Thursday, April 13, 2006

Social Critiques of Peer-to-Peer and WOM Marketing Programs, Take 2: Release of Sales Pitch Society II

In an earlier post I wrote about the various social critiques of peer-to-peer and word-of-mouth marketing efforts. In that post I mentioned a piece written by Kate Kaye called Sales Pitch Society (opens into PDF). In that work Kate was concerned that participants in corporate-sponsored marketing programs were unreflectively becoming "brand vessels" and wondered whether people really believe in the messages they are spreading about brands.

On Monday, Kate released Sales Pitch Society II, an updated version of her analysis. In this latest edition, for which I was interviewed and cited, Kate wants the reader to reflect on how organized word-of-mouth marketing affects our social fabric, relationships, and our own identities as being defined by brands. She argues that people who participate in organized WOMM programs "are condoning the deliberate injection of brands into their conversations. In essence people are facilitating their own exploitation, merely because marketers have asked them to" (p. 38). She cites a number of reasons for this:

empty lives, the desire for belonging, acceptance and insider knowledge, even sheer materialism. (p. 38)
Kate feels that proponets of organized WOMM programs are being seduced by their own rhetoric, drawing a comparison to Orwellian newspeak:
Could it be that WOM marketers have been spewing this Orwellian newspeak for so long, even they’'ve fallen prey to it? This time, the doublethink slogans are not “War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, Ignorance Is Strength.” They'’re more along the lines of: Evangelism is Empowerment, Loyalty is Control, Influence is Altruism
Kate further expands her critique into the world of consumer generated media, arguing that the digital amplification of WOM in the form of CGM may lead us to forsake our human "in-the-flesh" relationships. She writes "Consumer attitudes are shifting, WOM is becoming institutionalized, and CGM is proliferating. At the intersection of these phenomena is digital communication" (p. 38).

Before I continue I should note that Kate adds a disclaimer about her critique:
Please note: This is by no means an anti-capitalist or anti-advertising manifesto. In fact, it comes from the heart and mind of a spirited proponent of free market capitalism. Neither is this an effort to denigrate the individuals who work in the WOM industry. This is merely an attempt to spur further dialogue regarding the ethical and societal implications of engineered WOM marketing campaigns.
I find Kate's work to be thought-provoking on this topic, and I have found her to be very receptive to feedback, though I do disagree with her on a number of points. Here are a few points where we I think we overlap in our views and some points where we diverge (this is not an exhaustive list)...

Areas of Convergence

- I agree that many in our society define our identities too much by the brands we consume. (p. 26)

- I believe we should be reflective about our participation in marketing initiatives, just as we should reflect on and critically interrogate how we spend our time and energy on a range of activities in which we engage. (p. 5)

- I like her interrogation of languaged used by those in the industry (the communication scholar in me!). As an example, I feel similarly that we should interrogate the term "citizen marketer" because it seems to conflate the process of being a citizen in a democratic society (and all the attendant responsibilities of political participation that is required of citizens) with being a consumer in a marketplace. (p. 33)

- I think it's essential that we create a space to discuss the issues that Kate raises in her analysis about the societal and ethical effects of brands and in our lives and the marketing methods used to promote those brands.

Areas of Divergence

- I'm sensitive to, but ultimately resist, the argument that people are "facilitating their own exploitation" by participating in organized WOMM programs. This seems to reproduce a kind of "false consciousness" argument where the critic defines somebody else's reality for them. Kate's suggestion that the motives for participating in organized WOMM programs -- empty lives, desire for belonging, acceptance and insider knowledge, and sheer materialism -- could all be valid. But I wonder if the critique is somewhat reductionist by only, or at least primarily, looking at their participation in the WOMM program; this is likely just one aspect of their multi-faceted lives.

- I wish her critique more evenly incorporated a broader slice of word-of-mouth marketing business models because it may not do justice to the full range and types of perspectives in the field. Although she does spread some of the critique around to more "organic" WOMM programs and even the monitoring of online buzz, a large part of her critique is based on "amplified" programs offered by firms that have a network of members, such as BzzAgent or Tremor, or companies like M80 or Ammo Marketing (companies specifically mentioned). The BzzAgent model receives a good deal of attention and critique (and interestingly there are some in the WOMM industry who have made similar critiques of BzzAgent's business model, just as Kate does). And BzzAgent has always been a "lightning rod" in attracting praise and criticism. Ironically, some of this attention may be because of their level of disclosure and openness about what they do (for example, Kate uses some of the information provided on their blog and website as resources to critique their model). Further they are also a firm that has opened up their model to academic inquiry through their collaborations with universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Northeastern (obvious disclosure here), just to name a few; and since the findings from such studies are part of academic projects whose non-proprietary results are publicly disseminated it can cut both ways.

- I'm not sure what to make of the direction that Kate moves into towards the end of her piece where she implicates the new(er) forms of digital media that faciliate and amplify WOM on a broader scale. She writes that "In some ways, the digital communication we praise for its potential to bring us closer together sometimes actually divides us. It'’s as though some of us have allowed the media we use to transfer our thoughts and enable our discussions to build their own barriers" (pp. 38-39). I agree that technology both enables and constrains, but I think this point could be, and has been, discussed separately from the rest of her argument. That is, there's nothing inherent in the technology that leads us to engage more in brand-related conversations or "communication commodification." And though it's important to consider the role of 'social media' technologies anytime you talk about WOM and CGM I think this is the part of her argument that could be developed the most.

But because her writing style and arguments are often provocative I would encourage people to read Sales Pitch Society II. I plan on having my students read it in my class on WOM, Buzz, and Viral Marketing Communication that I'm teaching this summer, and which she happens to mention in the piece.

I would especially recommend that people who have participated in organized WOMM programs read SPSII and respond with your feedback (to this post or to Kate's site). I'd be fascinated to learn the diversity of responses to it.