Now it might be old web hat to some of you, but discovering the recent growth in word-of-mouth marketing agencies is a little trippy to me.
(There was apparently an article about this in last Sunday’s New York Times, but I can’t find it online – if anyone knows where it is, please leave a link in the comments. Ta.)
For the uninitiated, have a look at Bzzagent, which pretty much sums up the deal. Okay, loads of people have set up street teams and stuff like that, ways to help bands and suchlike get some (usually much needed) free ground support, but the idea that people are now setting up agencies where you sign up and when something they think you might like comes along they give it to you in return for you going round and showing your friends how cool it is is setting a pretty dangerous precident, don’tcha think?
Now, I’m not a fan of guerilla advertising in any form whatsoever (wow, Eric, you surprise us). I’m firmly in the Bill Hicks camp on that one. (“Anyone here who works in advertising? Go home and shoot yourself. No really, I mean that. Go home and do it.”)
So, Bzzagent’s site states “You only join campaigns for products you like”, and Womma’s site rails against people already trying to discredit their system online by pointing out that “We have long maintained that ‘seeding’ has a corrosive effect on the integrity of the web…”, but this all leaves a hella bad taste in the mouth. Especially coming from marketing companies (like, duh, it’s their job to convince you, maan). There are already enough people posting fake reviews, dummy blogs etc… without stuff like this to contend with. And to make matters worse, Bzzagent seem to be directing themselves at a reasonably huge and rather vulnerable group of people: people who want to be way cool, but somehow, because of whatever insecurity they suffer from, don’t think that they are.
As their Bzzagent of the month puts it on the front page of the site:
“I have no idea at times what is current or new. But with Bzz I have an edge almost. I can talk to my friends about some new cool things that I would not usually even venture out and even look at.”
(It’s the “almost” that gets me there)
Now, stuff like this has been going on for years behind the scenes – backhanders, payola, freebies, goodie bags, call it what you want – but to bring stuff like this out in the open I think will have serious consequences for many different kinds of community, not just online. How can you trust anyone at all? If someone tells me about some new music, even if it’s good, I want to believe that they’ve passed it on to me because they feel it, and they want to share it, not because once they’ve written up my reaction to it and passed it back to their agency (without my permission, hemhem), they’ll earn brownie points and gift vouchers.
As this article in the Concorde Monitor demonstrates, The Monitor received several reviews of books and printed them, only to later find out they’d been Bzzed. Even though the review author claims he genuinely liked the books, The Monitor knows they cannot print advertiser-backed content without stating where it comes from and who’s funding it. And that’s just one person who copped to it. What about all the others who haven’t?
“Word-of-mouth is the most credible and trusted form of advertising, especially in the internet age,” say Womma. Yeah, seems like a bit of fun, a way of getting freebies, maybe earning a little cash, getting to think you’re “cool” and still thinking you retain your integrity.
But if this is where it starts, where the hell is it going to end up? David Byrne (December 6 post) makes some typically elegant connections in his online diary that make for interesting reading, and shows that what was once a nightmarish future-scenario is edging nearer and nearer to reality.
How long before less scrupulous agencies spring-up? Or less scrupulous agents? How long before “Womma-free” banner ads start appearing in people’s blogs?
Considering pretty much everyone that has ever visited this site or downloaded any of our tracks has ended up doing it because of word-of mouth, like I said, it leaves a bad taste.
But, hey, when I have a bad taste in my mouth, I always reach for my Breathezee minty gel caps to keep my breath minty fresh. Why don’t you try some? I have some right here in my pocket. Go on… have one.
I’m sure you’ll like them.