Controversial word-of-mouth firm BzzAgent has changed its policies to hold its volunteer marketers to a higher disclosure standard.
The firm is stepping up requirements that people tell their friends and contacts about their relationship with the marketing company, saying that such disclosure improves campaign results. The new policy also addresses BzzAgent's longstanding critics, who say the company's volunteers don't always reveal that they're being rewarded -- with points or free merchandise -- to talk about a particular product.
The new policy requires all new BzzAgent volunteers to confirm that they've read and will adhere to the company's code of conduct. That code requires participants to "make certain others are aware" that they've volunteered to be part of a buzz marketing effort. The company added the requirement to its code last year.
"Requiring disclosure is not just the proper decision from an ethical standpoint," said Dave Balter, CEO of BzzAgent, "but it is also the smart policy to drive optimal campaign performance."
The company has also added a check box to the interface volunteers use to report to BzzAgent about their word-of-mouth marketing activities. They must check the box to confirm the person they "buzzed" to was aware they were a BzzAgent volunteer. BzzAgent says it will require any members who don't comply to attend an online training session on disclosure.
BzzAgent says its new stance stems from a study conducted by Walter Carl, a professor at Northeastern University. The report found that disclosure created trust, combated a stigma about "stealth" marketing, and increased the depth of product-related discussions. Carl came to his conclusions by examining 270,000 word-of-mouth reports submitted by BzzAgent volunteers.
Despite the controversy surrounding the company, BzzAgent has managed to attract well known clients, including Anheuser-Busch, Cadbury Schweppes, Lee Jeans, Levi's and Sun Microsystems.
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Pamela Parker is a former managing editor of ClickZ News, Features, and Experts. She's been covering interactive advertising and marketing since the boom days of 1999, chronicling the dot-com crash and the subsequent rise of the medium. Before working at ClickZ, Parker was associate editor at @NY, a pioneering Web site and e-mail newsletter covering New York new media start-ups. Parker received a master's degree in journalism, with a concentration in new media, from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
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