Will your friend ask “Are you buzzing me?”

Old but very interesting article The Hidden (in Plain Sight) Persuaders from NyTimes (link via NYTimes link generator).
Some companies, such as BzzAgent, sells as a service “viral social peer-to-peer marketing”, that is normal people telling you (and many other people) how cool a certain product is. The interesting point is that those people are normal people (maybe your friend) and not some superpaid supermodel and also that those people volunteer (!) for spreading good reviews about a certain product, for example, the “Al Fresco” sausages (?!?).
The article raised in me a lot of questions. For example, while I can understand why activists want to spread their ideas (for example, Greenpeace, Attac, EFF, FSF, Engineers Without Borders just to mention some of them), why on hearth would someone (without being paid!!) fight for advertising “Al Fresco” sausages to her friends? There are so many good causes you can embrace, why on earth someone chooses to embrace “Al Fresco” sausages?
I simply don’t get it, so I guess I should experiment it directly: anyone interested in setting up such a company in Italy? If yes, comment this post or send me email.
Below some excerpts from the article but I suggest you to read it all.

She and her many fellow agents have essentially volunteered to create ”buzz” about Al Fresco sausage and dozens of other products, from books to shoes to beer to perfume. BzzAgent currently has more than 60,000 volunteer agents in its network. Tremor, a word-of-mouth operation that is a division of Procter & Gamble (maker of Crest, Tide and Pampers) has an astonishing 240,000 volunteer teenagers spreading the word about everything from toothbrushes to TV shows. A spinoff, Tremor Moms, is in the works.

In finding thousands of takers, perfectly willing to use their own creativity and contacts to spread the good news about, for instance, Al Fresco sausage, it has turned commercial influence into an open-source project.

Second, she has always liked to give people her opinion about what she’s reading or what products she’s using, and BzzAgent gives her more to talk about. Third, if she does like something, then telling other people is helpful to them. So participating is both a chance to weigh in and be heard, and also something close to an act of altruism.

In his view, BzzAgent is simply harnessing, channeling and organizing that consumer enthusiasm

… the most effective way for a message to travel is through networks of real people communicating directly with one another.

‘There is a group of people who are responsible for all word of mouth in the marketplace.’

Who are they? Check out the word-of-mouth industry’s favorite graph. The graph is meant to show the pattern by which ideas or products or behaviors are adopted, and it looks like a hill: on the left are the early adopters; then the trend-spreaders; the mainstream population is the big bulge in the middle; then come the laggards, represented by the right-hand slope.

Knox said that Tremor’s approach to finding the Magic People is intensively researched. The company tries to isolate the psychological characteristics of the subset of influential teenagers,

… knowing about something first — telling a friend about a new CD, or discovering a restaurant before anyone else in the office — is satisfying.

… when two items of equal value are handed out randomly to a group of people and those people are given the opportunity to trade, hardly anyone does. … once something has been given to us, we value it more.

This research on how we value — or irrationally overvalue — things that are given to us might help explain why BzzAgents and other word-of-mouth volunteers get excited about whatever they are asked to push.

Under some circumstances, we will expend more effort for social rewards than we will for monetary rewards.

Since the agents are not being paid, and have the option to ignore any Bzz object they don’t like, they tend to see themselves as not being involved in marketing at all.

”I don’t talk about a product if I don’t feel strongly about it. I’ll give my honest opinion.”

And honest peer-to-peer communication, he maintains, is the future of marketing.

… thousands of agents who serve as a kind of guild of consumers. ”I think this is a new kind of media,” he said.

Do we really want a world where every conversation about a product might be secretly tied to a word-of-mouth ”campaign”?
”The key is,” Balter said, ”people already talk about this stuff. They already talk about things they love.” Manufactured word of mouth is indeed a bad and scary thing, he maintains, but that’s not what his company is doing. ”For whatever reason, we have this natural instinct to tell a friend about a product — and to get them to believe what you believe. We’re not trying to change that. All we’re trying to do is put some form around it, so it can be measured and understood. That’s not changing the social fabric.”

Those suggestions in the Bzz guides to call bookstores and pretend you don’t know the exact title or author you’re looking for are pretty hard to define as ”honest.”

BzzAgent don’t tell the people they are ”bzzing,” that they really found out about the sausage, or the perfume, or the shoes, or the book, from some company in Boston that charges six-figure fees to corporations.

One friend he tried to recruit now responds with suspicion when Desjardins talks up something he has done: ”Are you buzzing me?” the friend will ask.

It may be true that we trust our friends more than TV ads, but that doesn’t actually mean they’ve become more reliable.

Why, I asked Desjardins, did people join a group without even knowing what it was? Well, he explained, Wallace’s theory was that they just wanted to be part of something.

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