Several months ago Dave Balter who runs BzzAgent approached Creative Commons about offering their services free of charge. BzzAgent is a word of mouth marketing company and Dave and I have a number of mutual friends who all speak very highly of him. I wasn't familiar with the details of how BzzAgent worked, but getting the help of someone who understood word of mouth sounded good to me at the time.

Last week, Creative Commons announced a partnership with BzzAgent on the blog. This caused a rather fierce reaction from a number of bloggers. Many people argued that BzzAgent was not "clean" because they were not transparent and they gave incentives to their "agents" to spread word of mouth messages. Many people argued that Creative Commons was not a product that was well suited to be marketed by a company like BzzAgents and that such a campaign would undermine the trust and the efforts of the volunteer community. People argued that if there were to be a campaign, it should be organized more like the Spread Firefox campaign and be open and organized by the Creative Commons community and not by BzzAgent. Larry posted a request for feedback on his blog. The Creative Commons team discussed the feedback and Larry and I both talked in length with Dave Balter. In the end, we decided to take this opportunity to launch a campaign ourselves with the support of the existing Creative Commons community. There is a wiki where we are soliciting ideas. Dave Balter has agreed to help us with this new campaign.

I hope that all of this leads to BzzAgent getting constructive feedback and Creative Commons getting support to do a successful SpreadCC campaign. I believe that the discussion became overly emotional and I commend Dave for his apology for his hostile response to criticism. I spoke to Dave a number of times over the last week and I sincerely believe that he is trying to do the right thing and am pained to see people continuing to smear the BzzAgent name. I realize his response to Suw's post was an overreaction, but he has apologized and has taken the lumps. It was Creative Commons that made the mistake, not BzzAgent. I hope this lynch-mobby behavior subsides soon. Dave has been actively trying to take the criticism constructively and in his last post he promises to work on the reward system and had changed his Code to reflect the criticism about transparency. Now BzzAgents are required to disclose that they are BzzAgents when promoting a product. He has also been friendly and has agreed to pull the campaign and help us in any way that he can even though he had already invested the money and launched the campaign. I don't disagree with our decision to change the partnership with BzzAgent to a community driven one, but I think that there is a lot about word of mouth, especially in offline word of mouth, that we can learn from Dave and BzzAgent. Now that this is OUR project and BzzAgent is a peer, I urge people to continue to provide feedback to BzzAgent, but to also try to see how they can help. They are not "creeps". They are good people and they're here to help.

One of the things that I notice more and more these days is the Madison Avenue/Silicon Valley divide. All Marketers Are Liars by Seth Godin (I blogged about this earlier) is sort of Cluetrain Manifesto written in Madison Avenue-ese. They use completely different language but are beginning to talk about very similar things. If we're going to reach those people who aren't in our current self-selected community, we're going to have to reach out to the offline and main stream media world. CC has been surprisingly successful considering our lack of expertise in this area, but I think we could do a lot more. I think it's time to bridge this divide between the main stream media types and bloggers and one of the things we are going to have to do is cut each other some slack and try to learn instead of fight.

Getting beyond the language (consumer vs user/customer, buzz vs conversation, etc.) I think that trying to understand how conversations work and at what point something becomes "creepy" is a really important discussion. Is it creepy when I blog about a restaurant which gave me extra soup because I said I would blog about them? Is it creepy that the link to Seth's book above is a Amazon link that has an affiliate code to a non-profit that I'm associated with? Is it creepy that someone is is wearing a Creative Commons T-shirt to be "cool" even though he doesn't understand the licenses? My feeling is that if you have transparency and if things like Amazon links are providing value to the conversation rather than detracting from it, it's NOT creepy. And using that test, I don't think BzzAgents is creepy and I think with some tweaking, BzzAgents can be made uncreepy for some of the more sensitive people as well. I think that at the end of this road lies the future of PR and advertising and trying to understand how companies and products can participate in conversations in un-creepy ways is an important question for companies and customers alike.

26 Comments

Joi - you may want to connect with the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (www.womma.org) which is based here in Chicago. Andy Sernovitz is the president and though very busy, I'm sure would be a good contact for you and Creative Commons as you explore how to use Word of Mouth marketing effectively (they recently had a conference here in Chicago on the very topic).

Shannon

While it is true that it was CC that made the mistake, BzzAgent has a real PR problem regardless of the intentions of the founders and how saintly their operations may actually be. Volunteering to create a Bzz for CC placed a spotlight on BzzAgent which also exposed the forementioned PR problem. Ultimately, I think it was Dave's fault because he placed BzzAgent under the spotlight without first putting on a thick coat of makeup.

Unfortunately, they can't BzzAway the PR problem with their formal/artificial BzzNetwork because the much bigger informal/real BzzNetwork has already launched the BzzKill campaign. At this point, I think it's out of both CC and BzzAgent's hand. Enough people have been exposed to BzzAgent and, in absense of timely counter spins, chose to create some of their own.

All this is too bad because I rather liked the idea of BzzAgent from the business perspective.

Joi, there will always be a segment of CC supporters who object to the methods used by word-of-mouth marketers. They aren't ranters, or trying to smear people's reputations. They just have moral objections to it. They (we) will never get over it.

Obviously, CC is a big movement and has room for many ranges of opinions. It will be important to have discussions over possibly controversial decisions like this one. I'm not sure how CC can make this happen, but if you want to avoid flare-ups that you say smear reputations, such decisions will have to be discussed in the future.

Your link to BzzAgent links to Creative Commons.

Definition of "Word of Mouth"

I looked up the definition of "Word of Mouth" on Wikipedia and found out something interesting that I think is at the heart of this heated debate. Word of Mouth is considered more valuable and credible because there is no ulterior motive (i.e. no incentive) for the speaker to be promoting whatever it is they are talking about. So for some people, "Word of Mouth Marketing" is a kind of oxymoron. "Word of Mouth" is a natural form of unincentivised communications. To incentivise it changes it from "Word of Mouth" to something completely different. When someone uses the term "Word of Mouth" to describe something that is incentivised, there is an inherent lack of transparency. Many people outside of the "in the know" Madison/Silicon circles do not know that this kind of incentivised mouth driven marketing even exists.

"Buzz" on the other hand is a completely different word. Companies pay for "Buzz" and so the name "BzzAgent" is appropriate and fitting. There is no good definition of buzz on Wikipedia yet.

Wikipedia
word of mouth

Word of mouth is the passing of information by verbal means, especially recommendations, but also general information, in an informal, person-to-person manner, rather than by mass media, advertising, organized publication, or traditional marketing. Word of mouth is typically considered a spoken communication, although web dialogue, such as blogs, message boards and emails are often now included in the definition.

Word of mouth promotion is highly valued by marketers. It is felt that this form of communication has valuable source credibility. People are more inclined to believe word of mouth promotion than more formal forms of promotion because the communicator is unlikely to have an ulterior motive (ie.: they are not out to sell you something). Also people tend to believe people that they know. In order to manufacture word of mouth communications, marketers use publicity techniques. See Word of mouth marketing.

Wikipedia
Word of mouth marketing

Word of mouth marketing is a term used in the marketing industry to descibe activities that companies undertake to generate favorable word of mouth publicity about products and services.

Word of mouth promotion is highly valued by marketers. It is felt that this form of communication has valuable source credibility. People are more inclined to believe word of mouth promotion than more formal forms of promotion because the communicator is unlikely to have an ulterior motive (ie.: they are not out to sell you something). Also people tend to believe people that they know. In order to manufacture word of mouth communications, marketers use publicity techniques.

A very successful word of mouth promotion creates a buzz. A buzz is a highly intense and interactive form of word of mouth. Word of mouth is essentially a linear process with information passing from one individual to another, then to another, etc. A marketer has successfully created a buzz when the interactions are so intense that the information moves in a matrix pattern rather than a linear one. Everyone is talking about the topic.

I think it's a storm in a teacup. Maybe BzzAgents violates the "Blogosphere Purity Laws" but hey, the world doesn't revolve around bloggers. And like you said, your goals extend beyond the 'sphere.

I was first a bit disparaging about BzzAgents when it first came on the scene. But I'm starting to come around, slowly.

The fact is, everybody hates advertising and buzz, until they have something themselves that they want to sell to large groups of people. Then their attitudes change.

Premshree Pillai: Thanks. Fixed the link.

Simon: I think we did make a mistake by not discussing it more. I/we apologize for that and I hope we learned from this. I do think that if we can get beyond the emotional elements, that this discussion about where the threshold of creepy is is interesting.

Chris: The point that Seth makes well in his book is that word of mouth happens, but good "stories" travel via word of mouth. In a good viral campaign, each person tell more and and more people and you really wouldn't even need agents. It just goes because it's a good story or idea. Hotmail for example was "word of mouth marketing". So was the fact that the iPod Shuffle almost sold out before there were any ads or reviews. These are all examples of how information about a product can travel by word of mouth. I think that in fact Apple is great at this. They are suing bloggers, DRM'ing the crap out of iTunes, but for some reason, all the cool kids still think Apple is the shit. Some people would say that Apple is good at marketing doing ads like the iTunes/Pepsi Ad or "Think Different" and looking anti-establishment, when they often are not. Some would say they are deceptive. In any event, they are good at managing word of mouth.

The issue I have with the scheme BzzAgent uses is actually pretty simple. It comes off as deceptive because someone I know and trust is acting as a front-man.

In real exchanges with people, the entity I am speaking to is the entity I am having a conversation with. If that person is "bzzing" me, then the entity I am speaking with is the person, but the conversation is really with BzzAgent, as evidenced by the report that the agent files and the fact that the subject never would have been raised if BzzAgent hadn't sent out a packet of promotional materials.

This is all tolerable (if irritating) if I know that's what's happening -- thus the need for full disclosure, to give me as a consumer the option of not participating in the conversation. But to opt out of the conversation means to close a door, however minor it may be, on a friend. That's an uncomfortable position and gives the whole thing a coercive flavor.

In less personal communications, such as blogs or even actors hanging out in bars, these issues aren't as sensitive simply because they aren't as personal. Even there, though, disclosure is important.

I'm not sure this is best defined in terms of 'creepiness', but let's distinguish marketing and non-marketing. If I rave about a joint I ate at to my friends, it has of course a marketing effect, but is not really marketing. Then a bzz campaign is surely marketing, and then things like amazon links to books, with a charity-supporting twist to make the matter more difficult, begins to form a fuzzy and gray area. Sometimes it feels strange that we can't talk about books without mentioning a bookstore.
I think part of the difficulty in this discussion was due to differences between business and non-business oriented people. There are those who say "All this is too bad because I rather liked the idea of BzzAgent from the business perspective". And then there are those who criticise BzzAgent they are not by default ranters, inhabitants of a bloghetto, out to smear someone, just people who don't have a business take on reality.
"The fact is, everybody hates advertising and buzz, until they have something themselves that they want to sell to large groups of people." - Funny thing is, most people don't want to sell nothing.
the problem with 'word of mouth marketing' is that no matter how good marketing it is, it is not very good 'word of mouth'. A non-business attitude, and please don't call it radical or names like that, just doesn't see any sense in that.

As a side note, I'm very surprised by the online/offline issue regarding CC promotion - haven't we given up on this division, it's so very xx century. i think we are reaching 'the offline', whatever that means. And while it might be true we have a difficulty in reaching mass media (which is a wholly different issue), word of mouth won't really help here.

Awesome post, Joi. Great wrap-up of the situation and the various opinions/forces at play here.

To John Fen, who wrote:
"The issue I have with the scheme BzzAgent uses is actually pretty simple. It comes off as deceptive because someone I know and trust is acting as a front-man."

If the person (who you "know and trust") tells you up-front about the business relationship, how is that deceptive? Is that not the same, for example, as someone with an affiliate account who links to products they recommend? I don't see the difference. It's all about transparency.

To tarkowski, who wrote:
"Funny thing is, most people don't want to sell nothing."

You're right, and that's why it is a shame that this partnership did not move forward. The folks at BzzAgent believe in CC and wanted to help. Unlike many, they were motivated to get the word out about CC to people outside the traditional, self-selected, and dare I say semi-insular CC communications loop.

And finally, to Simon Pole, who wrote:
"Joi, there will always be a segment of CC supporters who object to the methods used by word-of-mouth marketers. They aren't ranters, or trying to smear people's reputations. They just have moral objections to it. They (we) will never get over it."

Well, that "segment of CC supporters" you describe has made our collective bed and now we all have to sleep in it. I just hope that CC is able to motivate its members to self-organize and get the word out as well as that particular segment of CC supporters was able to self-motivate and cast such a critical eye on a potentially beneficial partnership. To date, unfortunately, I see little/no proof of that ... and that troubles me. Time to step up, people. By doing it yourself, you avoid having any moral objections ... and you have no excuse.

Tarkowski: Yes. Offline/Online doesn't really have that much meaning, but I was just trying to identify clusters of people. There are people who get most of their information online vs people who get it mostly offline. There are people STILL who don't use computers. (I know many.) I think one of the points about marketing which I still think is valid is that there are different kinds of people with different beliefs and worldviews. People who spend a lot of time online have a worldview that almost any information is a click away. People who spend their time primarily consuming main stream media need to turn to physical word of mouth as the primary alternative to consuming the same stuff everyone else is consuming. I would assert that even though broadband penetration is increasing, a large number of people don't really "get" the Internet yet. I would call these people and the way that they learn about stuff "offline."

So JohnFen: What about all of the bloggers who rave about Macintosh computers? Are they front-men for Apple? They go to Macworld and suck up whatever Steve feeds them. Then the go around evangelizing the Macintosh. I am guilty of believing these stories/lies as well. It's a good story and it's fun to believe. It creates community. Solidarity. I find this strikingly similar to how it sounds like the BzzAgents feel. The structure of BzzAgent may be "weird" for some people, but don't criticize them without looking at all of the stuff you promote all day long and consider how many of these items are fun to talk about because of clever marketing. Everything from my Molskine notebook to my PowerBook are wrapped in marketing stories that make me feel good and are fun to believe. I think this sort of storytelling is even more deception in some ways that BzzAgents, but we're accustomed to and enjoy believing these kinds of stories.

I think that each "cluster" of people who have different worldviews will have different things that they find creepy or unethical. I think the key is to use the method of communication that most suits the group you are trying to reach. EVENTUALLY, I think that "markets are conversations" and "everyone should blog" may come true, but the fact of the matter is that we're not there yet. If I could communicate with everyone through my computer, I wouldn't have to fly around giving talks all over the place...

Joi: I come from a country with 25% Internet penetration in the society, broadband even less. So I understand there are "offline" people, sustained by mass media. But won't most of them not care at all about CC - they're probably heavily focused on passive TV reception and won't have much opportunity to produce content. There is a sharp division, which runs between those who have a computer and don't. That's because you need a burner to benefit from being able to burn that CD, because you need a browser to read those free online versions, etc. etc. I am not saying that there are no "offline" uses of CC licenses, but let's face it, even the license selection system is web-based, proper licensing information has to include an URL, etc. So a provisional answer (more thought on this needed) seems to be that if you don't have a computer, CC won't do much good for you. We have to consider, does it mean or change anything that the videoclip you just watched on TV is CC licensed (if you can't get up and check that CC on a computer, or contact someone who can?).

Criticism aside, I believe CD is the strongest tool we have at our disposal, especially for offline actions. Burn those cd's with any good cc content available, make a fancy cover or just scribble cc in a circle, at best add a short explanatory note and give it to someone, or drop it somewhere. That's an advantage we have over browser evangelism - the locus of CC power might be online, but you can read that printout in the tram, or pop that tape into a walkman.

George: Your comment about " traditional, self-selected, and dare I say semi-insular CC communications loop" seems quite arbitrary. There's a Minister of Culture supporting CC. Why are you sure that bzzagents would reach beyond that loop, or not drop the issue into a traditional, self-selected and dar I say semi-insular BzzAgent communications loop? One thing is certain - BzzAgent doesn't have a worldwide presence in over 15 (to err on the conservative side) countries, the way CC does.

tarkowski: Two "self-selected, and dare I say semi-insular CC communications loops" ... are better than one.

If 75% of the people in your country are offline, then online communications isn't going to be very effective in reaching your audience.

That said, those who are "heavily focused on passive TV reception and won't have much opportunity to produce content" will not be for long. What was the internet penetration in your country last year? Less than 25%, I'd bet. Is it predicted to grow next year? Hmmm.

And here's the kicker ... There are probably artists, musicians, writers, and/or other content producers among that 75% who would be interested in knowing about CC. That's the point, isn't it: Helping people who don't know about CC to find out. Once they know about CC, that might even give them a reason to go online in the first place.

And as for BzzAgent not having a worldwide presence, well, just be patient. Cue evil "Muhahahahah" laugh. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

George,

I think you miss the point about creative commons. Creative commons is not just about getting the word out, it is about getting the word out in the right way. There are faster and cheaper ways of getting the word out, but are there better ways of getting the message out than unpaid evengelists promoting something they believe in? Incentives, points, beans, ...whatever you wanna call em, they are money. Time is money, beans are money and if I was getting anything that could be redeemed for this posting it would be money.

When free culture/open culture and commercial culture meet there will be conflict. That is why it is absolutely important for promoters of CC and other liberating legal licencing agents to stay focused. Joi points out that Apple appears to be antiestablishment. Apple is one of many examples. Look at what Google is now. One good catch phrase "don't be evil" and look at what they are getting away with now. Disgusting.

CC is not just about getting the word out, it is about getting the right people believing in doing the right thing. It may be too early to start giving BzzBeans to people who are not real CC evangelists.

"What about all of the bloggers who rave about Macintosh computers? Are they front-men for Apple?"

If they are reporting to Apple about their evangelism, then yes they are also front-men. If they are just talking up a product because they like it, but have no other connection to the company, then they aren't. I suppose it's a pretty subtle distinction, but an important one for me. I like to know who I'm talking with.

Although bringing up Apple Evangelism is a very interesting point, because while I wouldn't describe BzzAgent as "creepy", I do, in fact, find the intensity of Apple devotees creepy (because it's so cult-like), and it does put me off Apple products. Well, that and their corporate behavior (yes, I avoid Microsoft for similar reasons).

No Apple. No Microsoft. Well, Michael Dell can be pretty creepy, and the others probably weird you out, too.

JohnFen ... Must use an abacus running Linux and Firefox. :)

Have a nice weekend everyone.
~G~

George said:

"I just hope that CC is able to motivate its members to self-organize and get the word out as well as that particular segment of CC supporters was able to self-motivate and cast such a critical eye on a potentially beneficial partnership. To date, unfortunately, I see little/no proof of that ... and that troubles me. Time to step up, people."

Why, is there some crisis? I think CC is doing just fine. It is out there, people are aware of it, and I'm confident it will grow with time. Is it important that it take the world by storm, that it be part of every watercooler conversation, that it's front-page news on every magazine? How much advertising/marketing was done for the GPL? Were there inserts in PC Magazine promoting GNU?

On the other hand, there was a quick and almost uniformly negative reaction to BzzAgent. Here is a company which rewards people for talking up their client's products in casual conversation. It doesn't matter to me if it's my best friend and he genuinely loves the product; there will always be this doubt. Did he come to love it on his own? Would he have even thought to talk to me about it if he wasn't being rewarded for doing so? Would he have been so enthusiastic, absent the reward?

There was an episode of the TV show Babylon 5 where one of the characters, a security guard, was solicited by an outside organization. All he had to do was wear an armband and keep his eyes open for illegal activities, which he should report to the organization as well as his boss, and he'd get extra pay. What a deal, he said, they pay me for doing what I do anyway! Later on, after he'd been with them a while, the organization sent a representative out to meet with the people they'd recruited. Now, in addition to reporting on blatantly illegal acts, they were to report "sedition" and other acts they felt were against the best interests of the government. Those that objected were reminded that they had been receiving extra pay for quite some time now, certainly they didn't expect that that pay was for nothing? And so on; you can see how it was heading even if you haven't seen the show.

Is that how BzzAgent works? Maybe not. And I don't intend to push the Brownshirts analogy too far; they haven't earned that yet. But you can't deny that the tactics are similar, and if someday virtuous David Balter leaves or is forced out, who's to say that BzzAgent won't start demanding its Agents go out and promote products they *aren't* so enthusiastic about? Maybe they lose half or more of their Agents who would virtuously refuse to participate; but some would remain and take the money/rewards. Given that there are at least SOME Agents who would be willing to shill for products they don't personally care about, how can I know that the Agent I'm speaking to now isn't one of them? Do you see how I feel "creepy" just by the *possibility* that the Agent might be insincere? Because *one* Agent might be insincere, there's always in the back of my mind the possibility that *any* Agent might be insincere. Even my best friend, unfortunately. And that is what makes me feel "creepy" about the mere existence of BzzAgent. It subverts the purity of any dialogue I might have with someone who works for them; once I know that the person speaking is a BzzAgent, I can no longer know for sure whether what they are saying is actually them speaking, or just Bzzing. It's even worse when I don't know they're an agent; now I have to suspect *everyone* in the conversation of being an Agent!

BzzAgent is a threat to every discussion area it could conceivably worm its way into. It needs to die a quick death. I'm sorry for David Balter and those others who thought it a good idea. I just can't see it that way.

Babylon 5? Are you kidding?

cross posted on the wiki, joi, and lessing...

here's what i'd like to see from bzzagent / dave balter if they're really going to support the cc with our "spread firefox-like campaign" as joi mentioned. i also think this would help bzzagent build some trust and credibility in the cc community.

1. dave, can you outline and/or release the timeline of the typical campaign. ideally, a budget and staff you'd would have deployed for the cc, just to give us an idea.

2. do you distribute "talking points" to the agents? if so, what do they usually address. what would your suggestions be for the creative commons?

3. can you describe the metrics you provide your clients, and how we could do the same for our efforts? would you suggest we measure new content cc'd, #'s of "word of mouth reports" etc..? if we need to measure interactions, what tools do you suggest we consider? i'm not sure if we need to report interactions, but i think if we get some great new artists, photographers, musicians, authors, etc.. in the cc- we could at least do a few case studies.

4. this many of us are bloggers, use rss, use flickr, use technorati, del,icio.us- how do you suggest we use these types of connecting technologies for our campaign. should we do cc meetups? mailing lists? i'm curious about your suggestions.

5. what content creators do you think we should go after first? real examples would help a lot.

perhaps you could release this as a pdf / doc / whatever under a cc license and publish it here, the wiki or on bzzagent.com

-phillip torrone
-feel free to email as well pt at oreilly dot com

Someone should start a company called BuzzKill that does Paid Word Of Mouth Negative Publicity campaigns. That way not only would you know if your friends were only promoting stuff to you for incentives, you would not even know if they were bad mouthing stuff to you for real either!

Seriously, where does it end? BzzAgent has a code of conduct but other companies will not feel the need. In fact, they might take the opposite position. Instead of being open, they could be closed and secretive.

What's wrong with Babylon 5? It was an apt analogy and I used it.

In the same vein as BzzAgent...



USWeb remakes the art of the Shill...
It looks like the folks at USWeb.com, a leading Internet marketing firm, have taken the idea of shilling one step further and could very well be in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act. [Bravo 411 | May 06, 2005].



Creative common is a good stuff to respect copy in law agree with Pepeluali "Someone should start a company called BuzzKill that does Paid Word Of Mouth Negative Publicity campaigns. That way not only would you know if your friends were only promoting stuff to you for incentives, you would not even know if they were bad mouthing stuff to you for real either!"

Until we straighten our selves out and provide legitimate linking and promotion, our public is not going to be served well. It is feeling more and more like the search engines just pull our strings and we jump. No good.

Bzz agent cant be doing so badly, I see they have a UK version. Still requesting reviews for nothing just to influence your major companies.

Transparent company is important thing when you doing business, so as long as you think that BzzAgent do transparent work, why not?

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