Such is the title of my recent column in Advertising Age, and boy has this topic been on my mind for quite some time. If you take a close look under the hood on so many of these word-of-mouth, viral, buzz building, and social media campaigns, the folks with marketing pedigree and credentials are everywhere.
In the blogosphere, there are thousands of bloggers who source directly from the marketing and public relations ranks. Double that for Twitter, which seem to matriculate another hundred "social-media experts" every couple hours. Conduct even the most basic Twitter search on user profiles and you'll find nearly 30,000 Twitter users self-identified as marketers. Nearly 8,500 use the term "PR," and another 8,000 use the term "social media."
Look no further than last week's Skittles brouhaha. Or the Super Bowl advertising buzz that I tracked for Nielsen. Or the Motrin Moms controversy many months earlier. Upward of half of the overall buzz came from the folks with marketing industry pedigree or credentials -- and the percentage conspicuously peaked even higher in the early waves of buzz. Put another way, marketers are complicit in pushing the snowball into a "buzzball."
Is this a bad thing? Well, I hold off a bit on that particular question, but at minimum we at least need to recognize and acknowledge the disproportionate voice of marketers in the conversational stream. Even I'm a bit guilty of over-romanticizing the "consumer voice" when in fact the earliest buzz-building megaphones are being sounded by the folks I regularly rub shoulder to shoulder with at industry conferences. Not to suggest we don't wear both consumer and marketer hats; I'm 100% aligned on what Dan Schwabel's suggesting about Personal Branding or Rohit Bhargava is putting out there about "authenticity" in Personality Not Included and I'm a proud participant in that tango.
That all this moves the needle is beyond question. Just consider the impact of search. In the pre-search world, marketers could critique one another into submission and no one outside our hermetically sealed silo would have a clue what we are saying. In the post-search world, all the marketer talk, fortified by heavy doses of link love, pushes straight to the top of organic Google-search results, meaning consumers are as likely to see our informed, often critical spin before they see the first billboard, display ad or TV spot. That's big.
At minimum, we also need to acknowledge that this curious trend blurs lines, and muddies the water. I call this out not to be righteous but only because I truly believe we marketers need to consistently go the extra distance to keep things transparent, clear, well-disclosed, and of course "open." When the commentators and analysts are becoming de facto media channels (which is clearly happening), we need to dial up the "clarity" levers.
Then again, maybe that's the bargain we've all struck in this Byzantine conversational bazaar we've buzzed up. Social media both softens silos and mucks up the lines. Web 2.0 marketing is de facto research, and feedback-powered research is the highest form of loyalty marketing, right? Lines naturally get blurry, even confusing, when we're both observer and participant. Inevitably, we end up interpreting the very buzz we created or fueled ourselves.
If you buy into this theory, you really have to think hardder about how to build the likes of David Armano, Steve Rubel, Jeremiah Owyang, BL Ochman, Peter Kim, Charlene Li, Chris Brogan and Susan Bratton into your buzz building or launch strategies, or at least have a strategy for "viral sandbagging" their potential negatives or venom.
This is no cake walk. While there's shortage of easy high-fives from the social-media set on anything that smacks of progressive marketing, let's not forget that these folks know all the tricks of the trade, and can smell an imposter, fraud or half-baked campaign a mile away. Indeed, if you look at the digital trail of road kill (especially in search results) from stupid or unethical marketing practice, the marketing experts -- not Joe Consumer -- were the first to throw the fatal daggers. "Et tu, Brute?" indeed!
I toss in a few final tips on the outreach side, but let me close with this observation. However this nets out -- even if the net percentage of marketer-initiated buzz increases -- we must keep the space credible and trusted. Social media is a wonderful thing -- enabling, empowering, rule-breaking -- but at times it blinds us to certain realities. We're a much bigger part of the conversation than we readily concede. As long as we're open and transparent (and maybe even a bit self-critica) about this point, the odds of preserving trust will go up.
Some additional comments/observations about this piece.