network as an expert on restaurants and who was also a Rock Bottom fan -- was pretty effective; if that restaurant expert was ambivalent about Rock Bottom, she was of little use. In contrast, it didn't really matter if the nonloyal agents knew much about restaurants. What mattered was that they told a lot of people (and presumably that they were enthusiastic). The implication is that it doesn't matter if you know what you're talking about, as long as you are willing to talk a lot. ..

In the past, [Prof.] Schwartz notes, the challenge for the consumer was navigating a world of faulty, shoddy or unsafe products. That's not much of an issue anymore. Now, Schwartz told me, Consumer Reports might test 40 stoves, find that 38 of them are pretty good The ''Pretty Good'' Problem complicates our lives as consumers and makes it increasingly difficult for one of those 38 stoves to stand out. But it gives BzzAgent plenty of work...

economists [studies have] concluded that once something has been given to us, we value it more. .. Other studies have shown that we like things more simply by virtue of repeated or prolonged exposure to them. .. [This] might help explain why BzzAgents and other word-of-mouth volunteers get excited about whatever they are asked to push.  Add to all of this the idea that they have been granted status as ''agents'' in an ''elite group'' that most of the world doesn't even know about, and have received a free sample of a brand-new product from a source that they trust, and they are almost certain to expend some kind of effort, unless the product is truly awful. [They] tend to see themselves as not being involved in marketing at all. Almost all of the BzzAgents I interviewed made this point. ..

Crucial to the BzzAgent system is the small team of young people in Boston who read and answer every single Bzz report.  They offer encouragement, tips on how to improve word-of-mouth strategies. Every report is rated and every agent ranked according to a complicated formula ..

[One agent said] ''For me, it's being part of something big. I think it's such a big thing that's going to shape marketing. To actually be one of the people involved in shaping that is, to me, big.'' That made sense to me too. After all, there is one thing that is even more powerful than the upper hand, more seductive than persuading: believing."

  11:43:40 PM  permalink  

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Copyright 2006 © Ken Novak.
Last update: 5/16/2006; 3:05:23 PM.