Tag Archives: Ford Fiesta

Does Buzz Need Batteries? (thoughts on viral marketing)

Brandweek yesterday:

More brands will compensate bloggers and social media users in an attempt to generate chatter about their products, a new study found.

PQ Media said such "sponsored conversations" — which compensate social media users for discussing brands’ products — grew to $46 million in 2009, a 14 percent increase from a year earlier. Even so, that figure represented a tiny chunk (2.7 percent) of the word-of-mouth marketing category, according to PQ.

The firm now forecasts what it terms "social media sponsorship spending" to rise 26 percent this year to $56.8 million.

What should we make of this? 

One interpretation: that buzz marketing does not go unless pushed, that buzz needs batteries. 

And this is a problem for a couple of reasons. 

1) Paid buzz bloggers would become advertisers by another name.  (In what sense is “sponsored conversation” a conversation?)

2) The credibility and authenticity of blogger enthusiasm would be open to challenge.

3) The viral model may not actually work. 

Ten years ago, Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger published The Cluetrain Manifesto.  Marketing would never be the same.  “Marketing as conversation” wasn’t a perfect metaphor, but it was a liberating one.  It helped corporations see that idea was not to shout at consumers but to converse with them.

As Manifesto was making friends and influencing people, another idea began to exert itself.  Buzz marketing, let’s call it, was suddenly everywhere.  The idea now was to “go viral.” 

Some marketers returned immediately to form.  “Virality.  Perfect!” they said, “We’ll get consumers buzzing about us!”  No sooner had marketers glimpsed the possibility that marketing was a conversation than some decided to make the conversation about them. 

It was that old joke all over again: “well, that’s enough about me, what do you think about me?” 

The truth is simple.  Consumers don’t necessarily care about brands.  They care still less about marketers.  They care about what they care about, and it is up to us to find out what that is.  It’s up to us to join the conversation.  There is little chance that we can start this conversation, especially if all we want to do is to talk about ourselves. 

The year 2012 will be the 100th anniversary of the phrase “consumer is king” as invented by Charles Coolidge Parlin.  The metaphor has plausibility problems of its own, but it proved influential and it remains active.  It was marketing’s way of remembering “it’s not about us, it’s about them.”  This is another way of saying that we have been thinking about this problem lesson for around 100 years.  When does the penny drop?

Clarification: This is not an attack on viral marketing.  This is an attack on viral marketing that insists on making the brand the stuff of the buzz.  We have plenty of evidence that the corporation and marketer can create content that consumers are keen to consume and communicate.  This viral marketing is a contribution to marketing only because it is first of all a contribution to culture.  The Ford Fiesta campaign is I believe a good case in point of this kind of viral marketing (see my remarks below).


Levine, Rick, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger The Cluetrain Manifesto: 10th Anniversary Edition.  New York: Basic Books. here.

McCracken, Grant.  2010.  How Ford Got Social Marketing Right.  Harvard Business Review Blog Conversation.  January 7. here.

Morrissey, Brian.  2010.  Paid Brand Conversations to Rise.  Brandweek.  Subscription fees may apply. May 11.  here.

For more on Parlin, see his entry in the Advertising Hall of Fame here.