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Five Questions for Dave Balter, BzzAgent

Dave Balter, Founder and CEO of BzzAgent, Inc. launched the company in 2002, and since that time, BzzAgent has established itself as the leading provider of word-of-mouth services for the world’s most esteemed brands, including Anheuser-Busch, Levi Strauss and Ralph Lauren. In January of 2006, the company closed a groundbreaking US$14 million round of institutional financing.

Balter is a founding member of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) and co-authored “Grapevine: The New Art of Word-of-Mouth Marketing.” BzzAgent Inc. is a word-of-mouth marketing and media firm that helps companies to organize and manage honest, real-world conversations among everyday consumers. BzzAgent’s innovative process, platform and programs enable the acceleration and measurement of word-of-mouth as a marketing medium. Using such systems, BzzAgent’s clients can generate awareness and shape perception about their products and services either via BzzAgent’s community of 160,000 trained, volunteer brand evangelists.

One Degree: Do you see a difference between buzz, viral marketing, work of mouth and novelty?

I’m not entirely sure what you define as novelty, so I can’t really speak to that, but the other 3 concepts – buzz, viral and WOM – all belong to the same family of consumer engagement (in the marketing process). The commonality among these practices is the belief that the consumer is in control and will determine what media they want to consume and what they are willing to listen to and communicate about. In other words, what unites these techniques is the marketer’s willingness to allow the consumer to determine the messages to be communicated.

However, there are some key distinctions that can’t be ignored. Buzz marketing is most traditionally an event or experience that’s intended to get people talking. It’s Oprah Winfrey giving away 276 Pontiac G6’s on her show in 2004 or Snapple attempting to build the world’s biggest popsicle in NYC’s Union Square (which melted by the way…which created its own buzz, of course).

Viral marketing is any message that is passed along from one consumer to another. The majority of viral marketing takes place online with video snippets such as Subservient Chicken. In some cases, viral media happens organically, with no marketing push. Stephen Colbert’s recent lampooning of President Bush, for example, quickly became one of the most watched videos on the Internet.

Viral marketing can also take place offline, as it did with Lance Armstrong’s Yellow Bracelets, but the Internet continues to be the medium of choice for most viral marketing programs.

Word-of-mouth is the actual sharing of an honest opinion between two or more consumers. It’s part of our social fabric – it’s a major aspect of how we people communicate with one another. The key concept here is that no marketer can create word-of-mouth. It can be sparked, accelerated, augmented, even measured – but because it occurs naturally, it can’t be manufactured or manipulated.

Buzz marketing and viral marketing programs sometimes attempt to create word-of-mouth, with mixed results based on a variety of factors from current consumer trends to originality of the concept. The big takeaway: word of mouth is what ends up driving real results. When it occurs, the rest is easy!

One Degree: How has BzzAgent changed since it was founded in 2002?

At the core, the model is startlingly similar. We provide consumers with a way to experience products, form an opinion, and share that opinion with others in an honest, effective manner. Once this social interaction has occurred, we provide tools to become effective communicators, and then we provide our volunteers a way to engage in a dialogue with the brand related to their dialogues with others. Our model has always been based on a simple but powerful cycle – from consumers to one another, from consumers back to the brand, and from the brand back to the consumer.

That said, we have learned a few things over the course of 250 programs for 150 clients. For example, we’ve found that disclosure is paramount to a word-of-mouth program’s success. In fact, campaigns in which the participants reveal to others that they are part of an organized program actually deliver twice the value of a program in which consumers don’t disclose.

We’ve also learned that many people want to be involved with brands and take part in programs for “social currency”. It has very little to do with free products or rewards, but rather with the capacity to be listened to, engaged with and involved with brands.

One Degree: Tell me about your entry into Canada.

We’ve actually always been “in Canada” – since our first launch a Canadian resident could sign up for our program, but we offered very few programs to these initial Canadian BzzAgents. In early 2006, we began developing an organized launch in Canada and in May we’re starting to roll out five new major programs for companies like P&G, Unilever and Penguin Publishing (our very first client in the U.S.!). We plan on fully supporting this market going forward, and Canadian BzzAgents will get the chance to be involved in many new programs in the future.

One Degree: Does the impact of buzz marketing decrease as more companies use the technique?

In the case of Buzz Marketing – as it’s defined above – the value of a program will always be tied to the event’s originality and capacity to really make consumers pay attention. For example, if Oprah gave away another batch of cars, it wouldn’t create nearly the amount of buzz the first program created, so marketers will need to continue to innovate to help their programs be successful. Word-of-mouth, the oldest form of marketing on the planet, is only as strong as the opinions of everyday consumers. So long as consumers keep having opinions, the value of these programs will continue to increase. My guess is word-of-mouth marketers are in good shape – after all, consumers will always have opinions.

One Degree: How does BzzAgent build buzz?

Again, just a clarification of terms. We help organize, manage and measure word-of-mouth. Our process is focused on engaging consumers to develop real opinions and helping them communicate those unmanipulated beliefs with others.

At the heart of our model is the concept that BzzAgents can report their dialogues with others back to us for review. Each time a BzzAgent communicates back to us, the individual receives a personalized response from our group of word-of-mouth experts, which we call Communications Developers (In the U.S., we currently receive about 15,000 of these Word of Mouth reports every week).

This structure allows consumers to become involved much more deeply with the brand – individual feedback, training and appreciation help companies market with customers as opposed to at them!