Buzz marketing – an ethical “black hole”

Posted on: April 8, 2007

Following on from my post on SimplyCity, it is notable that the latest edition of The Economist reports on buzz marketing which is the close cousin of WOM sites like SimplyCity. In the article “Building buzz” (p.76 of the UK edition), it points to the problems of control and ethics that are implicit in buzz marketing. “The difficulty for marketers is creating the right kind of buzz and learning to control it. Negative views spread just as quickly as positive ones, so if a product has flaws people will soon find out”.

The example of Microsoft sending laptops loaded with Vista to key bloggers was an example of misjudgement that boomeranged on the software company. They (and the blogging community) responded negatively to what could have been seen as a bribe or at least an unduly large gift. But there was no doubt as to which company had sent the laptop and software to the bloggers, whereas buzz marketing in some forms uses so-called “volunteers”, recruited with offers of free product or a loyalty rewards programme, to promote a product or service to friends and relatives.

In this case there may be no disclosure of interest by the “volunteer” who is speaking about product. That is a practised deception and so is, in my view, unethical. It’s bad enough to be ambushed by people selling pyramid schemes like Amway or inviting you to product evenings, but at least you know what their interest is within a few moments. For someone to be either promoting a product (whisper marketing) or getting feedback for product development (buzz marketing) without telling you of their interest is dangerous for the reputation of organisation using this strategy and potentially deceptive.  We all have heard recommendations from friends about products, but you expect them to be based on their genuine experience and not a set of messages that have been sent to them in exchange for reward.

Already, many PR professional bodies have set out policies on ethical communication and I hope that these will be operationalised in public relations and the other below-the-line disciplines. If not, who can we trust?


2 Responses to "Buzz marketing – an ethical “black hole”"

I would have loved to have had one of the laptops. Would have put it to good use, even if I had to publicly state where it came from.

I’d like to see more openness in traditional media clarifying their interests when recommending products. Whether it is restaurant or wine reviews, fashion/beauty products, the travel industry, or my own area of motoring, for example, I think it is about time all journalists were more open about whether they have been been given hospitality or “free” products/loans.

Access prior to launch of new products and/or trips to facilities is necessary and a well established PR-media practice. But I feel more transparency has to be a good thing.

On the paid-to-buzz question – we all learn to ignore any friend or contact who makes a bad recommendation. I agree that openness is ideal, but I don’t mind someone being paid if their advice is good – but then if they are making good recommendations, they probably don’t need to be paid.

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