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Word Games

Brandweek, April 24, 2006

High schools are always abuzz with talk of one kind or another: sports, music, clothes and whatever else teens consider indispensable at any given time.

But last year, one piece of chatter weaving its way through select high schools across America was very specific. It was about the TV series America's Next Top Model, then entering its fourth season. While teens did the talking, UPN, the network that airs the series, was listening very closely. It had to. UPN was essentially sponsoring the whole conversation.

The plan worked like this. UPN solicited the help of, a shopping and lifestyle site aimed at teen girls. (The site's many features include the dating-oriented "Dude Decoder": "Get the scoop on why boys say/act/do the things they do," the decoder promises.) UPN was in search of 500 "insiders" who could generate buzz about Top Model, which needed a ratings boost.

Alloy monitored the chat that went on within the site, and compiled a list of 7,000 girls who, in the course of their banter, had expressed interest in the show. Then Alloy winnowed that list to 500 girls who seemed the best connected of the lot; those who had frequently shown up on instant-messaging buddy lists were deemed to be popular.

With these gossipy, in-crowd girls in hand, Alloy made its move for UPN: Providing its handpicked teens with party kits, it encouraged them to invite an average of four friends over to their homes for gatherings themed around—you guessed it—America's Next Top Model. The girls knew that UPN's cash was behind the kits, and "it wasn't a tough sell," said Samantha Skey, svp of Alloy's convergent marketing group. Tough sell or not, UPN was pleased with the results. "The ratings have been very good," Skey added, "especially among that age group."

While Skey wouldn't go as far as saying that Alloy's marketing program saved the show, she did say that it helped the series stay afloat against some grim odds; most reality shows don't stick around that long.

As teens increasingly tune out the TV and grow ever more cynical about the thousands of marketing messages flogging them on a daily basis, word-of-mouth or "buzz marketing" promotions like UPN's are emerging as the newest way to grab attention. Though no firm tracks the size of the teen word-of-mouth industry, anecdotal evidence suggests that it's growing at a brisk clip. Witness the increasing number of firms, most notably Procter & Gamble's in-house buzz team, Tremor, that today promises a marketer's dream come true: injecting brand names and branded products into ordinary teen conversations. (For a look at how they do this, see related story, page 26.) According to published estimates by JWT Worldwide in New York, over 85% of the country's top 1,000 marketing firms now use some form of word-of-mouth tactics.

The apparent steady growth of the buzz-marketing industry is also reflected in the asking prices for teen social-networking sites like MySpace, snapped up along with its parent company for $580 million last year by News Corp. Sconex, a high-school-oriented site, was sold to Alloy for $6.1 million in March. Facebook, another teen social-networking site, is said to be seeking a suitor prepared to offer $2 billion—this figure according to Facebook. Such sites, which are often lumped into a phenomenon called "Web 2.0," replace the past model for Web pages, in which a publisher posted content. With the new model, all of the online content is generated by the users. Social networking sites are like clubs in which all or most of the communication takes place online. Within this gargantuan volume of banter, marketers have spotted a cutting-edge opportunity: What better way to get kids turned on to a company's product than by having them banter about that product on their own? The marketing would slip so naturally into casual conversation, it wouldn't even look like marketing.

Considered this way, word-of-mouth's potential is enormous, and so is the potential controversy. While marketers increasingly pay for buzz, significant questions arise about how ethical the practice is. Is it right for corporate entities to bestow status on peer-pressure addled teens for profit? Should teens be required to tell others that they are, in effect, on the take from the brands they're gushing about?

Setting scruples aside, there's also considerable debate over whether the success of word-of-mouth marketing can even be quantified.

Perhaps for those reasons, many marketers are very hush-hush about their word-of-mouth campaigns. One exec at a buzz marketing firm said clients employ euphemisms like "Can you get [high school] campus attention for this?" instead of simply asking outright for a word-of-mouth campaign. Those same clients often prefer making such requests over the phone; e-mail leaves a paper trail. Despite varying levels of discomfort with the method, however, it's tough to argue with the results. According to some companies, buzz marketing campaigns can be very effective. The Rock Bottom brew pub chain, for example, reported a 76% jump in 2003 revenues after hired gun BzzAgent, Boston, launched a 13-week world-of-mouth campaign employing 1,073 of its "agents" to get the word out.


Part of the uneasiness for marketers may be that word-of-mouth can quickly implode if it is discovered to have been engineered. Look no further than McDonald's infamous "Lincoln Fry" buzz campaign last year. The scheme attempted to create some online chatter with a blog that detailed one couple's experience after finding a french fry that allegedly resembled Abraham Lincoln. It might have worked well had customers not learned that the blog was bogus, and so was the couple. McDonald's, which even put the couple in a Super Bowl TV spot, got plenty of buzz alright, but the wrong kind.

Another reason is that various watchdog groups have questioned the ethics of word-of-mouth marketing directed at teens. Typically, a buzz marketing concern will recruit a core group of kids (called "connectors") to get the chatter going. While some companies claim to merely "expose" kids to new products and hope they like them and tell their friends about them, it's common for the partner kids to receive free samples of the product or a variety of other incentives. To some, that looks like bribery.

Related moral issues arise over the question of whether parents are approached before kids become buzz-generators, and also in cases where the word-of-mouther fails to disclose to friends that he or she has a relationship with the marketer or its client.

The biggest customer backlash so far has been Portland, Ore., advocacy group Commercial Alert's letter to the Federal Trade Commission last October asking the FTC to investigate Tremor for its tactics: "the Commission should carefully examine the targeting of minors by buzz marketing, because children and teenagers tend to be more impressionable and easy to deceive."

Commercial Alert also suggested that the FTC serve P&G and other teen buzz marketers with subpoenas to determine whether they're requiring their endorsers to disclose that they are paid for their services. Steve Knox, CEO of Tremor, said the company's 225,000 "agents" aren't, in fact, paid for their services.

After Commercial Alert took action, others piled on to criticize the practice in newspaper op-eds. "There's something truly creepy about the notion of marketers manipulating what ordinary people say to one another," wrote Jeff Gelles in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "As a parent, I'm especially concerned when the targets are teenagers like my daughter."

The basic issue, anti-buzzers insist, is that the practice undermines societal trust. "What does it mean that we're raising a generation of kids that don't know if their friends talking about a product are really working for a company?" asked Susan Linn, co-founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in Boston.

In an attempt to address such criticism, Andy Sernovitz CEO of the Word of Mouth Marketing Assn. in Chicago, says he cautions Womma's 275 members not to execute buzz marketing programs aimed at kids under 14. "The short answer is, it's not ethical to ask kids that age to be your marketing agents," said Sernovitz.

Not all Womma members adhere to the guidelines, however. BoldMouth, a Faber, Va., buzz marketing firm and association member, targets kids 6-12 for various movie marketing campaigns, according to CEO Todd Tweedy. Sernovitz observed that his group can do no more than simply make recommendations. "We're not a law enforcement agency," he said. "Most associations face this problem."

Of course, only a percentage of marketers belong to Womma. Girls Intelligence Agency, a Century City, Calif., marketing firm, makes no bones about the fact that it targets girls age 8 and up for its buzz programs.

The agency, which counts Mattel, Hasbro, Disney and Fox among its clients, was the subject of a critical profile on CBS' 60 Minutes, which it nonetheless posted on its Web site. Laura Groppe, CEO of GIA, said the agency gets mom's permission for its efforts and said there's nothing nefarious about the her company's methods. GIA only exposes young people to its clients' products, Groppe explained; it does not twist their arms to speak favorably about them. "If kids don't like your product, word-of-mouth will work against you," she said. "If a movie's a disaster, all the word-of-mouth in the world won't save it." Yes, it could cause the movie to fare even worse.

Similarly, Tremor, which also is not a Womma member, maintains that its business practices are clean. "We are way inside ethical guidelines," said Knox. "This is the most consumer-centric form of marketing. It is putting consumers in charge of the message. Moreover, they're unpaid. Teens who take part in Tremor may get some free stuff but they don't get a salary.”

On the whole, marketers and buzz marketing firms seem to take the ethics issue seriously, if only because of the potentially bad pr that could result if the public learned that they didn't. The lack of any research showing the ill effects of buzz marketing on teens weakens the case against it but, in private, buzz-marketers concede that even they sometimes are wary of a friend's recommendation for a new product or TV show, often questioning only half in jest whether they're being paid for their services.


A potentially more damning claim against teen buzz marketing and buzz marketing in general, is that it's hard or even impossible to quantify. How can you measure increased consumer awareness when the mode of delivery is two teenagers talking on the phone? And if quantifying the results is difficult, buzz marketing firms also lack a fair standard by which to charge for their services. Factors such as these are why Ashland, maker of Valvoline motor oil, abandoned word-of-mouth marketing last year.

Ashland had initially tapped Tremor to push its Valvoline SynPower Premium Oil in 2004. The idea was to get SynPower in the hands of gearhead teens whose recommendations about auto products exert powerful sway with their friends. Though neither Ashland nor Tremor would disclose specifics, P&G is reported to charge $1 million and up for such national campaigns. After such an outlay, Ashland bailed. "We weren't able to quantify the direct result," said Bob Crayraft, svp-retail at Valvoline. Crayraft said that Valvoline sales did rise after the buzz campaign, but it was virtually impossible to tell whether that bump owed itself to Tremor's efforts or some other component such as pricing or traditional advertising. Nevertheless, Crayraft said Valvoline may have just not been the best fit for word-of-mouth marketing. "I'm not sure if our products lend themselves to that approach," he said. "It's harder to get teens excited about a motor oil than a soft drink."

The ROI issue isn't just a big one for Ashland, and Womma is working on some sort of standard by which audience reach can be measured, and corresponding fees that would be reasonable to impose. But whether that approach comes down to charging X for Y amount for conversations started is hard to say. Tremor's method is to run a control group in a community where a buzz campaign hasn't happened and compare the numbers to one where it has. BzzAgent's pricing standard goes like this: say that the connector is able to talk to five people a day. If you have 1,000 connectors getting the buzz going, BzzAgent calculates a cost-per-thousand rate.

Another way to address the ROI issue is to specify that the word-of-mouth process occurs online, because typed conversations can be quantified. That's the tack Alloy is taking. "[WOM initiatives are] very measurable online," said Alloy's Skey. "If someone sends an e-mail, we can track 100% [of the reach]. Otherwise, you'd have to rely on the word of a teenager, which isn't always completely correct."

Hence, the popularity of teen social networking sites. Alloy's vision is that members of Sconex, its new high school networking site, will create their own ads for various sponsors.

Sconex's members are already divided up by interest area, a segmentation that's attractive to marketers. "This is self-selection, so they're getting messaging about what they like," said Skey. For instance, Sconex has a film review crew online that's open to getting advance word on movie releases.

But at this point few, if any, marketers have been able to run successful programs on such sites. That's not for lack of trying. Facebook, for instance, has a group of Apple fans, called Apple students, that the computer company sponsors and for which it runs weekly contests giving away iPod Shuffle devices.

Colin DiGiaro, MySpace's svp-sales, favors viral efforts over word-of-mouth methods. "That model is flawed," he said. "An influencer has influence because he's ahead of the trends, and he typically doesn't want to be paid to do the influencing."

Viral initiatives rely on a piece of media that a marketer hopes will be passed around to create the coveted buzz. For example, MySpace offers a free music video from hip-hop artist Ice Cube, which can be downloaded from a Web page promoting the FX series Black. White. If the video also gets kids talking about the series, DiGiaro believes, it will be more spontaneous, less engineered and ultimately more effective than other word-of-mouth schemes.

Moreover, since no proven advertising model has been developed, some are skeptical about a social networking site's potential. "It's become clear the 'real' money comes from selling your network to a big media conglomerate rather than selling ad space on your network," wrote Jupiter Media analyst Nate Elliott in a recent report.

Others, most notably Tremor's Knox, venture that truly effective word-of-mouth isn't really taking place online anyway. "There are two fundamentals," he said. "You need advocacy and amplification. Online is a wonderful place to create amplification, but not for advocacy. Advocacy still occurs in one-to-one [offline] conversations."

That goes for instant messaging, too, Knox added: "No one sends you an IM saying 'I know you love seafood. You and your wife need to check out this new seafood restaurant.'"

Still, few think social networking sites will be a flash in the pan and fewer still think teen word-of-mouth programs are on the decline. Buzz may be ethically shaky to some and ROI-proof for others but, barring legal action by the FTC (which is unlikely), it's not going to go away.

"I'm 39," said Aaron Cohen, CEO of Bolt Media, New York, which runs social networking sites and "I know about 500 jingles. But today's young people don't know jingles because they don't watch TV. They're online consuming one another's content."

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