The big buzz theory

Vespa has it easy. Good-looking scooter. Great cachet. A hot relaunch in Canada after a long absence. It's just naturally buzz-worthy, admits David Nichols, VP marketing at Vancouver-based non-traditional marketing agency, Inventa. 'Some of my friends had '72 Vespas. There was a Vespa group and they would drive around and meet every week,' he says. 'Some brands have true brand ambassadors.' Others have to give it a nudge.

Vespa has it easy. Good-looking scooter. Great cachet. A hot relaunch in Canada after a long absence. It’s just naturally buzz-worthy, admits David Nichols, VP marketing at Vancouver-based non-traditional marketing agency, Inventa. ‘Some of my friends had ’72 Vespas. There was a Vespa group and they would drive around and meet every week,’ he says. ‘Some brands have true brand ambassadors.’ Others have to give it a nudge.

It’s clear that the buzz on buzz is big. The how-to books, the conferences, even the formation of WOMMA, the official Word of Mouth Marketing Association, just nine months ago, all point to a growing trend. ‘In the last 12 months,’ says Andy Sernovitz, the Chicago-based association’s president, ‘word of mouth has gone from anecdotal to actionable. You can actually make a word-of-mouth plan and implement it on behalf of a brand.’

For converts, they know it’s a golden addition to the marketing mix because it offers a brand with enough allure to reap the benefits of something no amount of advertising can buy: trust. The challenge for the average marketing manager, with a less comely brand, therefore, is knowing when and how to use it. And then getting numbers to prove

it’s actually working.

First some background. At its core, word of mouth – the term most agree covers PR stunts, viral efforts, guerrilla marketing, seeding, etc. – is hardly new. The difference now, says Emanuel Rosen, author of The Antamony of Buzz, is that the explosion of communication methods from cellphones to e-mails to blogs has meant that there are more opportunities for people to share their opinions with more people.

Add to that growing acceptance that we’re in a post-30-second era, and a dash of basic sociology – which contends that within our individual worlds there are certain trend-savvy friends whose expertise we trust – and you have the crux of what makes the opportunity so powerful.

According to NOP, a London-based market research firm, word-of-mouth is valued 1.5 times more by consumers today than in the 1970s, and it’s valued twice as much as traditional media. Some experts even predict that e-buzz marketing will become a standard part of a multimedia marketing campaign. ‘Word of mouth has become much more visible to the marketing world,’ says Rosen. ‘Marketers can no longer ignore it.’

In fact, more are embracing it. But because it encompasses so many different elements: PR, customer experience and the Internet, some are responding by creating internal departments, says WOMMA’s Sernovitz. And others have created altogether different companies: Packaged goods giant Procter & Gamble launched its own word-of-mouth agency, Tremor, in 2001 and says 80% of its work comes from non-P&G brands. Boston-based PR word-of-mouth agency BzzAgent has carved out a niche that has successfully drawn consumers to chat about products online, and media company MindShare’s opened The WOW Factory, a unit dedicated to innovative buzz.

But generating good word of mouth is a slippery concept: Try as you might, true buzz can’t be faked. ‘[Good word of mouth is] a very honest form of advertising dealing with real people and their honest opinion,’ says Patrick Thoburn, a partner at five-year-old Toronto-based WOM agency Matchstick. And, he adds, ‘it rides on [a consumer's] natural enthusiasm for a product.’

Matchstick’s approach – the agency has seeded products for clients like Virgin Mobile and Fuji [see page 63] – is to use several benchmarks when sourcing people to spread the word. Criteria include the influencers’ status, spending habits, knowledge base, attitude toward the brand, consumer habits and how connected they are to their network of friends.

Those who fit, and agree to participate are never paid, not scripted and are often even encouraged to tell friends that they are testing a product for the agency. ‘We don’t control the experience,’ he says.

That’s why Matchstick, Thoburn says, works with products that tell a good story. ‘We have had, on a number of occasions, conversations with prospective clients where we mutually agreed that this product probably wasn’t appropriate for word-of-mouth marketing, ‘ he says. ‘If the product doesn’t meet and exceed expectations, [people] are not going to talk about it positively.’

While purists contend that true buzz cannot be manufactured, Rosen says that all brands – big and small, sexy and not so much – can tap into word of mouth. ‘It’s more a question of whether you have something new to tell.’

Matthew Stradiotto, Matchstick co-founder adds: ‘Even products and categories you might think initially are not as sexy…there are consumers out there who are very involved and invested in those product categories. The key is to match the right product with the right influencer and let nature take its course.’ The agency has been able to generate good word of mouth for everything from soup to bathroom tissue, with much success.

Then there’s the question of results. Inventa’s Nichols’ (who is behind the Trident work, shown on page 62) reminder to marketing managers is not to get too caught up in the hype: ‘It’s great to create a talk-value campaign, but is it enough to get the consumer to say: ‘Yeah, that’s a brand I want to buy because of it?”

As always, he says, sales are what marketers want to see. So naturally, measuring the results has become the big issue for word-of-mouth advocates. Rosen, for example, suggests that it’s rather easy. ‘I don’t see it as a huge challenge to the industry. Really, I think people are making it a little more complex than it really is. You can measure the percentage of people who came to you as a result of WOM. You can measure before and after a WOM campaign. You can run a test market, where in one market campaign you used WOM and in another you didn’t.’

York University marketing professor Alan Middleton agrees that it’s possible, but because spending in word of mouth is so low among many Canadian marketers, many don’t think it merits the research costs.

He thinks it should. ‘[Many] have taken [marketing money] away from somewhere and put it into something new. Wouldn’t you like to know if it works?’

Coming up with standards has already started to happen. Case in point: Two hundred people showed up to WOMMA’s July conference, ‘Learn How to Measure, Track and Qualify Word of Mouth Marketing.’ ‘Considering the topic didn’t exist last year,’ says Sernovitz, ‘this is a major development.’

Today, what most marketers should be focusing on, Rosen suggests, is to determine when is best to use word of mouth. ‘It’s excellent that marketing managers are so aware of it right now. But really the point is

to look for opportunities. You may work on a brand for a year or two and

there’s really nothing new, then suddenly there is an opportunity: something that is really different, or something associated with the brand that can be more interesting to people, and that’s where you need to say: ‘OK, I think this is where word of mouth could fit in.”

But he’s also cautionary: ‘On the other hand, sometimes people force the method when the product is really not interesting and then it may have very mixed results.’

WOM, therefore, responsibly.

Too cool for school

Puma’s got buzz, and it’s hardly trying

‘We’re not Nike. We’re not advertising,’ says Sheila Roberts, Puma’s marketing manager for Blue Station, its lifestyle and fashion line. ‘We try to stay under the radar because we’d like to maintain the cool factor.’ The brand’s event, Together Again for the First Time, a concert featuring some of the country’s hottest indie bands, was a prime example. Set in a gutted warehouse in the up-and-coming Liberty District of west Toronto, the brand didn’t even advertise. Instead, buzz was generated through indie labels and the members of the bands like Fiest and Death from Above 1979 themselves (most of whom are Puma devotees). In the end, attendance was capped at a seemingly paltry 325, but capacity is hardly a gauge of the event’s success. ‘It is all the about the feedback,’ Roberts says. ‘I still have people coming up to me and saying: ‘ I heard I missed the party of the summer.”