The Word-of-Mouth Ethics Challenge

The last few weeks were interesting for practitioners of the discipline known variously as word-of-mouth marketing, viral marketing, and buzz marketing.

The latest ruckus began when a lengthy New York Times Magazine article (PDF) shone a spotlight on BzzAgent and its practices, questioning whether its “cut through the clutter” techniques actually create more clutter in all the wrong places (people’s conversations with their friends). Much blogging and commenting ensued. That was followed up by stories on NPR’s “The Connection” and Fox News.

Why all the coverage? Because word-of-mouth marketing (at least, the way BzzAgent practices it) is controversial. Consumers are likely to get riled up about it — one look at BzzAgent’s blog comments gives you an idea of some of their concerns.

Consumer outrage over marketing techniques should set off warning bells. Remember spam, cookies, and Web beacons? It’s time to wake up and take action — and this means you.

The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) formed an ethics committee to set up some guidelines for marketers, before legislators eager to protect consumers draw up half-baked bills.

“These things have incredible appeal to legislators looking to protect consumers. If we ask the tough questions early, we will potentially protect the space or at least minimize some of the long term issues,” said Pete Blackshaw, cofounder of WOMMA and CMO at Intelliseek. “The spam issue should be a screaming, glaring reminder of how important it is to be proactive.”

WOMMA hopes to have an early draft of the guidelines finished by the end of this month, when it will post them on its Web site and ask for feedback.


Of course, it’s easy to say standards must be established. Reaching consensus — especially when you’re talking about an “industry” that actually consists of many different industries — is another matter entirely.

What BzzAgent does — give volunteers free samples and “points” to “buzz” about clients’ products — is completely different from, say, a viral effort such as Burger King’s Subservient Chicken. Or folks like those at London-based Digital Media Communications (DMC), who mostly create and distribute viral videos for clients. WOMMA doesn’t just cover online marketing issues; it presumably also covers things such as the Sony Ericsson cameraphone promotion. In that campaign, the company paid actors to go to public places and ask others to take their picture with the phone. Of course, the actors posed as tourists and never mentioned their relationship with the company.

One might argue transparency and truthfulness should always be observed. But what about campaigns intentionally designed to create mystery, such as Crispin Porter + Bogulsky’s “robot” campaign for the Mini Cooper or Warner Brothers’ effort for the Steven Spielberg movie “A.I.”?

“Ultimately, the idea that you could apply one set of rules across all of those techniques is a little bit naive. It kind of worries me that anyone would try,” said Justin Kirby, CEO of DMC and the founder of the Viral and Buzz Marketing Association (VBMA), an organization similar to WOMMA.

Ironically, the VBMA set forth its own guidelines last October, but Kirby says the group’s intention was solely to establish an internal document for its members, not for the industry as a whole.


To WOMMA’s credit, the organization promises to share its document with the public and solicit feedback, which hopefully will result in guidelines that take multiple viewpoints into account. Companies represented on the ethics council include Alloy, Bolt Media, BuzzMetrics, BzzAgent, Intelliseek, Intuit, Electric Artists, and Edelman.

“There are a lot of voices out there that sort of need us to start the conversation, but once they read this they’ll likely have input,” said Dave Balter, president of BzzAgent and cochair of WOMMA’s ethics council.

Ironically, the growing popularity of the new marketing techniques is one of the dangers. Proving the old adage that no publicity is bad publicity, BzzAgent reports receiving 250 inbound leads from potential clients and sign-ups from about 5,000 new BzzAgents in the week after the Times piece ran.

“In the early stages of things, like with the Blair Witch [online promotion], it’s kind of innocuous. The problem is that everyone is getting pretty excited,” said Blackshaw. “We need to sort of helicopter up and imagine a world where everybody is doing this and say ‘Is this the kind of world we want?'”

As interesting as the last few weeks have been, it’s my hope the next few weeks will be even more so, as dialogue over the issues continues and WOMMA releases its initial document. That release will only be step one, however, as groups like the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As), the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), and others should also take part in the discussions.

It’s called word of mouth, right? So let’s all talk to one another.

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