Word of my mouth

When I turned down the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s invitation to be the guy to deliver 40 lashes to Richard Edelman after his PR firm’s Wal-Mart blogging fiasco, I said I’d explain my thinking. So here is my essential argument:

You cannot buy our word of mouth. It’s ours. You cannot buy buzz. You have to earn it. The only way to get either is to create a good product or service and to treat your customers with respect by listening to and being open and honest with them.

That’s it. No trade associations needed. No conventions. No codes of ethics that people sign and then find loopholes through. No star chambers for errant marketers. Just tell the truth. It really is that simple.

If you want to market, then do what marketers do: Buy ads. The nice thing about an ad is that it
is a transparent act of marketing. An ad comes with its own borders around it: You buy space or time to tell your story to my public, who can tell that you bought it and can then judge whether you also managed to buy my integrity and soul. The ad, by its very form, puts that relationship clearly out in public. Ads also support news and entertainment, and have for a century or more, and so I hope they also start to support blogging, vlogging, podcasting, and all that. When you don’t buy an ad and try to influence us behind the scenes, for money or not, then you get in trouble. And you should.

Markets are conversations that you can’t have without us. And we own our end of that conversation. If you try to buy it, you are trying to compromise our integrity, honesty, openness; you are trying to corrupt us and our media and we will judge uyou accordingly. If you try to hide what you’re doing, you are lying to us and we will catch you. And it goes beyond that: If you try to sell what you know about us without our involvement, you are stealing the wisdom of the crowd and we are the crowd.

That’s why I object to the notion that there can be a word-of-mouth industry. It’s our mouth and please don’t try to put words in it.

Now the folks at WOMMA say they stand for doing things right and folks I know said I should give them a chance. I’m sure they are nice and earnest. But, frankly, I didn’t see it as my job to tell them how to tell us stuff. I do not want to start a parallel practice to media training: word-of-mouth training, the science and art of manipulation. God help us.

And I did not see how I could win ending up on stage with a professional spinster; it’s like going on The Daily Show thinking you can be funnier than Jon Stewart. If I’m blunt and direct and say I can’t understand how Edelman et al could have fostered this screwup, then I’m likely to face a hostile crowd. If I try to probe how Edelman’s organization could have so cavalierly ignored his own word and whether that came from a corporate and industry culture of spin and loopholes or from other orgaizational problems, I’d be playing the company consultant and I really don’t care to. If I don’t zap him with sufficient voltage, I’ll be seen as a sell-out. No win. So I chose not to go.

There was one reason I did consider going and that’s in the next post I’ll write, above.

  • You present one of the best arguments against buzz/WoM marketing I’ve heard to date. Essentially, you’re right. The best buzz is the kind that you get organically from creating a great product and having an authentic conversation with your audience. In the best possible world, that would be the only scenario.

    But we don’t live in the best possible world. Companies will always want to “manipulate” the system, and they will always try. The great thing about the blogosphere (and its associated media) is that it’s less vulnerable to manipulation because it’s a two-way conversation that values critical thinking like never before.

    As I argued to Jason Calacanis, I think there’s some room here to establish some best practices around the commercial side of the “Web 2.0” media.

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  • Jeff, This is a great post about an issue that has dramatic implications for advertisers, media, and how we as media creators function within this system. I am a producer of television shows (some of which you’ve probably seen) and I’ve been witnessing a trend towards more inclusion of advertisements within the shows I produce (in a form that goes beyond product integration, but that’s a longer conversation). In a way this sudden trend towards more adverister “sponsored” media and away from the 30-second spot is liberating, for a number of reasons, including a greater level of honesty and communication with consumers. It is my hope (and intention) to identify ways to work with companies that make positive contributions to the community as partners in media creation. If more people think this way, we would see a radical shift in the level of consciousness in how we think about consumption, make decisions about consumption, and ultimately about how and how much we consume.

  • I got a little behind in my blog reading last week so I’m just getting to this. I don’t have anything to add except my admiration for a great post that I could not agree more with. Word. Mouth. Foot off, WOMMA.

  • Of the three types of advertising two are basically dishonest:
    1. Alert people to a new product
    2. Compare one’s product to another’s
    3. Persuade people to buy something they really don’t need

    Items 2 and 3 rely on false comparisons (20% brighter), fear (helps prevent halitosis) or envy (most car ads). The same is true of the PR industry. A typical release, say from the beer can industry, will tout the number of cans recycled, but neglects to state that this is still a small fraction of the total sold.

    The creation of astro-turf organizations and “think-tanks” sponsored by (hidden) wealthy interests which purport to put out impartial “research” are all part of the same disinformation milieu we live in.

    So, having fake blogs seems to me just business as usual in a new form. This past week it was revealed that the new digital Leica camera (~$5000) has several defects which were covered up by several well known “independent” review sites. In this case getting the equipment early for review (or perhaps at a good price) was enough to compromise the reviewer’s impartiality.

    What is someone to do who is selling a new toothpaste? Say it’s the same as all the old ones, but please buy it anyway?

    How about when trying to promote a basically harmful product or idea (cigarettes or privatizing social security)? It is impossible to tell the truth and do one’s job in these cases.

    I don’t think we can expect those in the BS industries to embrace transparency, it is up to the public to uncover deception and call them on it. Perhaps the internet will make this easier. User product reviews are starting to have an effect as Jeff’s experiences with Dell illustrate.