Does “Word Of Mouth Marketing” Poison The Well?

So, back in December, the Concord Monitor (Concord, NH) unwittingly broke one of its own ethical guidelines, by publishing two reviews submitted by a BzzAgent.

From the Monitor (8Dec2004), in an article entitled “Feeling The Buzz…New Marketing Tool Is Testing Ethical Limits Of Advertising“:

“Deep in an article in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, we learned that the Monitor, and perhaps you, had unwittingly been buzzed by Jason Desjardins of Bradford, one of the company’s [BzzAgent] most successful buzz agents.

Desjardins wrote two brief reviews of books he received from BzzAgent. He submitted them in response to the Monitor’s standing invitation to readers to send us brief comments about books they had read. We published them.

By telephone yesterday, Desjardins said the reviews of [ed. – let’s call them “book one” and “book two”…no sense in rewarding this behavior] reflected his honest opinion and he had no intent to deceive us or our readers. He did not realize that reputable newspapers would not knowingly publish anything that was part of an advertising campaign without saying so.” (emphasis added)

Therein lies the rub.

Something new that inspires interest, spread by word-of-mouth from friend-to-friend => great.
Something new that is spread by word-of-mouth from friend-to-friend as part of a compensated, premeditated strategy => potential ethical dilemma for every party involved.

What are newspapers, broadcast media, bloggers to do? Does every comment that comes in need to be vetted for ulterior motives? Do newspapers, broadcast media, bloggers stop taking unsolicited input altogether? (unlikely) Does every piece of communication need to have a caveat?

No easy answers here.

Offtopic Shiny Thing: “Therein,” as typed in the paragraph above, is only one letter away from “theremin,” the coolest musical instrument, ever.

The Customer Service Experience, From Both Sides Of The Phone

Doing some end-of-the-week catchup, and just came across a fantastic conversation between Alan Herrell and a customer service supervisor who only identifies himself as “Greg.” Three stops on this bus so far, and I actually hope there will be more.

It starts with a rant from Alan, Blogging Customer Service by Phone. A wonderful screed, that starts with the problems with website “self service” for customer service issues, and neatly analyzes the steps that a frustrated customer typically goes through before even picking up the phone to dial a customer support line. The pull-quote:

Alan, the customer: “Using the telephone is not only so 20th Century, is the last ditch effort to get our issues addressed, provided of course that website actually provides a number we can use. It is surprising how few companies provide a customer service number. You can find out everything else out from vapid statements of vision from the CEO, stirring mission statements, press releases, marketing materials in any number of formats for your viewing pleasure, SEC registration statements. Shareholder information, and so on.

At this point we are still willing to do business with a company despite having been ignored with the request form, under the assumption we were willing to fill it out, which did not solve our issue, the simple email, which was not returned, both which could have resolved the problem before we pick up the phone…So we call.”

Read the whole thing.

Alas, Greg, who is “a senior customer service rep on the phones for a consumer tech company,” disagrees. Violently. Seven long ‘graphs of pseudo-statistical rationalization of why phone based customer service is horrible. (Here’s the paraphrased Cliff Note version: “If customers were smart enough to solve the problems themselves using the tools we gave them, they wouldn’t have to call us.”)

The pull-quote:

Greg, the customer service rep: “So in reality, my experience is that about 1.5% of people who get through the voice recognition system actually have real issues that aren’t addressed on the website or in the manual. It is the other 99% of the calls that get to a breathing human being that create long hold times.”

Alan picks up thread, runs with it.

Alan: “I want to think that I received value from your product for my money. If there is a question, and I do end up on the phone, the value diminishes in a direct proportion to how much time it takes to get an answer.

If I receive value, I will tell my friends which will in turn sell more of your product to pay your salary.

Do you see how we are all joined at the hip, despite the fact we have never met, will probably never meet, but do share a desire to feel good about the choices we make, knowing that there is someone who we can turn to if there is a problem?

Alan also has a great lead-in to any phone experience. (Clip, save, put next to the phone. It doesn’t matter if you’re a customer or a service provider. This is a gem.)

“I am calling you because your company already made the sale, but it’s value is diminishing rapidly with every moment I spend waiting for you.”

Greg, in response, sticks by his guns.

Greg: “And as I said, MOST of the calls my unit gets are easy-to-handle issues that wouldn’t require a call if the customer was willing to read and follow written instructions they already have.” (Also a great bit in here about customer service reps who do their jobs “despite the presence of chronic complainers and scam artists.”)

Both sides make their case. Chicken, meet egg?

No, I don’t think so.

Greg, it may be frustrating to deal with “chronic complainers and scam artists,” but, c’mon…what percentage of the population really falls into that category? Don’t you think customers want to get on with their lives, as opposed to spending time on the phone with customer support? Isn’t all the upfront hassle, driven by some combination of poor product design and/or communication breakdowns (could be from manuals to the website to, I suppose, even unmet customer expectations) really the driver to all this?

(hat tip: doc)

Who Talks Like This?

Just finished listening to Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba’s podcast, wrapping up last week’s WOMMA (Word Of Mouth Marketing Association) meeting from Chicago. Featured on the show was Dave Balter, CEO of BzzAgent.

The whole BzzAgent thing. I still just don’t get it.

Here’s a transcript of Balter’s spiel from the ‘cast.

“From a basic description, Light Loyals are really everyday people. In the case of this campaign, the Light Loyals were the individuals who experienced the brand but didn’t meet any of the sort of the criteria that was predefined as making someone really exceptional at creating word-of-mouth. They weren’t an expert, they weren’t an opinion leader, they didn’t write reviews on websites or restaurant sites, they didn’t write for Zagat’s, and they also weren’t the people who we would call the Heavy Loyals who were going once a day, once a week…often enough that most of us would say “that’s a lot of times to go to a restaurant.” These were people who would go to the restaurant once every two months, maybe once every six months.

These are people the way that we measured, and we had loyalty card data. These are people who had a card, and we could know exactly how often they were going, how much they spent every time. So, in the case of what we’ve defined now as Light Loyals, are people who might trickle to the bottom of that segmentation database of how are people acting as they are purchasing, but, on the other side, they’re really valuable at being able to create word of mouth that has an effect. And that’s because, of a few things. One is they haven’t influenced the network around them. We found many Light Loyals have this sort of “a-ha moment” when they say “oh, yeah…wait minute, I do like that restaurant. Wait a second, we have that Friday thing at work where everybody recommends a restaurant, and I’m recommending this Friday. Yeah, that’d be great, I should tell everybody!” And so, it was this consciousness of the opinion that sort of turned them on, and then they hadn’t influenced around them yet and so they could be really effective.”


Dear Dave,

We’re not segments. We’re people. We don’t want to “influence around us.” We want to have meaningful relationships with cool, smart, funny people with whom we like to laugh and drink and tell stories.

We don’t “experience the brand.” Branding is for cows, purple or otherwise.

We don’t wait for “recommend a restaurant day” or “Hawaiian shirt day” or any other kind of contrived office holiday that has been anally extracted by a clueless organization in hopes of creating a distraction from the mind-numbing sameness and bullshit that has been created around us.

“Trickle to the bottom of the segmentation database?” Seriously? Who talks like that?


(added: Looks like Jason Calacanis had some similar thoughts today as well.)

Customers Use Social Technology To Route Around Corporate Monoculture is a collaborative project designed to enable customers to more easily find unique, non-homogenized services. While the original Delocator site is aimed at routing around everyone’s favorite coffee whipping boys from Seattle, the creators have created the site for the following reasons:

“Each [Starbucks] store is designed to deliver the authentic coffeehouse experience. The only way to accomplish this and be profitable and competitive is by making all of the stores identical: the same beverages, food, ambient sounds and smells, even the same simulated coffeehouse interior wall treatments. Their products, services and spaces are quantified: eliminating any subjectivity or variance in their business practices, making all things measurable; homogenized: reducing the entire range of experience to one particular form; and commodified: everything is either directly for sale or in the aide of selling.

“Social interaction is even considered. All employees receive the exact same training for product handling, customer service, and store management, creating a cog-like work force that can be placed anywhere within the system of stores. The regulation of employees and store architecture both set a precedent for customer behavior, all unvarying, compliance-driven, and ultimately, non-social.” (emphasis added)

The vision of Delocator isn’t limited solely to enabling the revolucion de los lattes, however. They continue:

“The creation of other delocated database-driven web sites is encouraged. On the web site, users are able to download the code necessary to establish a new database, prompting more sites and databases that may focus on other specific retail stores (fast-food, hardware, clothing, etc.).”

(Here’s where you can download the toolkit.)

This is certainly not the first, nor the last, effort of this type. However, the ease of use of the site and, more importantly, the ease at which the Delocator team has made available the tools to broaden the scope of this effort to other retail niches makes it something to watch.

Extra: The same idea can apply to hotels as well.

(hat tip: john)

Persistent Conversations And Relationships

A few thoughts, continuing the discussion started here.

  • A conversation is a set of exchanges of information.
  • A relationship is an implicit or explicit agreement to have continued conversations in the future.
  • Persistent conversations can form the basis of the relationships between members of a social network.

In the article Managing Long Term Communications: Conversation and Contact Management, the authors note a wide variety of techniques that their interview subjects used in order to remember what they had committed to doing next to hold up their end of the conversation. All of the typical modes you would expect were exhibited: everything from handwritten notes to online diaries to sticky notes to writing crib notes onto body parts (hands, usually, but I s’pose other parts would work as well).

This is where the tools come in. Contact Management or CRM systems, etc., should be used to manage these conversations. But that’s not how these systems are thought of or, frankly, used. Contact management systems are typically used as a Rolodex; stagnant, frozen, and one-dimensional — what are the person’s digits? A subtle shift in thinking, however, leads to show that instead of merely acting as repositories for the mechanical contact aspects (phone number, email address, etc.), these systems could be used to understand where one is in an ongoing conversation, what has been said, who’s turn it is to speak next, and when it should be said. Subtle, but critically important. Most of these systems have the capabilities to track notes…but the big “a-ha!” comes in when those notes are no longer thought of solely as relics to be filed away, but instead are thought of as the “placeholder” in an ongoing dialogue.

Now, that being said, equally important as the ongoing conversation is that same past record of conversations. Why? Because that conversational record may be important to other members of the network. An example, from the Long Term Communications paper:

“We had a housewarming party where we sent out an invitation and gave everybody three by five cards, and they had to come back with a recommendation. Because we moved into the new neighborhood and we didn’t know plumbers or dentists or doctors or anything…All the recommendations are in here. And people know we have this list now, and so they call us up to recommend an X. And so we’re becoming sort of a local knowledge group because we did this at our housewarming.”

So, in this case, the fact that these participants held onto the conversational record transformed the newbies in the neighborhood into the neighborhood experts for all things domestic.

What does this all mean? Once the conversation’s started, keep it going (and know if you have the responsbility to do so). And as it unfolds, know where it has been, as that knowledge can easily be the basis of the next conversation.

Al Gore, Joel Hyatt Launch “Current,” A Collaborative Television Network

Al Gore (yes, that Al Gore) and Joel Hyatt (yes, that Joel Hyatt) just announced “Current TV,” their new collaborative television network, formerly called “INdTV.” From the wires…

The lede:

“The first national network created by, for and with an 18-34 year-old audience, Current will offer 24hours of programming in a unique, short-form content format when it premieres August 1. Current will invite audiences to move beyond their roles as viewers to become active collaborators, encouraging them to help shape the network’s content and fulfill its mission — to serve as a TV platform where the voices of young adults can be heard.”

The good bit:

“The participatory model of Current marks a giant leap in seven decades of television. ‘Until now, the notion of viewer participation has been limited to sending a tape to ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos,’ calling an interview show, taking part in an instant poll, or voting someone off an island,’ added Gore. ‘We’re creating a powerful new brand of television that doesn’t treat audiences as merely viewers, but as collaborators.'”

The techno-analogy:

“Taking its cues from their media consumption habits, Current will offer short-form programming in the TV equivalent of an iPod shuffle. Its “pods” will be 15-second to five-minute segments that range from the hottest trends in technology, fashion, television, music and videogames, to pressing issues such as the environment, relationships, spirituality, finance, politics and parenting, subjects that young adults can rarely find on television. Pod segments include “Current Playlist” (music for the digital generation), “Current Parent” (advice to first-timers), “Current Gigs” (career guidance) and “Current Soul” (trends in spiritual awakening). Drawing from audience submissions are such pods as “Current Courage” (profiles of heroism and altruism), “Current Video” (video clips from the next Spielbergs or Spike Jonzes) and “Current Rant” (inviting viewers to let off steam).”

The Google tie-in:

“‘Google Current,’ built using samplings of popular Google search data, including from Google Zeitgeist, complements the free-flowing pod format with news updates each half-hour. Thirty seconds to three minutes in length, these segments buck conventional news practices by reporting not on what media editors decide is “news,” but on the topics people are actually searching for right now. So news isn’t what the network thinks you should know, but what the world is searching to learn.

“We’re pleased to collaborate with the entire Current team to help this network make the world’s information more accessible,” said Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder and president of Technology.
“Current is an exciting new direction for TV programming that enables any viewer to have the opportunity to broadcast their video to the world,” said Larry Page, Google’s co-founder and president of Products.”

Digging through the Current website, they’re definitely off on the right foot on the participation front…an assignment desk, and a listing of the local meetups where folks can get involved, and a bunch of other ways to turn the audience-as-customer from a group of slack-jawed, couch sitting troglodytes into active participants.

Let’s see where this one goes.

Note and disclosure: My daughter is interning at Current this week. And was so good at the No Damn Announcements thing that she wouldn’t even tell me the new name of the network before launch. Good on ‘er.

I See Nothingk!

Forbes does a profile on ten customer-initiated corporate hate sites. Every corporation mentioned was contacted for the article. The responses from a few of the corporations, from the article:

Walmart: “We have seen some corporate complaint sites. We don’t spend a lot of time on them.”

Microsoft: “No comment.”

Verizon: “What’s really pathetic is not Verizon but this sort of lame Web site. In this day and age, anyone with a gripe can put up a Web site and make outrageous claims as the authors of this one did.”

American Express: Did not return repeated phone calls.

I can just hear the spinmeisters now: “Shhh…no…no…just ignore them. They’ll go away…”


(hat tip: jake)

The Psychology Of Scarcity

“When people are told they can’t have something they want it all the more. As a result incredibly powerful emotions are released which go on to drive actions often deemed irrational under normal circumstances.” – from The Psychology of Scarcity

Google is doing it with Gmail…putting a “limit” in place that, in actuality, isn’t much of a limit at all (2GB is a fair amount of email to store). But it feels like one. Ditto with the ability to “get” an “invitation only” Gmail account.

Hugh is doing it, and creating a microtulipmania in the process. He’s producing just 200 of each of his cartoons as t-shirts, and only having four designs available at a time. The interesting thing is, he’s got a huge backcatalog of designs to pull from. So, as long as he is making them available, there will always be a few hundred shirts available, as new designs could be rolled in to replace the old ones that have gone “out of print.” It feels like one needs to act “right away” in order to get a shirt, even though it’s quite possible that there will always be some available.

We see this all the time.

Among a number of interesting dimensions of this “artificial scarcity” is the emergence of secondary markets that are completely irrational. When Gmail first launched, the “undersupply” of Gmail invitiations caused a rich secondary market to spring up on eBay, with people selling Gmail invites at, well, an infinite profit.

(here’s what Andale had to say about the over eight hundred auctions over the past few months)

Completed eBay Listings (February 21 – March 20)
Listing Title…………………………………..Sale Price
100 Gmail invites 1000MB Space each//Instant delivery…$10.50
50 Fresh Gmail Invite – NO Reserve – Instant Delivery…$10.00
50 Fresh Gmail Invite – NO Reserve – Instant Delivery….$6.50

Three things spring to mind:

One: If you are the creator of something, and you have the discipline to not need to wring every short-term cent out of something you’re doing, the resulting buzz based on the scarcity comes back to you, in spades.

Two: This thinking may help to build relationships and (perhaps) community as well. If there are only a “few” of something available, connecting with others who share that thing can be a starting point for a relationship. This applies to both members of the community, as well as to between the creator of the “thing” and the community members themselves.

Three: This kind of scarcity creates a huge opportunity for arbitrageurs in a secondary market.

If the above three points are valid, the relationship-driven folks live in worlds One and Two, and the pure profit-maximization folks live in world Three. All three worlds are valid. Understand which world you’re in. And why.