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The Pocket Guide to Chatterbacking

  |  August 22, 2006   |  Comments

Advertisers are piggybacking on consumers' content. What you need to know about "chatterbacking."

A new form of advertising is taking shape, and it's time to give it a name so we can better internalize its consequences and manage it more responsibly. Let's call it "chatterbacking."

Without fluff or hyperbole, chatterbacking describes what's happening in advertising today: advertisers, for better or worse, are piggybacking on consumer buzz and chatter. Everywhere you look, you see it in some form.

It builds on an important insight: consumer conversation is inherently more trusted, stickier, and more engaging than other content against which advertising might be placed or integrated. But it does raise a host of new questions, particularly some ethical ones, which we're better off tackling sooner rather than later.

Not the Same as Word of Mouth

Chatterbacking isn't the same as word-of-mouth, viral, or buzz marketing, though there's clearly synergy with these practices. Chatterbacking clearly accommodates the arena of brands creating blogs or sponsoring communities, but it mostly has to do with how we buy, place, and integrate paid media.

It assumes much of the buzz and conversation already exists and continues to grow. Moreover, it presumes the key untapped opportunity for advertisers is to wedge themselves in front of, behind, between, or all around the consumer-generated media (CGM), conversation, buzz, or chatter. Some would argue the biggest opportunity, borrowing from product placement, is to integrate or remix advertising with the chatter.

Chatter, after all, whether embraced through text or video, is a growing driver of both attention and engagement. By and large, it's a trusted space. It's also the new epicenter of reach, thanks to the CGM explosion (for the purpose of this column, we'll use this to also encompass social media, user-generated content, citizen journalism, and citizen marketers).

Last week, Nielsen//NetRatings released data suggesting CGM sites represent 5 of the top 10. With over 50 million blogs and the explosive growth of sites like MySpace.com and YouTube, the chatter and CGM reach factor would make any post-TV, impression-hungry media planner salivate.

Chatterbacking is taking off. New variations and forms are emerging almost daily. We see it in preroll video buys. We see it in buttons, banners, and sponsorships in social-media sites. We see it in targeted ad buys on blogs. It's clearly assumed in the $900 million deal between Google and MySpace. We see it in regular search buys against conversational keywords. We see it in the Wal-Mart rendition of MySpace. We see it in the dozens of agencies that have suddenly shifted their language sharply toward the direction of the consumer. And we see it in ads that now pop up on Technorati in blog search results.

Simple Metaphors and the Questions They Raise

I particularly like the metaphor of an advertiser riding the back of the consumer because it immediately raises a host of obvious, if not intuitive, questions:

  • Load factor: How much weight can the consumer realistically carry?

  • Drag factor: Will the load slow the consumer's normal activity?

  • Rub factor: How will the overall experience rub off on the consumer's attitudes?

  • Buzz factor: Will the experience impel the consumer to speak out positively or negatively?

These aren't new questions, but against a backdrop of consumer control (which every marketer insists is the new reality), they require extra levels of sensitivity. Advertisers' long-term interests are always served by keeping consumers open and accepting of advertising and by ensuring we don't create yet another ad backlash or tragedy of the commons. The challenge is to find the right balance between effective ad models and consumer acceptance.

Just last week, ClickZ reported on the new Interactive Video Network (IVN) that uses ad buys to accelerate the spread of viral videos. "This platform is not for an advertiser to give us a long-form commercial or a blatant straight pitch," IVN president Kevin Gianatiempo told ClickZ News. "We'll be selective about which advertisers we offer this to." The big question is simple: will consumers confuse the presence of the paid viral video with editorial?

As ads continue to penetrate all dimensions of the conversational space, we must honestly address tough questions about how much consumers will tolerate. Consumers are already asking tough questions about marketer-sponsored pages that look suspiciously like original CGM content.

Content providers, too, have a vested interest in ensuring their own CGM or user-generated content areas aren't viewed as anything less than organic, real, and authentic. Gary Stein, ClickZ columnist and word-of-mouth expert at Ammo Marketing, suggested I add a variant to the term to reflect the risks out there: "chatterhacking." Indeed!

Final Thoughts and Key Questions

We're entering an age in which media planning will occur not just by demos, reach, or frequency but also by ongoing conversations and CGM's anticipated effect. Planning around chatterbacking will require a new type of foresight and risk tolerance and a very high level of sensitivity to the blur factor between paid and participatory conversation. It will also require, as my colleague Max Kalehoff recently noted, a super appreciation for the nuances of consumer attention and engagement.

A few final questions that CMOs, industry leaders, and other brand stakeholders should ask about the emerging practice of chatterbacking:

  • Should we disclose to the consumer whether a piece of video or ostensibly organic chatter is advertiser- or consumer-generated?

  • Should industry groups like the Interactive Advertising Bureau start thinking about labeling requirements or even a trust mark of some sort?

  • What's more valuable to the market community: proactively preserving trust or reactively defending what's left of it?

  • How do we get media planners and marketers to incubate favorable brand chatter outside of the paid media zone? If good or bad customer service most affects brand conversation, should media dollars shift to that arena?

The time for these discussions is right now! Ready to start chattering?


Pete Blackshaw

Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."

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