Monday, November 14, 2005

How Much Can You Trust Buzz?

Scott Kirsner wrote an article that appeared in today's Boston Globe entitled "How much can you trust buzz?"

The article contributes to the ongoing discussion about social and ethical concerns surrounding buzz marketing and issues of disclosure. (See my previous posts on this: 10/24/2005 Part 1, 10/24/2005 Part 2, 10/25/2005, 10/28/2005, and 11/4/2005).

This article focuses on BzzAgent, and a book ("Grapevine: The New Art of Word-of-Mouth Marketing") recently authored by its founder and president, Dave Balter.

Apparently a number of volunteers affiliated with the agency, or BzzAgents, posted reviews on Amazon's website about the book, most identifying their affiliation with BzzAgent, but a small few who did not. According to the article, BzzAgent was able to determine that 3 of 4 people who didn't identify their affiliations were indeed part of the BzzAgent network. The article states that BzzAgent considers the activity of these agents "unacceptable" and that these Agents will face some type of disciplinary action.

Kirsner, the article's author, contends that since BzzAgent's business model is built on a word-of-mouth network, "it needs to get more serious about disclosure. It's one thing to ask agents to be honest and open, but BzzAgent would avoid more bad publicity, and do well by its clients, if it gave its disclosure policy some teeth -- kicking agents out of the network when they fail to disclose their connection."

It will be interesting to hear BzzAgent's response to this article. Their policies have developed over the years towards increasing disclosure to the point now that disclosure is required of BzzAgents. They also have a disciplinary program in place, which they call Pest Control.

Kirsner's point goes beyond just BzzAgent, however, because it is calling for something that is not layed out explicitly in WOMMA's Code of Ethics. That code requires disclosure of relationship, opinion, and identity, but does not currently provide guidelines for its member companies on disciplinary behaviors.

Stay tuned to see how these issues develop in the coming weeks and months.

By the way, you can read my review of Grapevine that I sent to Dave Balter, and which he posted on the BzzAgent blog back in September. In the interests of disclosure, I am not a BzzAgent, I have collaborated, and am currently collaborating, with BzzAgent on research projects regarding managed word-of-mouth marketing programs (some of the findings from an earlier project are cited in Grapevine), and I am an Advisory Board member of WOMMA.