I’ll never forget it:
It was the summer of 2004. I was with a friend at Santa Monica State Beach, near L.A. We were both on vacation. As I started walking into the surf—my feet bare, sand and foamy water tickling my toes—I looked down and saw something. “Huh? What is that?” A small object was bobbing idly a couple feet in front of me. As I reached down to pick it up, I started to see what it was. A rush of excitement shot through me. It was a bottle—clear, with no label whatsoever, and tightly corked. Inside: a scrap of paper, all sun-bleached and water-damaged. I couldn’t believe it: “It’s a message in a bottle, probably from castaways!” I thought. I wondered how many lives I stood to save by opening it up and summoning help. If watching Gilligan’s Island had taught me anything as a kid, it’s that shipwrecks are an incredibly real—if frequently hilarious—phenomenon. But never mind that; I was about to become a hero.
Except I wasn’t. In actual fact, the paper inside was a flyer telling me to tune in to a new show—something called “Lost”—that would be premiering later that fall. Indeed, I’d been had by a viral buzz-building campaign. And, judging by the eventual success of the Lost Season One pilot episode, not to mention the six seasons that followed it, the campaign worked. Such, apparently, is the power of “buzz.”
A Decade Under the Influence
Buzz-building differs from traditional advertising by relying on interpersonal rather than mediated communication to generate traction among audiences. In 2000, author and marketer Emanuel Rosen described buzz as “the sum of all comments about a certain product that are exchanged among people at any given time. … [It is] all the word of mouth about a brand. It’s the aggregate of all person-to-person communication about a particular product, service, or company at any point in time” (“The Anatomy of Buzz: How to Create Word of Mouth Marketing”). Today, the term extends far beyond jargon status, having at some point entered the popular lexicon. It’s also something most of us are fairly familiar with.
This Halloween, for example, another heavily buzz-centric product is hitting the market—this one less reliant on fooling naïve beach-goers: the retro-themed, “found footage”-style horror film Paranormal Activity 3.
Last month, studio marketers for the film quietly (and mysteriously) began sending home-recorded VHS tapes (and VCRs!) to influential entertainment bloggers and online movie columnists. The tapes, which featured no clues to link them to either the movie or the studio responsible, were simply labeled “September 1988”—presumably as a tie-in to the film’s plot, which had been publicized to take place in the 1980s, and which was known to center around the use of home-video recording equipment. The tapes’ content, consisting of cryptic “teaser” footage, soon made their way online care of the blogosphere, and thus the initial seeds of the buzz campaign were planted. Fast-forward to today (October 21st at the time of this writing), and the film is slated to be the number-one draw at this weekend’s box office.
Quite perfectly, this campaign demonstrates the economic and strategic prowess underlying buzz-based marketing: It is interesting and provocative, yes, but it also (and more importantly) relies on the most influential members of its audience—on the opinion leaders and agenda setters among it—to do the persuasive legwork. By reaching and impressing this relatively small number of key influencers, buzz marketers capture the attention of vast swaths of others by extension. Hence, word of mouth is born, wherein the genius of buzz-based marketing lies.
…Or the Minnow Would be Lost, the Minnow Would be Lost
Buzz interests me as a phenomenon of persuasion because it recognizes the importance of interpersonal communication to successful marketing. It doesn’t assume its audiences to be passive, nor does it insult them by professing to know what they want or need. Instead, it offers something of substance, something intriguing; it transfers agency from a message sender to a message receiver. In short, it recognizes the value of empowerment over coercion, of the organic over the synthetic.
Most likely, the coming decade will see the same sort of buzz marketing that the past ten years have seen. What remains to be seen, though, is if buzz marketing will graduate into other, perhaps more adult realms of marketing—like politics.
What say you, world? Does organic, empowered political campaigning—the kind that has to stand on its own two legs if it’s going to get anywhere—stand a chance of surpassing this kind? How about it?