Brands Infiltrate Social Circles to Create Buzz

NEW YORK TV Guide late last month launched an estimated $20 million ad campaign to reintroduce its 54-year-old brand as a multiplatform provider and celebrator of TV culture, rather than a weekly listing of shows. But months before the first TV and print executions ran, it primed the pump with more than 10,000 TV Guide parties held throughout the country.

The parties were part of a buzz-marketing effort TV Guide launched in June with influencer network BzzAgent to build awareness and test its new products ahead of its ad push. Over half of the 20,000 “agents” who participated in the first phase of the campaign took the TV Guide suggestion to host parties to spread the word about TV Guide’s print, online and cable network. “It was the real-life equivalent of a blog,” said Steven Scebelo, svp of corporate marketing at TV Guide.

TV Guide and other marketers, realizing the power of word-of-mouth recommendations, are starting to make buzz generation a central part of product launches and marketing campaigns. In doing so, they are banking on their ability to influence consumer chatter without incurring backlash.

The need to add word-of-mouth expertise has not escaped the ad holding companies. IPG last week finalized a partnership with BzzAgent that calls for its agencies to use that company’s network of more than 300,000 agents who give feedback and talk up products to others. WPP Group has pumped $9 million into Visible Technologies, a software company that trolls user-generated content sites to dig up conversations about brands and their expertise area in order to allow companies to directly participate in the dialogue. It also acquired M80, a word-of-mouth agency that is part of Group M, in June 2006. Aegis Group bought word-of-mouth shop Ammo Marketing in February 2006. Among clients, Procter & Gamble is such a believer that it has operated its own teen-focused word-of-mouth unit, Tremor, for seven years.

The danger, of course, is in going too far to try to influence outcomes in user-generated media. One start-up, PayPerPost, is matching up marketers with bloggers who agree to write posts about a product. Another startup, Collactive, marshalls an organization’s existing base with software that assists supporters in giving favorable votes to posts on YouTube, Digg or major news sites.

Bant Breen, president of Interpublic Group’s Futures Marketing Group, believes advertisers and agencies are just now figuring out how to tap into social media responsibly and effectively. “The challenge is how do you turn the social media space into something that can scale, that you can manage and can deliver predictable results,” he said.

Recent research confirms a long-held fact: Consumers are more influenced by the recommendations of their friends than by marketing messages. According to a study conducted by The Nielsen Co., parent of Adweek, recommendations from others are trusted by 78 percent of consumers, while TV ads are trusted by 56 percent. Web ads fared even worse, with just 26 percent trusting them.

Thanks to new digital outlets like social networks, review sites, blogs and news-sharing outlets, these recommendations can be more easily shared and disseminated. But how does a marketer influence what is being said? “It’s a tough equation because the consumer is stubborn and has a voracious appetite for the truth,” said Pete Blackshaw, CMO of Nielsen BuzzMetrics. “There are many things advertisers can do to influence the outcome, but there’s a high order of finesse and sensitivity needed.”

NBC found that out in its early online word-of-mouth efforts three years ago, according to Tim Farish, vp of media for NBC Universal. The network would try to steer conversation on message boards by planting positive comments about shows. The tactic proved ineffective or worse. So for this fall season, NBC worked with New York digital agency 360i to show preview videos of most of its shows to bloggers. It also created a Bionic Woman online game. “We’ve gotten much smarter about it,” Farish said. “Now we’re very open, saying this is NBC.”

There is some evidence that overaggressive marketers are triggering consumer distrust. A study released last week by WPP Group PR shop Burson-Marsteller backed this up. It found influential consumers-those most likely to share product opinions with friends and family-have a heightened wariness of commercial interests weighing in on blogs, message boards and review sites. “There’s now a skepticism of what is happening online and an expectation that if you’re in a community site and a commercial entity is being discussed, that there’s someone paid to be weighing in there,” said Ame Wadler, chief strategic officer at Burson-Marsteller.

That can lead to strategies that would not fly in more traditional communications. When launching Battlestar Galactica this summer, the Sci-Fi Channel not only provided advance clips to bloggers in hopes of currying favor, but also invited 35 of them to Canada in June to visit the show’s set and meet its stars and producers. But will such junkets damage bloggers’ credibility? “People take anything, whether they see it on TV, in print or online, with a grain of salt,” said Pete Snyder, CEO of New Media Strategies, a word-of-mouth shop that arranged the blog outreach. “People are more skeptical of what they see, but after a couple Google searches they make their own decision.”

All of BzzAgent’s agents agree to disclose their affilation upfront, said CEO Dave Balter, who claims this lends credibility. All told, TV Guide’s campaign included 40,000 agents and reached an estimated 2.4 million consumers. (Each agent ends up sparking, on average, 60 conversations, according to BzzAgent.) “Their motivation is knowing about new things and knowing brands are listening to them and appreciating them,” Balter said.

Still, tactics sometimes backfire on the companies behind them. Microsoft caught flak for a program that gave free laptops to bloggers, which led to accusations they were paying for positive comments.

“At the end of the day, what makes this special is word of mouth from people you trust and respect,” said Blackshaw. “As marketers push aggressively to shape outcomes, the big risk is this goes down the same path as spam. As marketers we have a track record of messing up a good thing.”