Taking Measure: Follow the Buzz to Market

Buzz marketing is getting a lot of buzz these days. Marketers in search of alternatives to a TV-centric marketing plan are experimenting with a wide range of tactics that broadly fall into this category, including viral, stealth, word-of-mouth, blogging, and guerrilla marketing. These are just a few of the approaches that are being deployed to get consumers to "pass along" information and endorsement.

These strategies are predicated on the idea that information from a friend or family member carries more persuasive power than marketing messages delivered directly through media. These tactics are particularly important for younger, more media-savvy consumers, who tend to be cynical about traditionally delivered marketing messages.

Such thinking is not new. "Tell a friend" has been a part of marketing ever since there was a market. But as consumers' use of digital communications like e-mail, instant messaging, and user-generated content  online word-of-mouth, essentially  becomes pervasive, messages are traveling farther, faster, and to more consumers than ever before. This creates a powerful opportunity that marketers are just beginning to seriously explore.

One of buzz marketing's biggest attractions is that it doesn't require a large media budget. As such it can be an equalizer for smaller companies with more consumer insight and creative energy than money. Big companies trying to compete in this space can be handicapped by their size, lack of agility, and big-agency relationships. As a result, many of the majors are turning to small buzz marketing agencies to conceive and manage programs for them, and to gain early learning and experience.

Unfortunately, many of these early programs are long on creativity and short on measurement, so the learning objectives are not always met.

To some extent, the lack of rigorous measurement of buzz programs is understandable, since marketers often think of the ratio of "working to non-working" dollars when setting budgets. Since working dollars for buzz programs are small next to the millions spent on traditional media and promotion, research budgets for buzz programs are often too small for meaningful assessment. But for companies to have repeatable and sustained success with buzz campaigns, they must invest in research and tracking infrastructure.

Marketers need to know who the influencers are in their market. They need to have an ongoing sense of what is important to their customers' lives. Above all, they have to know what messages and experiences will motivate consumers to talk to friends and family about a product. Ideally, marketers will be able to test "buzz concepts" against this group to see if they are compelling enough to be passed along. Then they will have the means to monitor buzz in the market to see if they are making progress.

To comprehensively monitor buzz, marketers should incorporate four data streams. First, primary research among influencers and the general market can track changes in attitude or opinion over time. Second, tracking the number of related keyword searches on Google and Yahoo can offer a sense of whether buzz efforts are translating into consumers seeking more information. Third, tracking user-generated content such as blogs or personal home pages can indicate whether consumers are passing information on to others. Finally, tracking mentions in the online and traditional press can reveal if the buzz is gathering momentum.

Monitoring the buzz about your product in the marketplace is a good idea even if you have no buzz marketing program in place. The signals within these data streams can be early warning signs that a marketing program is in trouble, or leading indicators of positive trends that can be enhanced. So whether you put buzz tracking in place to manage buzz programs or put buzz programs in place because your tracking identified a threat or opportunity, you wind up in the same place.

Based on positive early returns, marketers will continue to explore buzz programs and incorporate buzz tactics in their arsenals. Over time, even packaged goods firms are likely to combine buzz with direct marketing and public relations to create highly effective programs that don't rely on mass media. Early investment in buzz monitoring data will help accelerate learning, identify new opportunities, and ensure ongoing success.

John Nardone is chief client officer for Marketing Management Analysis. (john.nardone@mma.com)

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