Guardian column: Buzz off!

Buzz off! this blogger’s voice is not for sale

Jeff Jarvis
Monday November 20, 2006
The Guardian

The growth of blogs and what is ingloriously labelled “user-generated content” has spawned a new commercial practice: word-of-mouth marketing, the dark art of trying to manipulate the public to buzz about your brand. Call it what you will, it’s still just PR – and as a journalist, I’ve never been a fan of flacks, for it’s their job to spin, the reporter’s to unspin, and the public’s to be spun.

But now the internet opens direct access from PR people to the public, who can now publish themselves, letting everyone avoid those pesky gatekeepers in the press. And that’s fine: the web massacres middlemen. But what the flacks and marketers don’t realise is that they also take on a new responsibility in our reordered architecture of information. Now their credibility actually matters.

But they’re blowing it. One infamous word-of-mouth practitioner, BzzAgent, rewards people to talk about brands. Another, Pay Per Post, pays bloggers to write about products. Both have raised the hackles of many bloggers, including me, because they try to exploit and hijack the conversation, to turn my virtual neighbours into hucksters, to undermine the genuineness and reputation of online interaction. A new entrant, Review Me, says it solves all that by requiring bloggers to reveal their payments and by requiring advertisers to pay for negative as well as positive reviews. But the problem remains: they’re trying to buy our voice.

Perhaps I’m just trying to bring the church-and-state ethic of journalism to a different world, but I was trained that advertisers could buy ads but could not buy my opinion, voice or reputation, and that if I sold any of those, I’d sold my soul. I think it’s a good rule, a benchmark of credibility. But even for those who still want to buy word-of-mouth, I say they are attacking marketing from the wrong end. This is what I advised them on my blog: 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.

Seems pretty simple to me. But one of the PR industry’s leading lights, Edelman – whose chief, Richard Edelman, blogs and talks a good game – recently failed the transparency test. A weblog supposedly written by two ordinary folks who drove their camper van across America from Wal-Mart to Wal-Mart, churning out heartwarming tales about working folks there, turned out to have been paid for and managed by Edelman, the retail giant’s PR agency. Edelman himself apologised on his blog.

Then this infant industry’s new trade group, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (Womma), summoned him to their convention next month to take 40 lashes on stage. As a token blogger, I was invited to come and bring the whip, but I declined, seeing no reward in teaching PR people how to better manipulate us. [Disclosure: I was once compensated to travel to and speak at an Edelman event.]

This same Womma just announced with considerable fanfare that computer maker Dell had taken the group’s blogging ethics pledge, an elaborate five-part proclamation that I say really just boils down to the rule our mothers taught us: tell the truth. Their joint press conference was ironic for me, if not them, because I had infamously sparred with Dell on my blog. A series of posts there (which can be found second on the list of results upon Googling “Dell hell”) chronicled my travails with a bad computer and worse customer service.

A Dell marketing agent even came to my blog to anonymously attack me: “I’ve been working with Dell the past three weeks researching trashy blogs that worms like you leave all over that frigen [sic] blogosphere … Your problem is you have no life.” Point taken. Since then, Dell has tried to reform its ways; its stated blog policy used to be “look, don’t touch” but now they have a blog and dispatch customer-service reps to proactively, as they love to say, reach out to bloggers and solve their consumer problems. No trade association, policy statement or industry convention needed for that. It’s just commercial common sense: bloggers are your customers talking. If you don’t listen, you are a fool.

The one lesson I would like to give PR people is that their ability to have a direct relationship with their constituencies also brings them a new responsibility: in the age of the link, when we can click straight to the source for information from companies, politicians, or governments, what we find had better be complete, open, honest and reliable, no longer obscured behind the gauzy window of PR and flackery. Or you’ll buy buzz, all right. Bad buzz.