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.