What Builds the Best Buzz?

I’d like to share with you two brand experiences I’ve had recently – one satisfying and one not so satisfying.

First was the phone call I got the other morning. “Good morning, Mr. Carton!” the cheery caller chirped. “I’m calling from eYak.com (not the real company name). We noticed you visited our site the other day and requested more information. I wanted to tell you a little bit more about our company.”

Me (not remembering that I had requested information about yaks but suspecting I had): “OK. Refresh my memory. What do you do?”

Caller (perking up even more): “We’re the premiere eblahblahblah of e-business blah blah blah e-customer mumble mumble mumble e-solution blah blah providing the best mumble mumble for your business!”

Me (feeling petulant): “What does that mean?”

Caller (confused and, I suspect, cocking his head like a drunken Jack Russell terrier): “Err… uhh… duhh… well… uhhh…”

Me (hanging up the phone): “Thanks! Buh-bye!”

Uh, yeah: That was the unsatisfying experience. Now let me share the other one.

Several weeks ago, I went into a local big box retailer to buy a cordless phone. I don’t know if you’ve ever shopped for cordless phones before, but the choices make buying a computer look like deciding between “paper” or “plastic.”

After several vain attempts at trying to figure out what was the best phone, a nice salesman with a rube-like appearance walked over and proceeded to talk me through the various models. After about 30 minutes I found the phone that I wanted. I checked the store price, whipped open my Palm VII, opened the MySimon.com application (which I had found only by luck a few days before when checking Palm.Net), checked alternate prices online, thanked the nice gentleman for his time, and walked out knowing where I could get it cheaper online. Thanks, MySimon!

How are the two related? Obviously, the cluelessness and overhype of the first company contrasts pretty sharply with the understatedness of MySimon’s wireless offerings. In the first example, not only could I not remember the name of the company, but the breathless hype of the offering contrasted pretty sharply with the reality of the product, a product so underwhelming that the salesperson couldn’t even explain it to me in plain language. In the second example, I had stumbled across the incredibly useful MySimon Palm app and instantly found an everyday use for it that saved me money and made me a rabid repeat customer.

Which company do you think I’m going to tell my friends about?

I think the answer is obvious, and this got me thinking about the power of buzz in our marketing efforts and how it should be applied.

Think about what companies you tell your friends about. They’re probably companies offering innovative products or services that solve a particularly vexing problem or give you a new capability in your life. You’ve been exposed to the product and/or service, have been impressed by the quality, and have decided to take some time out of your busy life to pass on the info to a friend who might also find it useful. They’re your friends after all… you want to help them. And, like the classic commercial, they tell their friends, who tell their friends, and so on and so on…

Ditto with bad experiences: I’m going to be ridiculing the clueless sales droid from eYak.com for months before I get tired of telling the tale. And if any of my friends ask, I’m going to tell them my opinion of the company. And once I do that, they’ll probably pass it into the network of their associates.

Word of mouth works, especially with a quality product. One of the best examples of this is the PalmPilot, especially when contrasted with the Newton. Remember the Newton? A PDA from Apple – its pen-based interface was going to change the world, cook our breakfasts, and organize our lives. Unfortunately, it was too big, ate batteries for lunch, and had the handwriting recognition of a farsighted chimp.

Then came the PalmPilot. I remember the first time I picked one up and used it. I hadn’t heard too much about it in the media, but a friend had told me how much he loved his. As a Newton owner, all I could think of as I put the Palm through its paces was “Dang! This thing really works!” I immediately bought one, and my Newton has been languishing in a desk drawer ever since.

The Newton was overhyped, and it severely underdelivered. It’s gone. The Palm was underhyped, and it totally overdelivered against expectations. It rules the marketplace today, even staving off Microsoft’s advances. Why? Because it’s a quality product that built share more by word of mouth from satisfied customers than from overt marketing.

Buzz can be jump-started by marketing, but it can’t be maintained unless you’ve got quality and service behind the offering. Once the meme is in the marketplace and the product is on the shelves, the story moves into the hands of actual people who will make up their own minds and spread the word. All the best PR and “viral marketing” efforts in the world won’t save a company that provides crap.

In the past, the message may have spread slowly through telephone calls, conversations, or even snail-mail letters. Today, buzz can travel around the globe in a matter of days as networks of consumers email each other, chat, and post their opinions online. More than ever before, this power of networking allows consumer control unheard of in the past. And we as marketers better take heed of the power of buzz.

When it comes to building buzz, too many people have let the “virus” metaphor take over their online marketing efforts. Like “permission marketing,” it may have a core of true usefulness, but it’s been diluted by misunderstanding and misapplication. “Viral” implies that an idea can travel without the participation of its host. It can’t. A bad product or service won’t get word of mouth (or word of email) if ordinary people aren’t impressed enough with it to pass it along to their friends.

Unfortunately, as much as people don’t want to believe it, building buzz online (or offline) doesn’t rely on any magic bullet. The best and most sustainable buzz comes from great products that surprise and delight people. Sure, you have to do your best to reach the people that build the buzz – the influential “nodes” in the network of influence. But buzzwords and hype aren’t going to cut it in the long run. Quality and service are what get people talking. It may sound obvious, but with today’s networked consumer, the basics are more true than ever.

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